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CBS’s naval cop drama bids bon voyage to late cast member, and TV icon, David McCallum with an emotional episode that’s all about Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard

The world lost a TV legend in September, when David McCallum passed away just a few days after his 90th birthday. The Scottish actor first rocketed to international fame in the ’60s with a role opposite Steve McQueen in one of cinema’s all-time-great war flicks The Great Escape. That was followed almost immediately by a career-defining turn as Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Here, he spent four seasons saving the world and quipping it up with Robert Vaughn’s U.S. agent Napoleon Solo, forming one of TV’s most iconic odd couples. In 1979, he forged a similar back-and-forth with Joanna Lumley on British sci-fi thriller Sapphire & Steel, about a pair of not international, but interdimensional operatives who tackled missions to protect the fabric of time itself.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the man had one more indelible performance up his sleeve for the final act of his storied career — having spent the past two decades on CBS’s network-anchoring naval cop drama NCIS. One of the founding cast members, since 2003 McCallum has played medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard — a key ally of original team leader Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon, who left the show in season 19). Indeed, “Ducky” proved to be another character wherein McCallum’s knack for exuding keen intellect, sharp wit, gravitas and warmth created an instant fan favourite.

NCIS on CBS. Pictured: Brian Dietzen (who plays Dr. Jimmy Palmer) co-wrote tonight’s episode, paying tribute to his onscreen mentor Ducky (David McCallum).

Said NCIS showrunners David North and Steven D. Binder at the time of their colleague’s passing in 2023: “For over 20 years, David McCallum endeared himself to audiences around the world playing the wise, quirky and sometimes enigmatic Dr. Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard. But as much as his fans may have loved him, those who worked side-by-side with David loved him that much more. He was a scholar and a gentleman, always gracious, a consummate professional and never one to pass up a joke. From day one, it was an honour to work with him and he never let us down. He was, quite simply, a legend. He was also family and will be deeply missed.”

Since season 16, as both actor and character reached retirement age, McCallum’s workload had been gradually reduced, with Ducky showing up in only four episodes last year — including an all-too-brief appearance in the season 20 finale. Luckily, producers were committed to giving their star a farewell salute befitting a Navy man. To that end, the second episode of season 21, airing this week, not only addresses the good doctor’s death, but finds Ducky playing a key role in the case-of-the-week, even from beyond the grave.

NCIS on CBS. Pictured: Mark Harmon as Leroy Gibbs with the late David McCallum as Dr. Donald “Duck” Mallard.

More specifically, CBS’s synopsis tells us: “As NCIS mourns the loss of Ducky, the agents find comfort in working on one of his unfinished cases, involving a woman whose father was dishonourably discharged from the Marines.” Fittingly titled “The Stories We Leave Behind,” the episode was actually co-written by the actor who’s spent the most time with McCallum: Brian Dietzen, who has played Ducky’s fellow medical examiner/sidekick Dr. Jimmy Palmer throughout the show’s lengthy run. The result is an hour of television that producers hope will be a fitting tribute to character and actor alike.

“Everyone at NCIS felt it was important to do an episode that honours such a legendary actor, not to mention a dear friend,” Binder and North told TVLine in a joint statement previewing Monday’s tribute. They went on to tease that, “the team will learn of Ducky’s passing and reflect on their memories of him as they grieve . . . True to Ducky’s meticulous and compassionate nature, even after he’s gone, he still manages to solve one last crime.”

What’s more, Binder and North promise: “There will also be a very touching and special moment you won’t want to miss” — which has led some fans to speculate that a former castmate or two might just re-enlist for the evening to send Ducky off as he deserves.

NCIS airs Monday, February 19 at 9 p.m. on Global & CBS

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