John McCallum: Actor, producer and director who also co-created 'Skippy'

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The Independent Online

Two elusive things – love, and Thespian success – came early to John McCallum, who met his wife, Googie Withers, on the set of his first major film and went on to enjoy a long acting career, often co-starring with the woman to whom he was married for 62 years.

McCallum was not only a star of stage and screen for nearly seven decades, but a distinguished writer, producer and director. He was also half of the brains behind Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, the phenomenally successful television series which ran to 91 episodes and was shown in 128 countries. (His producer friend, Lee Robinson, was the other half.)

Acting was in McCallum's blood: his father, John, who was also a musician, built and ran a riverside theatre, the Cremorne, in Brisbane. John junior was born on the opening night of a comedy produced by his father. The next day, a friend sent him a telegram, saying: "Congratulations on two howling successes."

McCallum's marriage to Withers was one of the most enduring in the fickle world of show business. Already a well-established actress, Withers was in Hollywood in 1946 when she received a cable from Ealing Studios, informing her that she was to star opposite John McCallum in her next film, The Loves of Joanna Godden. Her response was: "Who the hell's John McCallum?"

The pair were married not long after filming ended, Withers having jilted her French fiance. One acerbic newspaper columnist sent them a telegram, stating: "I give it six months." As it turned out, they became "theatrical royalty", particularly in Australia, where they were feted as the local equivalent of the Oliviers, a theatre producer friend, John Frost, told The Australian newspaper.

McCallum – a year younger than Withers, who called him her "toy boy" – was born in 1918; his English mother was a talented amateur actress. Educated in England and Australia, he trained at Rada before starting his career in English repertory theatre.

That career, which included a part in an Old Vic production of King Lear, was interrupted by the Second World War. McCallum returned home, joined the Australian Imperial Force and served in New Guinea. Soon after the war he headed back to England, where he was given the lead role in The Root of All Evil, released in 1947.

More than 20 films followed, including Devil on Horseback, Valley of the Eagles and Trent's Last Case, McCallum's acting talent and matinee idol looks cementing his success. He starred with Withers in the 1947 movie about working-class life, It Always Rains on Sunday, and the comedy Miranda. But his first love was the stage, and home beckoned.

In 1958 he and Withers moved to Australia, where he became joint managing director of J. C. Williamson, the country's largest theatrical producers. Among the shows he worked on during his eight years with the company were a Melbourne production of My Fair Lady and the film The Weird Mob directed by Michael Powell.

The Skippy idea came to him during a holiday in Sydney. He and Robinson set up a company, Fauna Productions, and filmed the series – based on the friendship between a kangaroo and a park ranger's son – in the Waratah National Park, on the outskirts of Sydney, in the late 1960s.

The programme, which attracted huge ratings, was the most successful Australian television series ever made. McCallum, who was executive producer, had wanted to call it Hoppy, but was overruled by Robinson. They used 35 different kangaroos to play Skippy, who could not only alert her human friends to trouble, but also tie knots, see off poisonous snakes and play the piano.

McCallum produced several other Australian television shows in the 1970s, including Boney, about a part-Aboriginal detective, and produced and directed the 1971 film Nickel Queen, starring Withers as a publican, about an Outback nickel boom. As recently as 1998 the pair acted together in an Australian revival of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

Along the way they had three children: Joanna, an actress who is a familiar face on British television, Nicholas, a film production designer, and Amanda. They survive him, along with Withers. An atheist, he requested that there be no funeral.

John Neil McCallum, actor, producer and director; born Brisbane, Australia 14 March, 1918; married 1948 Georgette (Googie) Withers (two daughters, one son); died Sydney 3 February 2010.

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