Pioneer TV producer and actor John McCallum, husband of actress Googie Withers, has died, aged 91.
McCallum passed away in a nursing home this morning where he had been resident for the past few months.
While best known for his work in the theatre, McCallum was producer of Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo -widely recognised as Australia’s first international television series.
McCallum was born in Brisbane, where his father ran the Cremorne Theatre. He began in amateur productions before heading to London where trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
He appeared with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and the Old Vic before returning to produce for J.C. Williamson’s. He then returned to London where he soon co-starred alongside Googie Withers, who would become his wife.
An extensive career with Williamson’s followed from the late 1950s, with theatrical performances in Australia both together and individually until 1997, including such plays as Roar Like a Dove, High Spirits, An Ideal Husband.
In 1966 McCallum wrote, directed and produced Skippy with Lee Robinson for the Nine Network under Sir Frank Packer. Ninety-one 30-minute episodes were made over the three seasons of production, complete with its iconic, singalong theme tune. Syndicated around the world to sold in 128 countries, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers, it still airs on Nine today.
McCallum recently reflected on the show’s success to the ABC’s Talking Heads.
“Lee Robinson came up with the idea of a boy and a kangaroo. It was really his idea. And we worked on that – I wanted to call it ‘Hoppy’. He said, no, Skippy. Skippy had a better ring to it for the children. And so three or four of us put in $5,000, we made a pilot, took it round the world, sold quite a few countries, including England.”
McCallum said Sweden was a hold-out territory.
“The only country that never bought Skippy, and I asked them why. I said, “Norway, all around you, Denmark, it’s a big sh… Why won’t you have Skipp’?” And they said, “Because we cannot let our children believe that animals can do what they can’t. “You have the kangaroo opening doors” – we had a lot of spare pairs of paws around, you know. And he said, “In one episode Skippy plays the piano. We can’t have that.”
McCallum also produced Boney, Barrier Reef and Shannon’s Mob in the 1970s plus Mel Gibson’s film Attack Force Z and The Highest Honor in the 1980s. Most of his on-screen acting roles were in film.
In 1992, McCallum was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to drama and theatre. He is survived by wife, Googie Withers.