DAVID BIANCULLI

Founder / Editor

ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

Assistant Editor

Contributors

ALEX STRACHAN

MIKE HUGHES

KIM AKASS

MONIQUE NAZARETH

ROGER CATLIN

GARY EDGERTON

TOM BRINKMOELLER

GERALD JORDAN

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
TRIBUTE: Robert Culp of 'I Spy' dies
March 24, 2010  | By Diane Werts
 

i spy culp cosby guns.jpg

[SEE SECOND UPDATE BELOW]

[UPDATED BELOW WITH CURRENT TV LISTINGS]

Robert Culp might well be the poster boy for not knowing what we've got till it's gone. His blend of relaxed amiability, authority, smarts and relaxed wit have rarely been matched on TV. He could be an admirable hero, playing a '60s secret agent on I Spy, or a devious villain, matching wits with Peter Falk's sly sleuth in several memorable Columbo movies. He could be seriously funny, more recently, as the more urbanely fussy father-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.

robert culp columbo season 3.jpg

And Culp could be culturally important, too. He was intended to be the single-lead star of NBC's I Spy, until his rapport with sidekick Bill Cosby proved so warm that he suggested they be co-leads of what now stands as a landmark series. Cosby became the first prominent black lead of a network drama, and was thus able to win three lead actor Emmys that otherwise might well have been Culp's.

(Culp died Wednesday at age 79 after a fall near his Hollywood home. Details here.)

I Spy hasn't been seen widely in years (how many homes have had access to FamilyNet or RTV Retro Television?), and that's too bad. Its deliberate rhythms can seem slow to modern viewers, but its casual buddy banter and genuine portrayal of deep friendship remain both fun and moving. Culp's cover as an international tennis player and Cosby's as his trainer/coach allow them access to social situations around the world, among all sorts of people, powerful, famous, ordinary. Unlike the '60s spy era's other spoofy or action-packed shows, this one carries a gravity that makes it resonate both culturally and emotionally.

greatest hero culp.jpg

Good thing you can see I Spy on DVD -- all three seasons out from Image, with informative commentary from Culp on several episodes. You can also watch Culp online -- not the ideal venue, but a superbly accessible resource. Hulu.com has all 82 episodes of I Spy, and another 42 from his supporting stint on the '80s spoof The Greatest American Hero; DVDs here. (Culp also starred in the 1957-59 Texas Ranger western half-hour Trackdown, not on DVD.)

Look, too, for his memorable guest shots on The Outer Limits, Zane Grey Theater, Lois & Clark, and those Columbo mysteries (shows in Seasons 1, 2, 3, and a 1990 TV movie).

Not to mention his critically lauded turn in the 1969 feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And, of course, the 2004 holiday horror comedy Santa's Slay.

Here's a clip of Culp discussing I Spy in another of the priceless oral history interviews from our friends at the Archive of American Television.

-----

[UPDATED MARCH 26]

Here's where to watch Culp on TV this week (all times ET):

Hickey & Boggs (On Demand) -- Culp also directed this 1972 private eye feature reuniting him with I Spy costar Cosby.

Hannie Caulder (On Demand) -- Bounty hunter Culp teaches revenge-bent Raquel Welch how to shoot in this 1972 western.

Everybody Loves Raymond (Sunday, March 28 at 7 p.m., WWOR) -- Culp and Katherine Helmond as Debra's parents uncork a Thanksgiving surprise.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Thursday, April 1 at 10:50 a.m., TMC Xtra) -- Paul Mazursky's trendy 1969 wife-swapping comedy also stars Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon.

-----

[SECOND UPDATE, MARCH 30]

More Raymond episodes are added to Culp TV listings in coming days (all times ET):

Hickey & Boggs (On Demand) -- Culp also directed this 1972 private eye feature reuniting him with I Spy costar Cosby.

Hannie Caulder (On Demand) -- Bounty hunter Culp teaches revenge-bent Raquel Welch how to shoot in this 1972 western.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Thursday, April 1 at 10:50 a.m., TMC Xtra) -- Paul Mazursky's trendy 1969 wife-swapping comedy also stars Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. Also airs Wednesday morning, April 7, at 3:30 a.m.

Everybody Loves Raymond (Wednesday, April 7 at 6:30 p.m., WWOR) -- Culp and Katherine Helmond make their first appearance as Debra's more moneyed parents.

Everybody Loves Raymond (Thursday, April 8 at 10:30 p.m., TV Land) -- Culp and Helmond join a Christmas celebration made memorable by Ray's gift to his parents: an inscribed toaster.

Everybody Loves Raymond (Friday, April 9 at 6 p.m., WWOR) -- Culp and Helmond are back as Debra's parents for a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner.

1 Comments

Mac said:

This is the best place to reminisce about "I Spy". While local hero Philly-bred Cosby was making great stand up albums,touring everywhere and on every talk show (even proving to be a fine sub-host for Carson), "I Spy" came along and put his career in another stratosphere. And Cosby needed Culp to make this work. "The Man From Uncle" and "The Wild, Wild West" went into self parody mode after early episodes and teenage boys were left with few "must see" choices. A spy show that, while using many cliches built into the fledging genre, did just fine as fantasy based in reality. Everything here seemed plausible, if only there really were as many little countries on the planet.

A favorite, going through the list over at Hulu, is probably the one titled "Will the Real Good Guys Please Stand Up?" The beaten to death cliche of an evil twin out in the world doing harm to your name is turned on its ear. Instead of using the same actors doing that split screen "Patty Duke" style good guy facing bad guy, they actually had actors who looked the Culp/Cosby roles as spies hiding out as tennis players. Which, if this kind of story would succeed in real life, would be what really happens. What mischief, especially when the good guys finally do meet the bad guys.

Meanwhile, if they might have been in a few too many made up countries, the inside humor of Culp and Cosby never got tiresome. And, think how subliminal it was to see a white guy and a black guy as friends who saved each other on a regular basis. The outside cover of Culp as athletic star and Cosby as baggage carrying trainer was a constant source for humor because, as the viewer knew, while the bad guys got caught up on the stereotype, the good guys could infiltrate and bring down those bad guys.

Cosby would pave the way decades later in showing a successful black family, first the country had to see two guys of different races just getting along. It was through Culp's eyes that many a white kid saw what could happen if he let a black kid share equal footing. The bad guys would be squashed and you'd get the girl at the end. Damn that liberal media!

The story continues. When "I Spy" showed up on cable in the '80s, one of my sons took to it immediately on his own, without any encouragement from the old man. He took to the buddy buddy humor, as well as the seemingly gadget-free plot lines in a spyzone where MacGyver would soon inhabit.

 
 
 
 
 
Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 
 Name (required)
 
 Email (required) (will not be published)
 
UPNFV
Type in the verification word shown on the image.