Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Late Great Robert Culp

Robert Culp, best known for his role in Sixties spy series I Spy, passed this morning following a fall at his home. He was 79 years old.

Robert Culp was born on August 16, 1930 in Oakland, California. He attended the College of the Pacific, Washington University in St. Louis, San Francisco State College, and the University of Washington drama school, but never graduated. Mr. Culp moved to New York and appeared in off Broadway productions. He debuted on television in 1953 on You Are There. He guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The United States Steel Hour.

It was in 1957 that Robert Culp guest starred on Zane Grey Theatre in the episode "Badge of Honour," playing the role of Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. Robert Culp as Hoby Gilman was spun off into his own series, Trackdown, that fall Gilman was the only law in the town of Potter, Texas, although his job often took him abroad. Various episodes were directed by both Sam Peckinpah and Richard Donner. Mr. Culp wrote his first television series episode for Trackdown, "Back to Crawford," in 1959.  The character of Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen, first appeared on Trackdown in 1957 and was spun off into the series Wanted: Dead or Alive the following season. Trackdown ran for two seasons and 70 episodes.

After Trackdown left the air, Robert Culp guest starred on such shows as The Dupont Show with June Allyson, General Electric Theatre, Tate, Johnny Ringo, Outlaws, The Westerner, Rawhide, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The 87th Precinct, Death Valley Days, The Outer Limits, Bonanza, Combat, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He appeared in the films PT 109, Sunday in New York, The Raiders, and Rhino. Mr. Culp wrote episodes of Cain's Hundred and The Rifleman.  He was considered for the role of Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but had to decline the offer because he was committed to another project. He would make a guest appearance on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1964, however, as well as The Outer Limits, Gunsmoke, and Mr. Novak.

While Robert Culp missed the chance to play superspy Napoleon Solo, he would play a superspy in another major, Sixties spy drama. Robert Culp was cast as Kelly Robinson, a spy working undercover as an international tennis pro, in the series I Spy. Comedian Bill Cosby was cast as Robinson's partner, Alexander Scott, a spy whose over was that of Robinson's trainer and coach. In casting Bill Cosby, I Spy became a ground breaking series. It was the first drama to feature an African American in a lead role. The relationship between Scott and Robinson was as revolutionary as the casting of Bill Cosby. Not only were the two men equals, with neither one subservient to the other, but they were also extremely close. This reflected the real life relationship between Messrs. Cosby and Culp. The two men would become best friends in a relationship that spanned nearly forty years. Indeed, Bill Cosby said of Mr. Culp, "The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them. Bob was the answer to my dreams."

I Spy was set apart from other spy series, such as The Avengers, The Wild Wild West, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., in its emphasis on realism. The show featured no advanced gadgetry, no Bondian villains, and no plots to take over the world.  In fact, I Spy sometimes focused on the darker side of the spy game and dealt with such serious subjects as heroin addiction, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and so on. Despite this, I Spy had a good deal of humour, particularly stemming from the relationship between Scott and Robinson. The series also had its fair share of comedic episodes, including one in which Boris Karloff played a scientist who thinks he's Don Quixote and another in which Jeanette Nolan played a scrappy government official whom Robinson and Scott must kidnap. The series was unique in that it was actually filmed on location in exotic places ranging from Athens to Mexico.

Mr. Culp made his directorial debut directing an episode of I Spy. He also wrote eight episodes for the series, one of which he was nominated for an Emmy. I Spy proved very popular, running for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968. It ended its run only as a result of a disagreement producer Sheldon Leonard had with NBC regarding the show's time slot.

During the run of  I Spy Mr. Culp guest starred in an episode of Get Smart parodying I Spy entitled Get Smart. Following the series he had a starring role in the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969. He appeared in the film Hannie Caulder in 1971. He directed and starred in the film Hickey and Boggs in 1972, once more playing opposite Bill Cosby. Throughout the Seventies he appeared in such films as A Name for Evil (1973), The Castaway Cowboy (1974), Inside Out (1975), Sky Riders (1976), Breaking Point (1976), The Great Scout and Cathouse Thurscay (1976), Cry for Justice (1977), and Goldengirl (1979). He guest starred on the TV shows Columbo, Shaft, Mrs. Columbo, and Police Story. He appeared in several TV movies, including playing the lead in the unsold pilot Spectre.

In the Eighties Robert Culp was a regular on the TV series The Greatest American Hero, playing FBI agent Bob Maxwell. The series ran for five years from 1981 to 1986. He guest starred on the shows Murder She Wrote, Hotel, Matlock, Who's the Boss, The Cosby Show, and The Golden Girls, as well as appeared in several TV movies. He appeared in the films National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982), Turk 182 (1985), and Big Bad Mama II. From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr. Culp appeared in the films Timebomb (1991), The Pelican Brief (1993), Panther (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Uncondiational Love (1999), Wanted (1999), Dark Sumer (2000), and The Assignment (his last appearance on screen, set to be released later this year). He was a semi-regular on Everybody Loves Raymond, playing Ray's father in law. He guest starred on the shows Jake and the Fatman, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Lonesome Dove: the Series, The Nanny, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Cosby, Burkes Law, Spy Game, and Cosby  He returned to the role of Kelly Robinson, playing opposite Alexander Scott, in the TV movie I Spy Returns in 1994.

Robert Culp was truly a triple threat. He could act, write, and direct, and did all three well. As an actor he was extremely versatile. In Trackdown he played the somewhat serious gunslinger and Texas Ranger Hoby Gillman. In I Spy he played Kelly Robinson, a playboy who often acted rather than thinking things out. In Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice he played the sexually adventurous documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders. Mr. Culp cold play heroes such as Hoby Gillman and Kelly Robinson, and he could play villains such as Captain Shark in his guest appearance on Man From U.N.C.L.E. with equal ease. As a writer for television he was extremely talented, writing some of the best episodes of Trackdown, The Rifleman, and I Spy. Robert Culp was also a consummate professional. Every time he lost the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series to Bill Cosby, he expressed pride rather than envy. Among television actors and movie actors, Robert Culp was a talent with which to be reckoned. Few were ever his equal.

1 comment:

Jim Marquis said...

I will always remember him in the great Outer Limits episode "Demon With a Glass Hand".