Friday, March 26, 2010

R.I.P. Robert Culp.

We lost another of the greats this week, with the passing of Robert Culp at the age of 79.

Mr. Culp was an accomplished actor, writer, and director, best known for his role as Kelly Robinson, opposite Bill Cosby on the 1960s TV series I SPY.
In a DVD commentary, Culp noted that I SPY never really got the attention it deserved. I’d have to say that is true, as it often seemed to be “that other spy show” to the more popular THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Imported spy-craze era shows, such as THE AVENGERS and SECRET AGENT, probably also helped dilute I SPY’s impact on our collective cultural memory.

On a personal level, I SPY aired on NBC at 10 PM (my mid-sixties bed-time, preventing me from seeing its original run) and it didn’t have much play in later syndication that I recall – so, I’m pretty much enjoying it now, bit-by-bit on DVD. As with most sixties-era series, it is time well spent.

In other roles of note, ironically, Mr. Culp played a villain on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., in “The Shark Affair”, the season before the debut of I SPY.
Culp starred in THREE (count ‘em THREE) episodes of the classic 1960s version of THE OUTER LIMITS. Two of which, “The Architects of Fear” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”, were among the very best of the series – and the other, “Corpus Earthling”, while not in the same class as the other two, was considerably lifted by Culp’s performance.

Culp also had a long-running role in the series THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO.

And, by certain accounts I’ve read, Robert Culp was a huge comic book fan and collector. That may have helped made his numerous sci-fi and fantasy roles all the more memorable.


Bruce Kanin said...


My term for Culp is that he was a "natural, casual actor". He seemed to effortlessly put himself into a role. You felt like he WAS the character. Cosby also exuded that on I-SPY (which is why Culp and Cosby, together, were wonderful) and on a grander level, an actor like Spencer Tracy seemed like that, too.

You're right - I-SPY was on late and we all had to get up for school the next day. As well, for all I know back then, I didn't watch I-SPY because someone else was hogging the TV (there was one in the living room, and eventually my sister got one).

Yes, of course, those were the days with a limited # of TVs in homes - and - no video recorders (VCRs, DVDs)!

But I-SPY suffered from comparison to, say, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, because, for a guy going through adolescence, Solo and Kuryakin seemed cooler than Robinson and Scott what with all the gadgets and girls (why do you think I enjoyed scenes in U.N.C.L.E. HQs - those tight...never mind...this isn't a private email message!).

I also didn't care back then that I-SPY was filmed on location Europe & the Far East whereas U.N.C.L.E. was filmed on back lots and some locations in Southern CA (despite its declaration "SOMEWHERE IN ASIA"). Nowadays I would relish seeing the real-life locales and scenery.

Anyway, it's sad to see Culp, Peter Graves and even Johnny Maestro pass away. I won't be morbid and witty, saying that "a piece of our youth" has died (well, guess I did)...I'll just think back wistfully.



Chris Barat said...


I have no clear memory of I SPY apart from Culp and Cosby running around strange, exotic locales similar to those seen in, say, the STAR TREK episode "Operate: Annihilate!" But my dad had it on "the list of things to watch" along with TREK, WILD WILD WEST, RAT PATROL, and others.

THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, like KOLCHAK, was probably a victim of bad timing. KOLCHAK clearly influenced future creators; I wonder if the same can be said about TGAH?


Anonymous said...

Kolchak influenced the X-Files, and Greatest American Hero may have influenced Dave Stevens' Rocketeer (the hero finds a super suit and gets into trouble while trying to learn how it works). And, yes, there were so many spy shows and movies (and comics) in the mid-1960's that I Spy may have gotten lost in the shuffle. Most people seem to remember the interplay between Culp and Cosby more than the plots or locations.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Culp was into comics, but he said in an interview in the 1980's (Comics Interview #7) that he collected Big Little Books.

Joe Torcivia said...

Four reasons (of so many more) why the sixties was the best decade for TV were the simultaneous proliferation of (1:) Sci-Fi / fantasy series, (2:) Spy series, and (3:) Western series. All may have flourished in other times (except maybe Spy series), but never all three at once! Also (4:) “reality shows” were limited to things like “Candid Camera”!

Of the Spy series mentioned in my post – and, it would seem I should also mention MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and IT TAKES A THIEF in that grouping as well… and let’s not forget THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. and even THE WILD WILD WEST, I must have seen I SPY the least. Again, because of its late-weeknight timeslot during my grade school years, and its general absence from later syndication.

Thankfully, DVD has allowed me to make up this and many other such pop-cultural deficits in recent years. Indeed, the amount of classic TV material (let alone film) released on DVD over little more than the last decade, is nothing short of remarkable!