Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obit: Robert Culp, R.I.P

Well, shit. Just ten days after the passing of Mission: Impossible's Peter Graves, we have the loss of another great Sixties spy-fi star, Robert Culp, who played American agent Kelly Robinson on I Spy (1965-68). Not only did he co-star with Bill Cosby on the show, but he was instrumental in its creation, and wrote seven of its finest episodes. He also directed one. Perhaps most memorably, in the episode "The War Lord," which he wrote, he played dual roles: Robinson and a ruthless but philosophical Asian criminal. It's a fantastic performance, and the script is phenomenal.

I first actually encountered Mr. Culp when I was a teenager watching the Stephen Cannell series, The Greatest American Hero (1981-86). Culp played FBI agent Bill Maxwell, a gloriously gung-ho Conservative forced to work with a goofball, Liberal schoolteacher with a super-suit. Not only was he incredibly funny, he gave the potentially cartoonish character great dignity and strength of character. I was a fan from the first episode. Later, I discovered reruns of I Spy on cable, and was immediately enamored of the superior writing, chemistry between the leads, and global scope of the series.

Culp made many other excursions into the spy-fi genre. Aside from reprising the Robinson role in a 1994 TV reunion movie, he played a great (and surprisingly sympathetic) villain in a first season Man from U.N.C.LE. episode, had a hilarious cameo in the Get Smart parody of I Spy, appeared on A Man Called Sloane and the short-lived 90s series Spy Game, and hosted the Comedy Central special Spyography (parodying Peter Graves!) to promote the second Austin Powers film.

The IMDb lists over 160 acting credits for the man, who was a prolific guest star on series television from the 50s through the 90s, as well as an in-demand character actor in features. He was justly praised for his starring role in the classic Outer Limits episode, "Demon With A Glass Hand," written by Harlan Ellison. One of my favorite, virtually forgotten, Culp roles was as the lead in Gene Roddenberry's unsold TV pilot, Spectre (1977), where he played a Holmesian occult investigator. I also loved him in Hickey & Boggs (1972), the feature film he wrote and directed for himself and Cosby. It's another nearly-forgotten film, and that's a shame, because it's a great crime flick.

Rest well, Mister Culp. And thanks.


kevkay1 said...

I first caught I Spy on cable as well. Loved the show and probably learned more about world geography from this show than I did in my actual Geography classes in Jr. High.

RIP Mr. Culp, you are definitely missed already.

John Platt said...

Aw man! Culp was the best. Sad news.

Janus said...

He was also nominated three times for an Emmy for I Spy -- and lost each time to Bill Cosby.

And while I knew of I Spy, like you, my first real encounter with Mr. Culp was on The Greatest American Hero. I also remember a guest appearance he made on The Cosby Show.

And I was more than a little disappointed that Entertainment Tonight didn't make any mention of his death the past couple of days. I guess they were afraid that it would take away time from their overly redundant coverage of Sandra Bullock's marital woes.

Jerry said...

Entertainment Tonight is now "Dancing with the Stars" central, since the same production company owns both shows. You want entertainment coverage, seriously, read Variety.

Chris, you may not be aware of it, but Mr. Culp years ago wrote a script for a film version of "Terry and the Pirates." He was a HUGE Caniff fan. Shame it was never made.

Vanderwolff said...

I guess I'm the oldster here...I remember I Spy as a kid in the 1960's; later, when I was an aspiring writer in the 80's, I found the reruns of I Spy to be breezy, finely nuanced and surprisingly obsolescence-proof. These same qualities imbue the inimitable Mr. Culp's many, many fine performances. In an era of Bond-rip-offs, I Spy stands as a realistic, superlative high mark of what action television can, and should be. Thank you Kelly Robinson, for many memorable moments, and for making my childhood a little more deliciously dangerous, and infinitely richer place.