Image by Nevada Tumbleweed via FlickrHe died yesterday at the age of 79, collapsed on the street in front of his Hollywood home.
Most people probably don’t know who he is but he lives large in my memory because he starred in my favorite TV show when I was a kid, I Spy.
When the show first came on I wanted to see it because I was already a big fan of Bill Cosby, I’d been listening to his comedy albums for years and had them all memorized perfectly, even to the point of having all of Cosby’s voice inflection down perfectly. I was really curious to see how he did as an actor since my 12 year old self thought it strange for a comic to get work as an actor.
The big buzz at the time was the idea of a black man cast as an equal to a white man, but I was so naive about racism in those days I was completely unaware of this at the time and for many years afterwards. It never even occurred to me that something was strange about a black man in a starring role.
Culp played Kelly Robinson, tennis bum, while Cosby played Alexander Scott (Scotty). From the beginning it was Culp who drew my attention even though I watched it because of Cosby. Culp was the better actor and created a character with lots of depth who I found very interesting. No other TV show or movie has done the “buddy” theme as well. The show ran 3 seasons, 1965 to 1968. I managed to find reruns on cable a couple of years ago and found I loved them almost as much now as I did then. The chemistry between the two was still obvious and the stories were still good, for the most part. Parts of it were just pure camp because of the time when it was filmed, but that just added some comedy.
I always felt sorry for Culp because after the show he fell into obscurity while Cosby went on to make TV and comedy history, I thought that was very unfair. Cosby always spoke highly of Culp, saying that he took him under his wing and taught him the acting business and made him feel at home. In 1972 the two teamed up for a movie called Hickey and Boggs where they played 2 old and washed up private eyes, especially Culp who was the older of the two. Word was that Cosby put it together to help Culp out but I don’t know if that was true or not. Don’t know if they ever appeared together again or not.
Robert Culp will always have a special place in my memory and I Spy will always remain one of my favorite shows.