The Wonderfulness of Robert Culp, 1930-2010

by E. "Doc" Smith on March 26, 2010

I am going to miss Robert Culp. Alongside Bill Cosby in the award winning television series “I Spy”, Culp was a heroic figure. As a child during the sixties, I was mesmerized watching the tennis player/spy Kelly Robinson and his coach/trainer/Rhodes Scholar/spy Alexander Scott, played by Cosby. No other television series before I Spy, had the racial equality, the chemistry and camaraderie of Culp and Cosby. The incredible music of Earle Hagen, (The Mod Squad, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Danny Thomas and Mike Hammer), mixed with superb plots and filmed on locations around the world, made Culp and Cosby international stars in a world reeling from Vietnam, the 60’s counter culture, cold war espionage and racism. Their portrayal set the stage for a new era in televison and civil rights.

I Spy ran from 1965-1968, 3 seasons in all. Culp’s mix of comedy and wit were blended with drama, poignant and at times, bitter sweet successes. Culp wrote at least 7 of the 82 episodes and directed at least one. Working with Cosby surely had a positive effect on him, coining many Cosby-isms and integrating them into the character of Robinson. “Go for the wonderfulness of yourself”, and “Hit that Fletcher before he wakes up” were two of my favorites.

There have already been many obituaries written about Culp, who died after collapsing outside his home in Los Angeles this week at the age of 79. I won’t go into the history, his marriages, and lengthy TV and film career, hoverer I’ll share my personal favorite Culp roles and performances, in no particular order. Clearly “I Spy” ranks highest among them for me, but there are others that will stand the test of time for me.

Hickey and Boggs (1972). This film reunites Culp and Cosby nearly five years after I Spy, this time as down and out, bitter gumshoes. Violent, grim and dark, it was directed by Culp, but features none of the humor and warmth of the their I Spy roles. Nevertheless, for Cosby and Culp fans it is brilliantly acted and the best post series pairing. 1994’s “I Spy Returns” was almost as silly as their reunion on the Cosby show in 1999. Silly as they were however, I absolutely hated the 2002 “I Spy” remake with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. We’ve come a long way since 1968, but not that far. Swapping character roles and adding the dumbest plot line ever, made this blasphemous vehicle for Murphy and Wilson one of their worst. I’ll take the sillier, made-for-TV “I Spy Returns” over this film any day.

Hannie Caulder (1971). A western starring Raquel Welch as a woman who has been raped and husband is murdered, seeks revenge and learns the art of gun fighting from one Thomas Luther Price, played by Culp. It is one of Welch and Culp’s best performances. Their brief romance and inevitable showdown with the evil Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin is a Western classic. The music is haunting and a flashback montage that plays as Welch exacts her revenge and remembers everything Culp had taught her is one of the film’s best moments.

The Outer Limits (1964). “The Demon With the Glass Hand” was written by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison and is one of the greatest Outer Limits episodes ever made. Ellison actually wrote the story with Culp in mind. Culp plays Trent, a time traveling hero with a glass hand, tasked with preserving the human race. The episode won Ellison several awards and led to a decades long friendship with Culp. Does the plot line sound familiar? It certainly did to Ellison. Years later, Ellison would sue the producers of “The Terminator” for plagiarism and win, for an undisclosed amount.

Columbo (1971-1978). Starring actor Peter Falk, Columbo was the irritating police detective that would always solve the case. One of the things I didn’t like about Columbo, is that unlike Perry Mason, you knew who did it in the first 5 minutes. The only question was how would Columbo figure it out? Robert Culp played a murderer in 3 different episodes as different characters, however in one episode, Culp comes up with the most ingenious murder I’d ever seen on Columbo. Culp creates an icicle in his freezer, murders his wife in a pool and throws the “murder weapon” in the pool to melt. No evidence. Damn that Columbo, he still figured it out!

1969’s then-provocative “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” was one of Culp’s biggest films, but didn’t do much for me. I was never a fan of the TV series, “Greatest American Hero” (although Culp was hilarious in it), never watched him on “Everyone loves Raymond”, and hated seeing him play a bad guy in “Bonanza”, “Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday”, or the “Pelican Brief”. Although they bore some physical similarities, Culp was no relation to the actress Nancy Kulp of the “Beverly Hillbillies”, despite rumors to the contrary.

I’ll always remember a sunny day in Georgetown with some of my high school chums, and seeing the cool, calm and collected Culp walk by us with an astonished look on our faces. “Hey guys”, he said, flashed that famous smile and walked away. Wonderfulness.

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording artist with Edgetone Records, who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon and Mickey Hart among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached via http://edgetonerecords.com/edoctorsmith.html

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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