I don’t know why the Grim Reaper is heckbent on dispatching my television heroes to the Great Beyond of late, but we lost another television icon yesterday in Robert Culp, who died from a head injury sustained by a fall outside his Hollywood Hills home at the age of 79. I saw the news about Culp on last night’s edition of The Brian Williams Show—though TDOY cub reporter Larry Shell and current TDOY editor Pam R did send me heads-ups about Culp’s passing.
Williams remarked that Culp will best be remembered as the co-star of NBC’s tongue-in-cheek espionage series I Spy (1965-68), which featured Culp as a spy who masqueraded as a tennis player and comedian Bill Cosby as his partner/trainer. The show was really a breakthrough for Cos, who demonstrated that it was possible for a black performer to star in a weekly series to the point of winning three Best Actor Emmys during the show’s run. Though Culp was shut out of the Emmy race (he was nominated but never won) he was every bit as integral to the show’s success as Cosby; their by-play made even the weakest episodes entertaining and the actor cemented his importance as Cosby’s “straight man” in the tradition of Bud Abbott and George Burns. Culp and Cosby later co-starred in an underrated film entitled Hickey & Boggs (1972) which is as about as un-I Spy as you can get—but in 1994, attempted to recreate the old magic with a reunion movie entitled I Spy Returns. (Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this—though I have seen the “My Spy” episode of Cosby that featured Culp as guest star—I thought that was hilarious.) I Spy still remains enjoyable today; all three seasons of the show have been released on DVD and reruns of the series can currently be seen on RTV (the
Culp’s first television series was a spin-off of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater (“Badge of Honor,” 05/03/57) entitled Trackdown, which ran for two seasons over CBS-TV from 1957 to 1959; Culp played mythical Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman whose stories were culled from real-life events in the files of that august law enforcement organization. In turn, an episode of Trackdown entitled “The Bounty Hunter” (
While Culp’s television immortality has been guaranteed by I Spy, I’d like to take a quick moment to single out his other great television role—that of sardonic FBI agent Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero. Hero may have had a troubled production history—and its leads (William Katt, Connie Sellecca) were as exciting as a milkshake with two straws—but Culp owned Hero, and I think it’s quite possibly his best TV showcase. (I also enjoyed his semi-regular role as Patricia Heaton’s dad on Everybody Loves Raymond.)
Most of the Culp obituaries I’ve glanced at have mentioned that he received kudos for his performance in the 1969 Paul Mazursky comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Culp didn’t make a whole lot of movies, but I think my favorite—and, to me, the one that sums up the actor’s essence as a guy who could play a complete bastard (Turk 182! , The Pelican Brief ) and yet still be charming about it is The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976), a rib-tickling Western comedy that I haven’t seen in ages. I’d love to get the opportunity to see this one again—but something tells me that I might regret the decision because I fear it may not be as good as I remembered.
R.I.P, Bob. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.