Thursday, March 25, 2010
Robert Culp (1930-2010)
Learning about the I Spy and Greatest American Hero star's death yesterday was a bit of a shock because Culp was a terrific (and Emmy-nominated) action show lead and such an underrated comic actor, even though he was also responsible for this:
That's why watching most older TV shows can be such a pain in the ass for me. I have to put up with lame bits of yellowface and brownface in everything from Bewitched to I Spy, where Culp, who was once married to half-Vietnamese actress and frequent I Spy guest star France Nuyen, played both his regular role of Kelly Robinson and a Chinese warlord in an episode he scripted (Culp also wrote frequently for TV, a little-known fact pointed out by Film Score Monthly label head Lukas Kendall in his excellent liner notes for FSM's I Spy CD).
Yellowface aside, the understated I Spy was groundbreaking TV: it envisioned itself as more like a feature film than a TV show (the title sequence even began with the rather cocky "Sheldon Leonard Presents"--Nick the Bartender wants to conquer the spy fiction business!); instead of recycled library music, it featured completely original score music every week (courtesy of the late Earle Hagen, whose I Spy theme is one of my favorite TV themes of all time); it favored location shooting in foreign countries(*) over studio backlots; it took a chance on a stand-up with no acting experience named Bill Cosby and made him the first black lead in a prime-time drama; and it gave birth to the buddy action comedy, years before Butch and Sundance. Even The Greatest American Hero--Culp's other classic buddy comedy series and the show where I and countless others from my generation first saw Culp the snarky, over-the-hill action hero--is a descendant of I Spy.
(*) I doubt any of the five major networks would allow the Culp/Cosby show--which once had to pay the Yakuza a ransom for a show crew member they kidnapped while the crew was shooting in Japan--to be filmed all over the world today like it was in the '60s, because of inflated network TV budgets and certain other obstacles. Instead, 24 tries to pass off L.A. as Washington D.C. and New York (rather miserably), and Alias (which was slightly more convincing) dressed up the Disney backlot to look like Madrid or Casablanca, among other cities. I assume the latest episode of Lost, which flashed back to Richard Alpert's original home on the Canary Islands, never even left Hawaii.
Culp had great taste in sci-fi and horror scripts. His guest shots on the original Outer Limits were among the highlights of that series ("The Architects of Fear," "Demon with a Glass Hand"), and his hard-to-find-but-YouTube-able 1973 TV-movie A Cold Night's Death--one of those thrillers where the twist ending isn't as shocking as the film thinks it is, but the journey to that ending is still entertaining--would make for a great double bill with John Carpenter's The Thing (it features an unsettling synthesizer score by Gil Melle of The Andromeda Strain fame). On a similar note, who can forget Culp's creepy performance when Bill Maxwell got possessed by an evil ghost chick in "The Beast in the Black," the Greatest American Hero ep I remember most fondly?