Bill Cosby “Had His Own Language” with Robert Culp

I Spy was one of those TV shows that I would have to wait until summer time to watch the reruns. Why? Unlike some elementary school kids, I had a bedtime of 9:00 p.m. on weeknights until I graduated from high school. Kids would be talking about what happened on Outer Limits or Peyton Place sitting up with their families, and I would be out of step with everyone else. So I had to wait until school ended for the year to watch all the weeknight late shows that I missed, and I Spy was a cool show to watch.

Yes, it was cool because of the young Bill Cosby, but remember that he wouldn’t have been very much if Robert Culp hadn’t been there or had copped an attitude. There would have been no show. They looked as if they were welded together like brothers, even when their characters were in crisis or were at loggerheads. It was real man-love. Or what they call these days, bro-mance. Didn’t make me want to join the CIA, though.  And now, Robert Culp has died.

From the L.A. Times:

The men developed a personal bond that extended far beyond their on-screen partnership, and their two-member secret society puzzled, even exasperated, their wives.

“Even to this day, [Cosby’s wife] Camille would just walk away when Bob and I got together,” Cosby recalled with a laugh during an interview Wednesday. “We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything.”

“To our wives,” continued Cosby, “it was some kind of code. Sometimes we would start to laugh, seemingly at nothing. Our wives hated the two of us together. It must have been horrible for them. They became friends and just looked at the two of us like we were nuts.”

They worked together from 1965 to 1968 in the groundbreaking, lighthearted drama in which Culp played Kelly Robinson, a government agent posing as a top tennis player traveling the world, while Cosby portrayed spy Alexander Scott, Robinson’s trainer and traveling companion.

“The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them,” Cosby said. “Bob was the answer to my dreams.”

Cosby and Culp in "I Spy"

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in their roles as Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson on NBC’s “I Spy” (Courtesy: BBC)

He also sat there in the audience and watched as Cosby grabbed each and every Emmy for best lead actor in a dramatic series for the three years the show was on. I doubt Culp was all that self-sacrificing, because like all actors, he was competitive. But, as Cosby said, Culp showed him the ropes. Cosby was not a dramatic actor; he was a nightclub comedian who had been on Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan. He was supposed to be a helper, the comic relief. Cosby came to be way more than that with each season, and Culp helped him in that metamorphosis. I think over the years that Culp came to believe that those Emmys was really for the relationship he and Cosby had developed on the little screen, that such friendships between black men and white men were possible. That they would unite in maleness, good times, cocktails, and “Company” business.

Culp wasn’t one of my favorite actors, and I never saw Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, the famous wife-swapping movie that had everyone talking during the Seventies. I didn’t follow him on TV in his later roles on The Greatest American Hero, and most recently on Everyone Loves Raymond. But I liked him with Cosby on I Spy. I was glad to see him guest on The Cosby Show. I wouldn’t be surprised if their kind of relationship on- or off-screen was the basis for the black guy, white guy buddy films that came out later, but I don’t they’ve ever plumbed the kinds of issues or conflicts that Culp and Cosby’s characters faced on the little screen each week. The witty, dry, knowing banter that they managed to exchange even when under fire could be hilarious. Plus, they were in some very interesting foreign places and locations, something else that I enjoyed about the show. Those places were also a metaphor for an America that they represented and protected; they were readily accepted abroad, but the real America would probably betray them if they went home.

Culp was born in Oakland, CA. He graduated from Berkeley High. So he was a Bay Area guy. A Bay Area guy who went Hollywood, went through five marriages and had five kids, and Hugh Hefner counted him as one of his close, poker-playing friends and former Playboy Mansion residents. (Bill Cosby hung out at the Playboy Mansion too, once upon a time.)

Robert Culp, who was 79, had suffered a heart attack which precipitated a fall while walking near his home.

I Spy plays evenings on the Retro Television Network (RTV) in certain cities (Madison, WI is one). I Spy is also on DVD.

~ by blksista on March 28, 2010.

One Response to “Bill Cosby “Had His Own Language” with Robert Culp”

  1. A lovely tribute.


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