Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in I Spy: ‘No other black man and no other white man would have made it work,’ Culp said.

Definitively and Definitely Cool

Robert Culp
August 16, 1930-March 24, 2010

Actor Robert Culp, whose long career in television and film is remembered primarily for two roles—that of the cool secret agent Kelly Robinson, for three seasons (1965-1968) the partner to spy Alexander Scott, played by Bill Cosby, in the NBC series I Spy; and as documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders, who with his wife Carol, played by Natalie Wood, explores the limits of the era's new sexual freedom in Paul Mazursky’s witty and intelligent examination of changing American attitudes towards committed relationships in his 1969 film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (also starring Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon)—collapsed of a heart attack and died outside his Hollywood home on March 24. He was 79. Married five times, Culp is survived by his daughters, Samantha and Rachel; and his sons, Joseph and Jason.

Born in Oakland, CA, Culp broke into TV in the ‘50s in the western show Trackdown, which was a spinoff of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, and produced a spinoff of its own in Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen. He amassed an impressive resume of TV credits in the ‘60s, including starring in three episodes of the sci-fi anthology series The Outer Limits (including an acclaimed starring role in a Harlan Ellison-penned episode, “Demon With a Glass Hand”); a guest starring role in a modern Western series for NBC in 1962-63, Empire, starring Richard Egan; and as Captain Shark in the first season episode of NBC’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In the ‘70s his credits included the role of the murderer in three episodes of the popular Columbo series starring Peter Falk.

So happy together: (from left) Elliott Gould, Natalie Wood, Robert Culp and Dyan Cannon cozy up in Paul Mazursky’s 1969 exploration of changing sexual mores, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

But it was as the suave Kelly Robinson on I Spy that Culp vaulted to stardom, joining a stellar ‘60s roster of super-cool secret agents and police detectives that included Robert Vaughan’s Napoleon Solo on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gene Barry’s Amos Burke on Burke’s Law, and Patrick McGoohan’s cerebral (and apparently celibate) John Drake on the short-lived Secret Agent Man (with a terrific rock ‘n’ roll theme song by Johnny Rivers). More significantly, I Spy was the first American TV series to feature an African American in a lead role, but to the two stars, it was more important for the lifelong friendship that ensued from their three years together on screen. So close were the pair that their wives came to feel as if they existed apart from their husbands when Culp and Cosby were together, not as their spouses. “To our wives,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times’s Greg Braxton, “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.”

I Spy, episode 45, “Tonia”

“No other black man and no other white man would have made it work,” Culp said of his friendship with Cosby in a 1994 interview. “We just got lucky. We met and decided that we liked each other. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other.”

After I Spy shut down, Culp and Cosby reunited on screen in 1972’s detective thriller, Hickey & Boggs, and dusted off their Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott personas to star together in a 1994 I Spy TV movie. In 1987 Culp appeared on Cosby’s ratings juggernaut The Cosby Show as Cliff Huxtable’s old friend Scott Kelly, the character’s name being a combination of the names of their I Spy characters.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: ‘That’s gorgeous, man. The truth is always beautiful.’ Smartly eviscerating the ‘60s pseudo-hip crowd.

Cosby always credited Culp with playing the major role in his development as an actor, the latter’s generosity and patience being a natural outgrowth of the warm personal regard in which the two held each other. “I attribute our friendship to Bob and his honesty,” Cosby told the Times’s Braxton. “More than anyone else I’ve ever worked with, he was the first person to sense or smell what I was about, from ground zero. No matter how many mistakes I made, he never stopped teaching and protecting me. He was the big brother that all of us always wished for.”

In the last two decades of his life, Culp’s most prominent roles were as the President of the United States in the 1994 murder mystery based on John Gresham’s The Pelican Brief, starring Denzel Washington and Julie Roberts; and as Warren Whelan, Ray’s father in law on Everybody Loves Raymond. —David McGee

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