March 24, 2010

Spying the Outer Limits of a Great American: Robert Culp

Flashback to my younger, more idealistic days, when I was considering a career in writing full time - screenplays, television, novels, and other creative efforts. I was a geek in training - combing every reference book on television in order to learn about the industry...when I came across the name Robert Culp.

In light of his recent passing, it really came to mind that, quite frankly, he is one of the unsung heroes of popular culture. Sure, most people may know him from Everyone Loves Raymond (and I hope to never, ever see that show - the promos on local tv make it seem simply awful), or even the "Spy-ography" featurette on Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me. But do a little digging, and you'll find a very underrated actor...and an extremely underrated writer.

First, Culp deserved kudos for his acting work on The Outer Limits - much like Jack Klugman's work on The Twilight Zone, there's just something that's extremely grounded and extraordinarily human about his roles. For example, the episode "The Architects of Fear" (which you can watch via Hulu) is a great example - whereas some actors would chew the scenery, and then rechew it again (yes, Mr. Shatner, I'm talking to you), Culp plays it as just the right pitch. (And I've written extensively about the episode before, both on the blog and for Comic Related.) But his second role, in the Harlan Ellison-penned "Demon with a Glass Hand"(from season two), is a tour de force about a man who finds himself with no memory, no options, and in immediate danger. Without spoiling, the end is probably one the finest twists that Rod Serling didn't write.

Personally, though, my personal favorite (which I watched when I was small and wee, and which I've gotten reacquainted with via Hulu) is I Spy. The show is cited mainly because Bill Cosby was the first African-American to have a major role in a television drama (although some cite Greg Morris in Mission: Impossible...but Mr. Morris never put out a record as brilliantly hilarious as Wonderfulness). However, this was one of the few spy shows that was the least Bond-ian...yes, it was clever and witty, but seemed much more grounded. Culp was not only the co-lead, but remarkably, also wrote several episodes and directed a few.

Keep in mind - I Spy was shot mostly on location in foreign lands. It was groundbreaking in terms of its lead, and it was fighting much more splashy, better known shows in popular culture. Given the quality of the writing, it might have seemed a great effort to write quality scripts, maintain a casual banter with Cosby, and a hectic work schedule...but Culp seemed to manage it with grace.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Bill Maxwell from The Greatest American Hero - here, Culp played it a little more comedically, but there was just something about the character that was extremely cool. Maybe it was the fact that, in one episode, much was made about a t-shirt he wore which read, "Happiness is A Warm Pistol". Never over-the-top, always making it look easy, Robert Culp should have gotten some props in his later years.

He was a class act. He was my younger self's writing role model. And he'll be missed.


Roger Owen Green said...

Serious question: does that I Spy novelization have, very near the end, the phrase, "Hoist by his own petard"?

Gordon D said...


I honestly don't know - I linked to another's image on Flickr, hoping to help his traffic..