'I Spy' star Robert Culp dies at 79

Actor played opposite Bill Cosby in groundbreaking TV series

Robert Culp, who achieved stardom when he teamed with neophyte Bill Cosby as world-traveling sleuths in the groundbreaking 1960s NBC series "I Spy," died Wednesday after collapsing outside his Hollywood home. He was 79.

His manager, Hillard Elkins, told the Associated Press that he actor was on a walk when he fell. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead just before noon. The actor's son was told he died of a heart attack, Elkins said, though police were unsure if the fall was medically related. A jogger found Culp.

Another notable role for the tall, debonair actor was as Bob in Paul Mazursky's movie send-up of 1960s sexual mores, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

His greatest TV success after "I Spy," was in the 1981-83 ABC series "The Greatest American Hero," in which he played an FBI agent and wrote for the program. Eventually, Culp reteamed with Cosby for an episode of "The Cosby Show" and an "I Spy" reunion film for CBS.

More recently, Culp co-starred as an indecisive U.S. president in an adaptation of John Grisham's "The Pelican Brief" (1993) and had a recurring role on the hit CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."

During an acting career that extended more than 40 years, Culp had perhaps his best film role as a lead in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969). Playing a hip filmmaker, he starred along with Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in the sly satire of trendy California culture, most prominently mate-swapping.

Four years later, Culp made a guest appearance on NBC's "Columbo." The well-manicured Culp was a perfect nemesis for Peter Falk's rumpled Detective Columbo. They were an amusing mismatch and well-matched adversaries too: For several seasons, Culp would guest star as a different upper-crust murderer trying to outsmart the sloppy, intrepid Columbo.

Reportedly, Culp was set to replace Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing during the "Dallas" star's protracted contract negotiations with the show's producers. Indeed, if an agreement had not been reached between the producers and Hagman, a story line was already in place to explain J.R.'s new look: He had been shot in the face, and the resulting operation and plastic surgery had caused him to look just like, well, Robert Culp. Hagman's dispute was resolved, and he remained on the CBS primetime soap. Culp, however, reportedly denied that he was ready to take the role.

Robert Martin Culp was born Aug. 16, 1930, in Oakland, Calif. After high school graduation, he attended numerous West Coast colleges and caught the acting bug. Culp migrated to New York, studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studios and found work in live TV and on stage, making his Broadway debut at age 21 in "He Who Gets Slapped." He went on to star in brief Broadway productions of "A Clearing in the Woods" and "Diary of a Scoundrel" during the 1950s.

After numerous stage and TV guest star roles, Culp landed his own series, "Trackdown." The CBS Western ran from 1957-59, and Culp began writing scripts for the show. During this period, he also wrote for "The Rifleman" and "Gunsmoke."

Culp got his big break in "I Spy," Sheldon Leonard's slick 1965-68 series about two athletic and amiable sleuths. The banter between Culp (as tennis whiz Kelly Robinson) and Cosby (as his trainer, Alexander Scott) was the highlight of the series, and their rapport was groundbreaking: It was the first time a black man had starred on a primetime TV show.

"He is the big brother that any first-born boy ever dreamed of," Cosby said Wednesday.

During "I Spy's" second season, Culp began scripting episodes as well as directing several of them. Following "I Spy's" three-year run, he went on to direct other episodic TV as well as a 1972 feature film, "Hickey & Boggs," in which he again starred with Cosby. This time, they played private eyes in search of a missing girl.

The film did not fare well with critics or at the boxoffice, and Culp returned to acting, co-starring in several forgettable films, including "The Castaway Cowboys" (1974) and "The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday" (1976). By the end of the 1970s, Culp acknowledged to TV Guide that he failed to become a top writer and director.

He revived his career during the early '80s, with his role on "Greatest American Hero." Following its cancellation, he acted only occasionally and devoted more time to his writing. However, Culp contacted severe arthritis and could not walk for long periods without a limp. Eventually, he was greatly helped by dietary supplements and continued his acting career. In addition to "Pelican Brief," Culp's more recent movie credits include "Panther" (1995), "Spy Hard" (1996) and "Wanted" (1999).

Culp was married five times -- to Nancy Ashe, Elayne Wilner, France Nuyen, Sheila Sullivan and Candace Faulkner. He had four children with Ashe and one with Faulkner.

Here's a video of Culp talking about co-starring with Cosby in "I Spy," from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation's Archive of American Television.

comments powered by Disqus