Robert Culp, who perfected a suave cleverness most famously as Bill Cosby’s partner in espionage in the TV series I Spy, died on Wednesday after a fall in his Hollywood home. He was 79. Culp in his prime had twinkling eyes, a sly smile, and a rapid, crisp way of delivering a line: he seemed to be a hyper-articulate wiseguy, a charming devil, whether he was playing tennis-pro Kelly Robinson in I Spy (1965-68) or simply himself on a talk- or game-show.
Culp’s TV career started in the late ’50s with the taut Western Trackdown. He gave many memorable performances as his television career took off in the ’60s, including a starring role in a classic Outer Limits episode, “Demon With A Glass Hand,” written by Harlan Ellison.
But it was as Kelly Robinson, a spy who used the identity of a globe-trotting tennis pro in I Spy, that made Culp a star. Co-star Cosby became the first black actor to star in a TV drama. Culp wrote and directed a number of episodes, and he and Cosby became close friends outside of the show.
You can watch episodes of I Spy on Hulu.com and Fancast. com:
Culp was also one of the best guest stars in the long-running Peter Falk series Columbo; Culp played a murderer on three separate occasions, all fan-favorites. Culp’s biggest movie role was in the 1969 Paul Mazursky film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, considered racy for its time.
But perhaps Culp’s finest achievement was one of the ’70s most underrated movies, a tough little crime film called Hickey & Boggs, which Culp also directed from a script by Walter Hill. In it, Culp and Cosby played bleak, tougher variations on their I Spy characters, a pair of cynical private eyes hired to find a missing girl. As Hickey and Boggs, Culp and Cosby played men who were burned-out-cases themselves, capable of deceit and betrayal. Culp’s low-key direction was superb. Go rent this film immediately. (As luck would have it, Hickey & Boggs is currently showing on Comcast On Demand.)
Culp also appeared in shows ranging from The Greatest American Hero to Everybody Loves Raymond.
In one sense, Culp was an actor who never found a regular place on the big screen, where he was most often given merely lightweight roles. But in another sense, he was one of the best actors ever seen on television, because the small screen caught all of his quick, witty gestures and cleverly muttered asides. He was never less than a pure pleasure to watch.
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