By EW Staff
Updated August 18, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you’re old enough to remember its existence at all, you may be disheartened by the fact that this ”I Spy” bears little resemblance to the 1960s Bill Cosby-Robert Culp TV series. ”For one thing, we’ve switched their characters,” says Thomas, meaning that while Culp played a tennis pro and Cosby his trainer, Murphy here is the athlete (a boxer) recruited by government operative Wilson to stop a European baddie (McDowell) from selling a stolen U.S. stealth bomber. (Janssen appears as Wilson’s spy-colleague love interest.) So why is this one called ”I Spy” at all? ”I didn’t even want to call it that,” Thomas (”Dr. Dolittle”) says. ”I just didn’t want to disappoint people and make them think the movie was something that it wasn’t. But [Columbia Pictures chairman] Amy Pascal said, ‘No way, I spent a lot of money on that title!”’

The extensive dramatic license didn’t bother Wilson one bit — he says he’s never seen the series. ”It sort of missed me,” says the actor, who was born two months after ”I Spy” went off the air in 1968. ”But when I signed on to the movie, people would tell me about the show. That sounds funny, though — Robert Culp as a tennis player, Bill Cosby as his manager.” (It was, Owen.) Instead, Wilson, who will also be seen buddying up with Jackie Chan in the sequel ”Shanghai Knights” this fall, was anxious to work with one of his childhood idols. ”Having grown up seeing ’48 HRS.’ and that stuff,” he says, ”I was more nervous to work with Eddie than I was with Jackie.”

Murphy, meanwhile, expressed reservations over ”Spy”’s early script drafts, which had him playing not a boxer but a hoops star. So why the switch? ”What, does every black guy have to play basketball?” Thomas protests. ”He’s five foot nine inches tall; how could he be a basketball player?” Well, actually, Murphy’s rep says he’s six feet tall. And hasn’t she ever heard of Muggsy Bogues?

THE LOWDOWN Die-hard ”I Spy” fans may not be happy, but they’re not the target audience — and any Eddie Murphy movie that isn’t ”Showtime” is probably a good thing.

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