Robert Culp, star of TV’s I Spy and The Greatest American Hero, died Wednesday morning at the age of 79 here in Los Angeles. Culp fell and hit his head while walking near his home and was found by a passing jogger who called 911. He was pronounced dead at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, but the cause of death has not yet been determined. An autopsy is pending.
When I think of Robert Culp I think of his sublime exasperation as Maxwell, the mentor to William Katt’s bumbling superhero on the 1984 series, or his slightly distanced cool on I Spy. But he might have been even more memorable embodying a specifically Los Angeles kind of burn-out as illustrated by the slightly gone-to-seed swinger he played in Paul Mazursky’s Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice and the even more dissolute and defeated detective in his only feature directing effort, the collapsed, possibly suicidal half of Hickey and Boggs, from a script by Walter Hill, which reteamed him on the big screen with his I Spy costar Bill Cosby. But I also think of Culp as the most dogged and determined murdering guest star in the history of Columbo. (Is it my imagination, or did he appear on every other episode?) And he starred in perhaps my favorite of all the ABC Movies of the Week, a terrifying little picture called A Cold Night’s Death (1973) along with Eli Wallach.
”Very good, sir, you shall have it!”
But I like to remember how funny Culp was, and he had a great brief moment as a waiter on Get Smart that I’ve always thought was a classic of its kind. Just for the way he throws away the condescension toward Maxwell Smart with the line “Very good, sir. You shall have it!” he should be remembered as a talented comic actor. But for whatever role it might be, for those of us of a certain age, Robert Culp was television as we were growing up, one of those faces on the cathode ray landscape that made the medium what it was, always for the better. And just because he was out of the spotlight as an actor (more recently in it as an activist in a high-profile suit against the Los Angeles Zoo) doesn’t mean he won’t be missed by those who knew him only in this one special way. Robert Culp was a far more subtle actor than he was ever acknowledged as being, and if you don’t know his stuff from the late ‘60s through the mid ‘80s, you have a lovely acquaintance to be made.