Thursday, March 25, 2010

ROBERT CULP 1930-2010

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.



Tony Dayoub said...

I remember him most for his Harlan Ellison episode on THE OUTER LIMITS, "Demon with a Glass Hand."

I've always admired his tongue-in-cheek, breezy charm. Plus the fact that he seemed like a real mensch. In a business where co-stars often snipe behind each other's back, Cosby and Culp often displayed a closeness and genuine sense of affection for each other offscreen.

le0pard13 said...

This one really hit me. I grew up watching this man on TV in all of the various roles he played (villain and hero). Like Tony and others, he really touched something in me as a kid when I watched him on any of the 3 episodes he did on the seminal THE OUTER LIMITS series. Architects of Fear and Corpus Earthling were some of the best on that program, too. But, Demon with a Glass Hand (written by Harlan Ellison) was extraordinary, and his performance as Trent remains haunting.

I'm sincerely hoping that NEW BEVERLY CINEMA or American Cinematheque brings back Hickey & Boggs to one of their theaters here in L.A.. It's his only directorial feature film credit and its highly underrated (but that's changing among those on the net - see author's Duane Swierczynski's recent post concerning this). And if they do, I expect I'll catch up with you and Mr. Peel at that showing.

Anyway, I'm glad to see you listed A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH for him and all of his various contributions to TV and film (acting and writing). Don't forget about the almost forgotten TV movie, Houston, We've Got a Problem (1974) about the people on the other side of the Apollo 13 mission. He was very effective in that. Man... I'm going to miss him (said so yesterday in a blog post). Thanks for this, Dennis.

larry aydlette said...

Let's not forget BIG BAD MAMA II.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Great tribute, he will be missed!

Anonymous said...

I was so obsessed with Kelly Robertson as a kid. My friends didnt quite understand me wearing the blazing white Levis. I think I even had His walk down....wish I could still do it. Me and my pals way back when had the thrill of catching him jumping out of a convertible with Susan Saint James tennis racket in hand. They were doing a Name of the Game series in I remember. I Spy was over. We got his autograph and he was so cool with us. Thanks for Outer Limits steer.

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