Friday, March 25, 2005

Culp Cult

I am grateful my wife and I found a place to move to that has Cox Communications cable. This company carries the AmericanLife TV Network cable channel (hey I learned how to link in posts! Thanks Captain Spaulding!) which has on Wednesday nights, reruns of "I Spy", "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.".

As good as the last two are (actually, "The Girl..." is more like a '60's-"Batman"-style version of what was already a pretty campy spy show), the one I love is "I Spy". The show starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, and, when it is mentioned by entertainment writers, tends to focus on it's place in history as the first prime time television show to have an African-American as one of the leads. Or Bill Cosby's first big break. But to me, it was where we see the evolution of the Robert Culp acting style.

Where in the first few years, you see Culp doing his early, stoic, late-fifties/early-sixties leading man thing (see also his episodes of "The Outer Limits", and appearances in such films as "Sunday In New York", and "PT 109"), the presence of Cosby and Cosby's loose, semi-improvised way with a line (which also evolved as the series ran it's course), had a remarkable influence on him. Robert Culp began to noticeably add little "y'see"'s and "m'friend"'s into his dialogue. By the third season, he would refer to Cosby as "Stanley" on camera, referencing their predicament in the plot at Laurel and Hardy-esque. His and Cosby ad-libs grew longer and more involved. I remember producer/creator and frequent guest-star Sheldon Leonard kvetching about this in his bio "And The Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures", that they would ruin the storyline of the more dramatic episodes. And that Culp couldn't ad-lib as well as Cosby. Which may be true, but for me, Culp was the focus of the show.

Unfortunately, this was ture for Robert Culp as well. I remember my brother and I going to see him at the Egyptian in Hollywood for a screening of his directorial debut, the seventies noir "Hickey And Boggs". The film is one of my favorite "noir as metaphor for disillusionment with the establishment" that you saw in the seventies. Anyway, after it was over, Culp did a Q&A and he went into how the film got started. Apparently, the script by Walter Hill had going around to various agent (it had been written with Newman and Redford in mind) and studios and no one had wanted it. Robert Culp had been looking for something for him and Bill Cosby to do after the last year of "I Spy" and he thought this would work. The problem (he said at the screening) was that he had to re-write it considerably because the script was much more light-hearted (much more like an "I Spy" who are detectives script) and they wanted to do something darker. Or, as he put it "It was light. And Culp and Cosby don't do that."

Culp and Cosby? It must be nice to live in a world where one still thinks of oneself as a bigger star than Bill Cosby. I wish I could live in that world.

On the other hand, you should check out this film and the Culp-directed/written episodes of "I Spy" because he is very talented and tends to focus in the show on how depressing Kelly and Scotty's (their character names) lives could be in the service of their country.

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