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Actor, writer and director Robert Culp brought roguish charm with a hint of self-deprecating humor to two popular television series - "I Spy" (NBC, 1965-68) and "The Greatest American Hero" (ABC, 1981-83) - as well as a host of television episodes and the occasional feature film. Culp's role on "I Spy" - a secret agent posing as a tennis player - largely defined his screen persona, which was alternately freewheeling and deadly serious - and made him a welcome presence on network TV for decades after its conclusion. His "Greatest American Hero" role was a sort of cracked revamp of his "Spy" character - a caffeinated government spook charged with protecting an ersatz superhero - which endeared him to a new generation of viewers. Along the way, there were several features, including the sex comedy "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" (1969), though few as successful as his TV work, and several scripts and turns as director for various shows. His series work, however, assured him lasting fame as a TV star who acted outside the mold.
Born Robert Martin Culp in Oakland, CA on Aug. 16, 1930, he was the son of attorney Crozie Culp and his wife, Bethel Collins, an employment counselor for a chemical firm in Berkeley. An only child, he fought loneliness through his discovery of performance, which began with marionette shows in his basement, and later expanded to local theater as a teenager. Culp also showed an aptitude for art, and earned his keep as a cartoonist for Bay Area magazines and newspapers in high school. But acting remained his chief passion, much to the dismay of his family. Culp's skill at track and field earned him athletic scholarships to six universities, but he chose the relatively small College of the Pacific in Stockton because it had an active theater department. He transferred to San Francisco State in 1949, and began absorbing the wave of international cinema that was flooding to small arthouses around the country after World War II. After performing in a play in San Francisco, he relocated again; first to Seattle, and then to New York City in 1951. There, he made his first appearances on television and supported himself by teaching theater speech and phonetics. In 1955, he met actor and teacher Herbert Berghof, who invited Culp to attend his classes. Together, the two would enact the first performances of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in the United States.
Culp's career took an upward swing the following year after winning an Obie Award in "He Who Gets Slapped." His first Broadway show, "A Clearing in the Woods," opposite Kim Stanley, soon followed, as did a flurry of live television dramas from 1955 to 1957. His breakthrough role came in the latter year as Texas Ranger Hobie Gilman on the popular Western TV series "Trackdown" (CBS, 1957-59). Best known as the series that spawned Steve McQueen's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" (CBS, 1958-1961), the show also marked Culp's debut as a screenwriter on several episodes. He returned to regular duty as a guest star on numerous shows throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s while penning scripts for shows like "Cain's Hundred" (NBC, 1961-62) and "The Rifleman" (ABC, 1958-1963).
Culp made his feature debut in 1963's "PT 109" as Navy Ensign Barney Ross, who served alongside John F. Kennedy in World War II. Supporting turns in other films followed; most notably "Sunday in New York" (1963), as Jane Fonda's boyfriend who complicates her romantic adventures in the Big Apple with a marriage proposal. But television still afforded Culp his primary means of exposure, and as the decade progressed, his roles became more worthy of his talents. The most memorable of these from the early 1960s were a trio of appearances on the science fiction anthology "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1963-65), including "Demon with a Glass Hand," a stark and cerebral episode that cast Culp as a man with no memory who has been sent from the future to eliminate an alien race that decimates mankind. The story, penned specifically for Culp by author Harlan Ellison, was among the show's most acclaimed episodes, and spawned a lawsuit by Ellison against the producers of "The Terminator" (1984) for borrowing elements from the story without proper credit.
During this period, Culp wrote a pilot script for a series in which he was to play a dashing spy a la James Bond, whose popularity and influence on the media was immeasurable. Culp took the script to comedy legend Carl Reiner, who introduced him to his "Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66) producer Sheldon Leonard, who was himself attempting to launch a show about spies, albeit with more humor. Culp was eventually cast in the ensuing program, "I Spy," which became one of the decade's most popular and groundbreaking hits. The key to the show's popularity was its mix of action and intrigue with the breezy repartee between Culp and comedian Bill Cosby as its leads, a pair of Pentagon agents masquerading as tennis bums. What made the show truly unique, however, was the fact that Cosby's race was never discussed, and that the men treated each other as equals. Their relationship was one of the most unique and fully integrated on television shows during this period.
Culp himself took a hands-on approach to the show, writing seven scripts for the series, and directing one - another rarity for the period. Culp wrote his scripts to set the tone for the series - more often than not, he and Cosby were dissatisfied with the show's overly lighthearted take, and frequently improvised their own material. One of his "I Spy" scripts, "The Loser," earned an Emmy nomination for guest star Eartha Kitt, while another, "Home to Judgment," brought him his own Emmy nod. For his performance on the show, Culp was nominated for a Best Actor Emmy in all three years of the show's existence, but lost in each case to Cosby. The actors would reunite several times in the decades after the series' conclusion; most notably in the violent action-drama "Hickey & Boggs," which marked Culp's debut as a feature film director. They also reprised their roles from the series in a 1994 TV movie, "I Spy Returns" (CBS, 1994).
Throughout the 1960s, Culp was an active supporter of the civil rights movement, and participated in numerous events related to the cause. After attending the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, he invested most of his savings and two years of his life to produce, direct and distribute a documentary called "Operation Breadbasket" (1968), which explored the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's program of the same name, and its effect on the lower-income neighborhoods of Chicago. He eventually sold the film to ABC, which aired it twice in 1969 to critical praise. Though personally fulfilling, the project nearly wiped out Culp's finances, and he was forced to return to acting to keep himself solvent.
Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" (1969) gave him his biggest screen success and one of his best feature film roles. A wry and fairly daring comedy about the sexual revolution and its effect on two couples, Culp was top-billed with Natalie Wood as Bob and Carol, a pair of with-it Angelenos whose experience at an experimental retreat - based on Esalen - opens them up to the concept of free love. They attempt to spread the gospel to their more conservative friends, Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon), with unexpected results. Though a popular and controversial film of the period, it somehow did not establish Culp as a hip leading man in the same way as co-star Gould, and he was soon back to television and the occasional feature.
Thanks to the popularity of "I Spy," Culp was busy for most of the 1970s and 1980s. He was one of several actors who replaced Anthony Franciosa on the popular NBC wheel series "The Name of the Game" (1968-1971), but kept his hand out of series work in favor of regular appearances on episodic series like "Columbo" (NBC, 1968-1978), where he guest starred as the guilty party in three episodes. He was also top-billed in several of the more interesting TV movies from the period, including the supernaturally themed "A Cold Night's Death" (ABC, 1973) and the Gene Roddenberry-penned pilot "Spectre" (NBC, 1977), "Houston, We've Got a Problem" (ABC, 1974), which told the story of NASA's fight to rescue its Apollo 13 mission; and enjoyed solid supporting roles in "Roots: The Next Generations" (ABC, 1979) and "The Key to Rebecca" (1985), which cast him as Nazi armored commander General Erwin Rommel.
His feature film output during this period was less noteworthy. Projects like the offbeat Western "Hannie Caulder" (1972), with Raquel Welch as a wronged frontier woman who hires Culp's gunslinger to exact revenge on a trio of bad men, as well as "The Castaway Cowboy" (1974), with Culp as a heelish banker who tries to thwart cowpoke James Garner, were modest if unremarkable efforts. But he roared back to TV prominence with "The Greatest American Hero," a tongue-in-cheek spin on superhero adventures that starred William Katt as a schoolteacher who becomes a reluctant crusader after receiving a suit from aliens. Culp gave an inspired performance - in addition to writing two episodes and directing one - as the slightly unhinged FBI agent who aids Katt in his crime-fighting efforts. Again, the chemistry between Culp and his co-star helped to make the show a cult hit among viewers. Their support was not enough to save the show, which was gone from airwaves after just two seasons. However, Culp reunited with the original cast in 1986 for a failed pilot that saw a woman take over the super suit and team with Culp for more adventures.
The 1980s and early 1990s saw Culp, now in his fifth and sixth decade, still making numerous appearances on episodic TV. There was also a recurring role on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) as Debra Barone's (Patricia Heaton) slightly elitist father. Culp found time to make several feature film appearances during this time, mostly in the low-budget or independent film category, though he had memorable turns as an ineffectual U.S. President embroiled in a murder and conspiracy plot in Alan J. Pakula's "The Pelican Brief" (1993), and flamboyant civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who defended Black Panther Huey P. Newton on murder charges in 1967, in Mario Van Peebles' "Panther" (1995). He also made an offbeat appearance as a smug narrator for Eminem's music video for the single "Guilty Conscience" in 2000. The new millennium saw him adding vocal artist to his long and varied CV; among his more memorable voice-over roles was the villainous Dr. Breen in the popular computer game "Half-Life 2" (Valve Corporation, 2004) and a reprisal of Bill Maxwell, albeit in action figure form, for the animated comedy series "Robot Chicken" (Adult Swim, 2005- ). On March 24, 2010, Culp tripped while going for a walk near his L.A. house and hit his head. He died later at the hospital, leaving behind an impressive film and television legacy. He was 79 years old.
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Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made TV debut in "You Are There" (CBS)
First starring role in a series, "Trackdown" (CBS), also wrote episodes for the series
Had a guest-starring role as Stewart Douglas in an episode of CBS's anthology series, "The DuPont Show with June Allyson"
Cast as legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok in "The Raiders"
Played the debonair fiance of Jane Fonda in the romantic comedy, "Sunday in New York"
Made feature debut playing John F. Kennedy's good friend Ensign George Ross in "P.T. 109"
Cast as Captain Shark in a first season episode of NBC's "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
First TV movie, "The Hanged Man" (NBC)
Teamed with Bill Cosby in the adventure series, "I Spy" (NBC) playing Kelly Robinson
Co-starred with Natalie Wood in Paul Mazursky's, "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice"
First quest appearance on "Columbo" (NBC)
Played gunslinger, Thomas Luther Price in "Hannie Caulder," opposite Raquel Welch
Second appearance on NBC's "Columbo"
Re-teamed with Cosby for "Hickey & Boggs"; also made feature directorial debut
Co-starred with James Garner in "The Castaway Cowboy"
Had a co-starring role in the film, "Goldengirl"
Returned to series TV playing by-the-book-FBI Agent Bill Maxwell in ABC's "The Greatest American Hero"; also wrote and directed episodes
Played the Mayor in "Turk 182!"
Hosted the syndicated series, "True Confessions"
Re-teamed with Bill Cosby for an episode of NBC's "The Cosby Show," playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable's old friend Scott Kelly
Played the U.S. President in "The Pelican Brief," starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts
Re-teamed with Cosby to reprise their roles for a two-hour CBS movie, "I Spy Returns"
Had a recurring role on CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" as Warren Whelan, Ray's father-in-law
Re-teamed with Bill Cosby for an episode of his CBS series "Cosby," once again playing Kelly Robinson
Reprised the role of Bill Maxwell in a voice-over role on the stop-motion sketch comedy, "Robot Chicken" (Adult Swim)