The Top Ten Robert Culp Films

Although best known for his work in television, Robert Culp, who would have turned 85 on back on August 16th, starred in over 30 feature films (theatrical releases). Although I haven’t seen them ALL yet (there’s several in the DVDs To Be Watched pile and others I’m still trying to ah, trackdown…), I believe these to be a respectable top ten.

In order of release year:

Robert Culp as Ensign George "Barney" Ross in PT 109PT 109 (1963) – Robert Culp’s feature film debut, he plays Ensign George “Barney” Ross of John F. Kennedy’s PT boat crew during WWII. The epic film (in every sense of the word), clocks in at over two hours long, features an all-star cast and is the only biographical film done about a President while said President was still in office. In the film, Ross, a friend of JFK’s, more or less hitch-hiked on the 109 after his own boat was blown to pieces. Ross’s arrival on the 109 is used to foreshadow the fate of the boat and crew, but Culp’s portrayal of the Ensign shows a man who stepped up to the plate and did what needed to be done to help save as many of the crew as possible after the 109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer.

Robert Culp as Russ Wilson in SUNDAY IN NEW YORKSunday in New York (1963) – When Culp shows up in this one, almost an hour into the film, he bursts through a door with a hello and proceeds to steal the rest of the movie. Culp plays Russ, the rich, handsome boyfriend of Aileen (Jane Fonda). Aileen takes off to New York City one Sunday to visit with her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) after Russ asks something of her that she’s not ready to give just yet. A comedy of errors ensues for Aileen, who meets Mike (Rod Taylor) on the 5th Avenue bus and things go appropriately haywire for her from there. By the end of the movie, Aileen makes a choice between the two men and, in my opinion, picks the wrong guy.

Robert Culp as Bob Sanders in BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICEBob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) – This movie is hilarious, even 45 years after the sexual revolution of the sixties. Culp is Bob Sanders, a film maker, who attends a free thinking retreat with his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) and upon returning the couple decide to experiment with open communication, honesty (now THERE’S a novel idea!) and affairs outside of their marriage. Honesty is great and all but the humor comes in watching the couple try to find the line that divides sex and love. Plus, Culp’s wardrobe is a bonus in this thing. Ruffled shirt? Check. Velvet jacket? Check. Cordoroy? Got it. Full leather suit? Oh. My. God.

Robert Culp as Thomas Luther Price in HANNIE CAULDERHannie Caulder (1971) – A western starring Raquel Welch as Hannie who is raped, burned out of her home and her husband killed by three wandering outlaws (Ernest Borgine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam). Hannie vows revenge but she doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. Enter Thomas Luther Price (Culp) a bounty hunter, whose steely eye and quick draw of a gun contrast with his storefront preacher look. Initially he refuses to teach her but eventually gives in. The lesson is practical and real. Culp’s finesse with firearms is showcased best during the shootout at the gun maker Bailey’s home (Christopher Lee).

Robert Culp as Frank Boggs in HICKEY & BOGGSHickey & Boggs (1972) – This is Culp’s only feature film as a director, and although I may be biased, a fine effort at that. An early 70’s neo-noir style film about two private detectives in Los Angeles (Culp and Bill Cosby) who are literally the last of their kind. They’re also on their last hope, their last thread and their last dime. The film is dark, and violent, but Culp as director refuses to glorify.  Seeing Culp and Cosby play complete and total losers (and completely NOT their I SPY characters) is perhaps more refreshing 50 years after I SPY, than it was to audiences a mere 4 years after.

Robert Culp as Sly Wells in INSIDE OUTInside Out (1975) – A lightweight caper style film, Culp is Sly Wells, an ex-jewel thief living overseas. He is recruited by ex-Army Major Harry Morgan (Telly Savalas), who in turn was recruited by former POW Kommandant Ernst Furben (James Mason), to help bust a Nazi war criminal out of prison, find out where six million in gold is located, take it, put the Nazi back in prison and enjoy a happily ever after. Although Savalas is the ringleader, Culp is the cool and low key schemer, planner and wheel man for the caper.

Robert Culp as Jack Colby in THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAYThe Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (1976) – The title alone should land this movie on a top ten list somewhere. A complete and total farce, the film is outrageous both in plot and political incorrectness. Set in 1908, Lee Marvin is Sam Longwood (the Great Scout – and essentially channeling his Cat Ballou character here) and Culp is smooth talking, sharp dressed railroad baron and political schmoozer Jack Colby with eyes on the governor’s office.  Having stolen gold from Marvin and some other buddies years before (including Strother Martin and Oliver Reed as a well-spoken but bat shit crazy Indian) the old gang wants their share of the money back and they put Culp through the ringer to get it.  The knock down drag out fight scene between Marvin and Culp is worth the price of admission.

Robert Culp as Lt Frank Sirrianni in BREAKING POINTBreaking Point (1976) – Seeing Robert Culp in the role of a lawman isn’t unusual (he played such a role multiple times). What stands out about this particular role, however, is the cop can’t catch a break. After Mike (Bo Svenson) witnesses a mob beating, identifies the attackers and testifies in court, he and his family face threats of harm. Lieutenant Sirriani (Culp) tries in vain to protect the family but every conventional mob MO is turned on its ear this time and Sirriani can’t do anything right. The film is violent and Svenson swears like a sailor but Culp is rather mild mannered, in fact he looks appropriately haggard in this. The most poignant moment comes when Mike’s sister learns that her boyfriend has been killed by the mob. Sirriani phones Mike with the news and then after hanging up remains in his office smoking a cigarette and looking rather defeated. The scene is juxtaposed with Mike telling his sister the news of her boyfriend.

Robert Culp as Jonas Braken in SKYRIDERSSkyriders (1976) – Robert Culp had one thing and one thing only to do in this movie: Look worried. And he’s got plenty to worry about when terrorists kidnap his family and hold them for ransom. Culp is Jonas Bracken, an American businessman living in Greece and he scrambles to liquidate assets and raise the millions the terrorists want. When he gets it, they then give him a shopping list of weapons to buy. Meanwhile, McCabe (James Coburn), the ex-husband of Jonas’s wife arrives on the scene when he learns of the kidnapping and sets out to save Sue Ellen (Susannah York) and the kids. One might expect Jonas and McCabe to be at each other’s throats but they’re not (which was actually kind of refreshing to see). Although I had hoped that Jonas would join with McCabe in the daring high flying operation to save the family, he instead gets jailed by the Greek police. Nonetheless, he does take part in the police raid. Seriously, how many multi-million dollar international business men do you know look so damn comfortable sporting a six shooter on their hip?

Robert Culp as The Colonel in THE ALMOST GUYSThe Almost Guys (2004) – Watching 70something year old Robert Culp leadfoot around in a ’68 Camaro as an aging repo man just puts a zing! in my heart. Culp’s co-star, Eric Fleming (who also wrote and directed) clearly was a child of the 70s and 80s and brings all those elements from those decades together into a fun film. Culp is The Colonel and Fleming is Rick, two down on their luck repo men whose luck goes even worse when they stumble on a major league baseball pitcher bound and gagged in the trunk of a car they’re repoing. The World Series is three days away, the pitcher isn’t exactly being honest with the Colonel and Rick about his situation and somewhere in the mix is a million dollars ransom. The almost perfect kidnapping scheme that almost worked. Almost.

Honorable Mentions:

The RaidersThe Raiders (1963) –  I don’t believe this was actually intended to be a feature film. It feels more like a pilot for a potential television series focusing on the exploits of the three leads, Culp as Wild Bill Hickcock, Judi Meredith as Calamity Jane and Jim McCullan as Buffalo Bill Cody. I’ve seen this movie get trashed by other reviewers more or less because the historical characters are completely put through alchemy in the story line. There’s no doubt it’s complete and total fanciful fiction and if you can forget who Wild Bill Hickcock, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody really were, the concept here had it’s positives. Culp is fun to watch as the sharp dressed and sharp shooting Wild Bill. The chemistry was there, but alas, it was only for one pass. Since TV movies weren’t quite the norm yet (they were literally just around the corner) one would assume that Universal decided to release the pilot as a feature film since it was at least worthy of that.

Rhino!Rhino! (1964) – Basically National Geographic Goes to the Movies Rhino! was filmed entirely on location in Africa and the actors in the film get up close and personal with the various animals, Culp especially since he’s playing a scientist. Harry Guardino is a safari guide (and closet poacher) who agrees to guide Culp through the countryside in search of the white rhino. Bond girl Shirley Eaton is the love interest. At the time the film was made there were 650 to 700 southern white rhinos in South Africa. Today, thanks to conservation efforts such as what was portrayed in the film there are over 16,000 southern white rhinos in South Africa.

Sadly, however, the northern white rhino found mostly in East and Central Africa are down to four. One is in a zoo and three are in a conservancy in Kenya. The last surviving male, known as Sudan, is under 24 hour guard.

Turk 182

Turk 182! (1985) – Zimmerman flew and Tyler knew! Culp is New York City Mayor John J. Tyler in the middle of a re-election campaign when scandal hits. Meantime, NYC firefighter Terry Lynch (Robert Urich) is injured during an off duty fire rescue. He’s denied disability benefits and his younger brother Jimmy (Timothy Hutton) tries to get help from the Mayor’s office. Shut out by the Mayor, Jimmy lashes back, adding fuel to the brewing scandal by tagging “Zimmerman Flew and Tyler Knew” all over NYC with the signature “Turk 182.” Watching Culp deal with the proverbial political egg on the face through out the film (from the subway SNAFU to the meltdown at the Meadowlands) and pitching a beautiful fit with Peter Boyle, who plays his head of security, are worth the view.

pb1The Pelican Brief (1993) – If I don’t mention this one, somebody’s gonna smack me, and rightfully so. However, at the time of this writing I have not watched The Pelican Brief yet so I can’t comment anything on this movie. I did read the book back in high school but…yeah, that doesn’t help me. At all.


Is there a movie not on this list that you think should be? (Keep in mind, this is THEATRICAL releases, not TV movies.) Let me know in the comments!

~Lisa Philbrick

Five Ways to Be As Cool As Robert Culp

Robert Culp, who would have turned 85 on August 16th, played the very cool and very don’t-mess-with-Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman in the 1950s western TRACKDOWN. In the 60’s, Culp continued the essence of cool with the very cool and very debonair spy Kelly Robinson on I SPY. By the 70’s he was all over the tube and films, turning out varied performances from ruffled shirt wearing Bob in BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE to three time killer on COLUMBO to the very cool and dark William Sebastian in Gene Roddenberry’s SPECTRE. Even as Bill Maxwell, the calcified by-the-book old school Fed on THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, Culp was still cool.

So how do you pull off that kind of ambiance? Well, here’s five things to keep in mind.

5. Reject labels

Robert Culp working on his motorcycle, circa 1959

“You can’t just state categorically that one fellow is a square, another a gray-flannel type character, and a third a beatnik. Every person is a mixture of many things, and to lump groups of them together into neat, pre-conceived patterns is ridiculous! I think that may be one of the traps young people fall into today. They fancy themselves to be one “type” or another, then try to live up to what they imagine to be the epitome of that “type.” Instead, they should be exploring, branching out, discovering all the infinite variety of things life has to offer.” – Robert Culp, 1959.

When Culp first arrived in Hollywood in 1957 he caught the public’s attention and earned the label of “offbeat” by the Hollywood establishment. Studios and networks expected their stars to adhere to a certain wholesome public image, one that chafed Culp from the start. By contrast, he wasn’t a “bad boy” either but tooling around on a thundering motorcycle or in a cool speedy Corvette went a little against the wholesome Hollywood grain of the 1950s. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and the word “compromise” sometimes wasn’t in his vocabulary. Nonetheless, Culp wasn’t completely insufferable. Always the professional, he sought out the expertise from those with experience and in the know, contributed ideas and suggestions that more often than not were for the benefit of others and not him and learned from his mistakes. That’s not offbeat. That’s just plain awesome.

4. Stand up and do something for what you believe in – or just shut the hell up.

Robert Culp at Resurrection City, 1968

The tumultuous year of 1968 was marred by riots, demonstrations and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. After the assassination of Dr. King in April, Culp along with I Spy co-star Bill Cosby, went to Atlanta to pay their respects to the King family during the funeral and then went to Memphis to march with the striking garbage workers (an event Dr. King had helped organize and was to take part in). In May of ’68, Culp lived for three weeks in Resurrection City, the plywood and tent city of the Poor People’s Campaign that was setup along the Mall in Washington DC. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June, Culp went to work on OPERATION BREADBASKET a documentary on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s economic program that worked to bring jobs and economic viability to black communities. The project would take more than a year to complete and would cost Culp professionally, financially and personally. When it was complete, Culp succeeded in selling it to ABC, which was unprecedented at the time. The networks never aired documentaries that weren’t produced by their own in house news departments. The documentary aired July 7, 1969 to positive reviews and was aired a second time later that summer.

“At least I had my say,” Culp said in 1969. “I did what I could.”

Indeed. He did a lot.

3. Be adventurous

“I walked down those streets (in New York City) and saw all the people and they all looked mad as though they were going to beat me up. I loved it.” – Robert Culp, 1957, referring to his first arrival in New York in the early 50s.

In the course of three seasons, I Spy filmed in locations all over the world, including Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Morocco, Italy and Greece. In his career, Culp starred in various films that were shot in places like Canada, England, Germany, Australia and South Africa.

Robert Culp with Bill Cosby in I SPY

“We also didn’t have dressing rooms (in Hong Kong while filming I Spy). We dressed on the streets. We were in a hurry. We’d change our pants and people would say, ‘Those guys are in their underwear! On the side walk!’ Bill didn’t care and I didn’t either. We were secretly proud of it, man. It’s a macho thing. The hell with ‘em.” – Robert Culp, talking about the lack of dressing rooms during filming in Hong Kong for I Spy.

2. When it comes to couture don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Robert Culp with Gene Berry in THE NAME OF THE GAME, 1970

In 1969, TV Guide called Robert Culp one of the “gassiest dressers in Hollywood.”

Robert Culp in BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, 1969

“(Culp) was so perfect, he used his own wardrobe. Moss Mabry, the costume designer went to his house and said ‘I don’t have to buy anything for him. He’s got more zippers than anyone.’” – Director Paul Mazursky, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Robert Culp as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell in THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO

“…yeah, as long as you dress right. Conservative, not too garish.” – Agent Bill Maxwell, explaining how to dress right in Las Vegas.

Robert Culp’s fashion sense was legendary and he more often than not wore his own clothes in different roles. From classic to contemporary, Culp wasn’t afraid to wear things other men would shy away from. White jeans were his iconic look for I SPY, while BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE utilized similar styles and also pushed the boundary with velvet tops, ruffled shirts and full leather ensembles. Quite possibly the only man who could pull off wearing a bright red dinner jacket, Culp could wear a tuxedo like he was born into it yet didn’t shy away from bright, bold colors and patterns. Okay, the Maxwell mattress jacket above isn’t the best example of that, but COLUMBO fans remember the yellow motorcycle style jacket Culp wore in this third turn as the killer du jour. Like the old song goes, every girl’s crazy for a sharp dressed man.

1. Make no excuses.

Robert Culp didn’t survive 50 plus years as an actor, writer and director in Hollywood by passing the blame. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and Culp acknowledged the view in the rear view mirror, recognized the times when a decision made might not have been for the best, but otherwise carried on forward. Hollywood’s a tough town and like we all face in life, things don’t always go your way. Culp survived because he was damn good at what he did, was reliable, he persevered and he was, quite simply, cool.