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:
PT 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.
Sunday 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.
Bob & 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.
Hannie 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).
Hickey & 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.
Inside 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.
The 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.
Breaking 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.
Skyriders (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?
The 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.
The 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! (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! (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.
The 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!