Back in April of 1965 Pulitzer Prize winning author and syndicated columnist William S. White wrote: “NBC-TV has guts. The network, gambling that Dixie attitudes are changing, will pioneer with a 30-minute (sic) Wednesday evening show next season which co-stars a Negro actor, Bill Cosby, with a white one, Robert Culp. They will portray secret agents on even terms in a thriller called I Spy. NBC won’t know until late summer how many of its Southern affiliates will carry the program.”
NBC pioneered the interracial pairing of black and white characters on even ground at a time in America when race relations were less than harmonious. Did you notice the last line in that statement about the Southern affiliates? Yeah, there were a few who refused to air the show at the time it debuted and there was a lot of hand wringing at NBC’s offices.
This past weekend NBC celebrated its 90th anniversary and I SPY received no mention among the clips, salutes and tributes that were made. No mention whatsoever. The historical significance of what I SPY represented at the time it debuted and the impact it had was completely ignored.
By now, most of you have heard of the “Trump Trackdown” video. For those of you who haven’t, a quick recap:
This past week, Snopes.com posted about the video, which was originally posted to YouTube back in November and consists of 4 minutes of various scenes from a 1958 episode Trackdown. In the episode, a con man named Walter Trump arrives in a Texas town and tells everyone that only he can save them from the end of the world, by building a protective wall around their homes (along with selling them parasols to shield them from a meteor shower).
Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by none other than Robert Culp, suspects Trump is a fraud. At one point in the episode, Trump threatens to sue. Hoby doesn’t take any crap and eventually exposes Trump for the fraud that he is.
The Snopes article and video have since gone viral. This pleases me in several ways, not the least of which is the recognition and exposure Trackdown is getting, which currently runs on MeTV Saturday mornings (and also on the network Heroes and Icons) after having been absent from television for many years. The video has been shared and talked about on social media all week, with some 40,000 shares alone on Facebook as of the time of this posting. A lot of folks have never heard of the show. Many seem curious to learn more about it.
With that in mind, I wanted to point out a couple of things that I’ve noticed in comments and blog posts of recent days. First, Trackdown is NOT in the public domain. The show’s copyright and distribution rights are owned by CBS, which is the network it originally aired on from 1957 to 1959.
There is no official DVD release of the show. However, there is a DVD set that’s floating around out there, but the video quality is atrocious (to put it kindly). The source material was literally VHS recordings of the show from local TV stations and TVLand airings dating from the late 1980s. Those of us of a certain age know what VHS quality looked like.
I was thrilled when Trackdown began airing on MeTV back in October of 2016. I’ve tried to watch at least one episode on Saturday mornings on MeTV (two eps run back to back) and the film quality is exceptionally better than the cruddy DVD copy I’ve seen. The show is much more enjoyable to watch.
Which brings me to my ultimate wish (well, one of them anyway!) I’m talking to you CBS. With curiosity and interest in Trackdown increasing the more the video and Snopes article is shared, this would be a wonderful time to look at putting Trackdown out on DVD before the end of 2017.
The media seems to have turned its collective back on I SPY due to Cosby’s issues. Why doing so is an injustice.
Robert Culp’s words, spoken nine years ago during his American Television Archive interview, seem to be becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as of late.
I SPY, the TV series Culp co-starred with Bill Cosby for three seasons, premiered on NBC 51 years ago last week, September 15th, 1965. Outside of TheConsummateCulp Facebook and Twitter feed and a Facebook page called I SPY, SPY SHOWS, you probably missed the notice in any news feeds on social media platforms. It appeared nowhere. Granted, 51 is an odd anniversary to mark, but several other shows that also premiered that same week in 1965 had plenty of mentions.
I SPY was just not one of those shows.
Then, this past Sunday night was the 68th Emmy Awards. Host Jimmy Kimmel did a cheap and cringeworthy Bill Cosby joke and the website Upworthy.com failed to mention the first African American actor to win an Emmy in their article on 15 Emmy nominees and winners who broke barriers. That actor, Bill Cosby, for I SPY, was not included in the list.
And you know, I get it. Cosby’s being punished and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve everything he gets. But I SPY, and all those associated with it, doesn’t deserve to be punished with him. I SPY was a ground breaking culturally significant milestone in television history that still matters. You can try to ignore it and bury it in light of Cosby’s loss of honor because it seems like the right thing to do. But to do so unfairly punishes so many others. Not the least of which is Robert Culp, who so believed in all that I SPY would represent for race relations if given the chance, he threatened to quit the show before it even started when NBC wanted to replace Cosby whom they didn’t favor due to his lack of acting experience.
Or producer Sheldon Leonard, the man who originally envisioned the concept of the two man, black and white team of spies and also backed up Cosby.
Or Fouad Said, the brilliant Egyptian born cinematographer, who met the challenge of I SPY’s around the world on location filming with innovative ideas and concepts that revolutionized television and film making beyond I SPY.
Or Earle Hagen, who scored the show, writing a musical accompaniment for each episode, incorporating musical styles and flavors from the many exotic locations I SPY filmed.
Or any of the people who worked on I SPY, from top executive producers, to the guest stars, down to the line crews and everybody in between.
Bill Cosby’s transgressions makes it hard to celebrate I SPY and its place in television history. Believe me, I understand. But those transgressions don’t change history, nor does it change Robert Culp’s, or others, place in it. Because they did do it. And were it not for them, much of what came after them never would have happened.
Recently I shared on Facebook several HICKEY & BOGGS articles I had written back in 2012 for the 40th anniversary of the film. One of the articles made reference to a 2007 screening of H&B at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles with Robert Culp on hand afterwards for a Q&A session. Video of the event existed at the time of the posting in 2012 – and then disappeared some two weeks later. The source of the video, a website known as Criminally Unknown which was dedicated to discussing lesser known films, all but fell off the face of the earth at the time. The links to vids on their Facebook page disappeared, their website disappeared, and only one segment of the nearly 45 minute Q&A survived still on YouTube. It seemed the entire Q&A session was lost forever.
But lo… it was not lost! After sharing the articles I heard from a fellow Culpophile and I’m very happy to say that the vids have survived because they were saved (thanks Tatia!) and now THEY’RE BACK! And you can check them out below.
So, the last time I wrote to you, just over two years ago, I whined and cried because Robert Culp’s Saturday Night Live monologue along with the opening sketch he did with Eddie Murphy that had been available for viewing on your website had disappeared. As you may recall, we’ve had an on again, off again relationship regarding this material. But like Nancy Sinatra, who found herself another box of matches, I since found the clips on Hulu.com (which are still available) and also about a year or so ago on Yahoo Screen (also still available).
Recently, however, it looks like you’re back on my Valentine’s list NBC, as the clips are now back where they belong on your redesigned website, with what appears to be additional sketches (none with Culp) from the same episode.
So, I just wanted to say thank you for keeping this material out there via various sources. I know the internet is a fickle place, things come and go, technologies change, platforms change and all, but I appreciate that the material remains available.
I SPY, which premiered 50 years ago this week on September 15th, 1965, ran for 83 episodes and if you think it was easy compiling a Top Ten list, you’d be mistaken. Most of those 83 could probably be easily shoved into this list. My handicap in trying to come up with a list on my own is the fact that I have not seen all of season three. So I put the question out to other fans on Facebook and over at the I SPY FORUM to try to come up with The List of the 10 best I SPY episodes. These would be the ones that just stick in your mind, the ones that if you were introducing someone new to the show you would have them watch, the ones that had the best story lines, the best performances, the best use of exotic scenery, the best score by Earle Hagen – and more often than not, all of these elements would be in the same episode!
So here we go, in order of season/air date…
So Long, Patrick Henry (Season 1, Episode 1)
I SPY’s original pilot episode, “Affair in T’Sien Cha,” was already in the can, promo photos were being used by the press but NBC wasn’t happy with it. They decided not to go with “Affair” and instead, selecting from other episodes completed, they picked this one to set the tone for the series. And they couldn’t have picked a better episode. Written by series star Robert Culp, the episode features Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as a disgruntled US Olympic athlete who defected to China after the ’64 Olympics. Appearing to not be happy with his decision after a year, the US government is prepared to offer him a chance to come back and Scotty and Kelly are sent to deliver the message. The episode has a great mix of drama and comedy and overwhelmingly succeeded in starting the series off on the right foot.
Tatia (Season 1, Episode 10)
Kelly falls for a freelance photographer, Tatia Loring, who Scotty suspects is an enemy agent. Nearly everyone Tatia has ever photographed has ended up dead. Kelly’s feelings are strong and he doesn’t believe his partner – to the point they have a knock down drag out fight over it. Set in Japan, the episode showcases the Japanese scenery and backdrops beautifully and has an excellent mix of romance and angst.
The Tiger (Season 1, Episode 15)
Prior to taking the role of Kelly Robinson in I SPY, Robert Culp had written a script for a pilot for a potential spy series called “Danny Doyle.” That script was reworked and became this episode. Kelly is sent on a dangerous mission to Vietnam to locate a philanthropist doctor who has gone into hiding. The doctor’s daughter, Sam Than McLean, a US government agent herself, is captured by the enemy in order to lure the doctor out. Scotty waits in the wings to assist in picking Kelly, Sam and her father up but they are under a desperate time table – the US Airforce is set to bomb the area whether Kelly and all make it out or not.
Bet Me a Dollar (Season 1, Episode 20)
The most dangerous thing Kelly can do is get bored. And he does in this episode which prompts him to challenge Scotty to “find” him. The game would be fun, except it takes on a serious turn when Scotty finds out that the knife wound Kelly suffered prior to the challenge has exposed him to anthrax. Meanwhile, Kelly befriends a young Mexican boy who accompanies him through the “game.” Kelly, however, gets sicker as the challenge goes on but refuses to let Scotty find him and it’s up to the young boy to be Kelly’s salvation.
Vendetta (Season 2, Episode 4)
What did I say about Kelly getting bored? This time he’s hanging out by the pool of the hotel he and Scotty are staying at when he spots an attractive Italian girl. She turns out to be bait for a set up and Kelly is held against his will by the family of a man who was killed during the Korean War under Kelly’s command. Kelly is accused of having shot the man in the back and is placed on trial by the family. If convicted, his sentence is death.
Bridge of Spies (Season 2, Episode 9)
Sheesh, you’d think Kelly would be more careful of beautiful women by now but…nope! This time it’s an Italian tourist guide (Barbara Steele) who sets him up so she and an accomplice can retrieve information on other agents and take them out of circulation. Scotty and Kelly’s set ups for contact with other agents are super secretive and the loss of the agents starts to make Scotty and Kelly suspicious of each other.
Room with a Rack (Season 2, Episode 21)
Quite possibly the most disturbing opening for television at the time, we see Kelly chained to a medieval rack, stretched. Subsequent images follow, making it clear that Kelly has been tortured. We then see him in a hospital, recovering – and that’s all before the opening title sequence. He’s given a 30 day vacation but at the same time the Department thinks he’s damaged beyond repair. While on break, Kelly is happy to meet an old friend but the enemy agents who tortured him have found him too. Culp’s performance is fantastic as the nearly broken Kelly, who flinches and cowers much too easily after his ordeal and falls to his knees in tears when he’s brought back to the torture chamber for the second time.
Mainly on the Plains (Season 2, Episode 22)
Kelly befriends Don Silvando, a scientist (Boris Karloff), in Spain and with Scotty must convince him to work for the US. (The Communists are attempting the same but when their agent fails to befriend the scientist they just try to go with force). When Kelly and Scotty offer to drive with the Don to Madrid they discover that his car is full of books – hundreds of copies of all the same book, Don Quixote, in multiple languages. The Don loves the story so much, and has been under quite a bit of strain as of late, along the way to Madrid he has moments of hallucination and thinks he is Don Quixote. The Don saves a damsel in distress, battles the windmills and inadvertently releases a truck load of prisoners.
Magic Mirror (Season 2, Episode 25)
Sam McLean (seen previously in The Tiger) whom Kelly has fallen for is shown to be having an affair with a vicious dictator currently in exile. The dictator plans to return to power with help from the Soviets in exchange for allowing missiles to be based in his country. Kelly and Scotty must find out what he’s up to, stop him and if need be, destroy Sam for her traitorous ways. But is she really a traitor?
Home to Judgment (Season 3, Episode 14)
Consistently a top choice among fans as a favorite, I think I can safely assume that if any I SPY fan were to be stuck on a desert island and could only take one episode with them, this would be it. Kelly and Scotty blow an assignment and escape from the criminals they had been in pursuit of who are now in pursuit of them. The boys seek refuge on an old farm that turns out to be Kelly’s aunt and uncle, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Not wanting to bring heat down on his family, Kelly and Scotty figure to move on as quickly as possible but are caught by Kelly’s Uncle Harry as the bad guys are closing in.
It’s All Done with Mirrors (Season 1, Episode 27)
Kelly is abducted by a Russian scientist (Carroll O’Connor, totally NOT Archie Bunker here) and brainwashed into believing that Scotty is a traitor and must be killed. Kelly is controlled by light reflecting off a mirror and when he fails to kill on the first attempt, the department writes him off and wants him destroyed. Scotty doesn’t believe his partner has deliberately gone rogue and manages to finagle 48 hours to bring Kelly in or otherwise dispatch him himself.
Blackout (Season 2, Episode 24)
Kelly woos a Russian ballerina in order to try to find out who in the ballet company is passing information. He wakes up in a seedy hotel in Spain, the ballerina dead and he unable to recall what’s happened. Colonel Benkovski of the KGB gives Kelly and Scotty approximately 12 hours to figure out what happened and who killed the ballerina before taking the matter to the Spanish authorities.
Laya (Season 3, Episode 3)
A Central African country, recently independent thanks to the Communists, has been receiving arms shipments from the same. Scotty is assigned to befriend an embassy clerk who has access to the information but the assignment becomes complicated when he develops genuine feelings for the woman.
The Lotus Eater (Season 3, Episode 12)
Scotty loses contact with Kelly for 10 days eventually finding him on a Greek isle, literally enjoying wine, women and song. Kelly claims he’s quit the service, has taken up light housekeeping with a pretty Greek girl and dances at the local tavern smashing plates over his head. Scotty suspects something’s up and when he’s jumped by two thugs who work for Sorgi (Sheldon Leonard, previously seen in “Three Hours on a Sunday Night”) he has no doubt. Kelly’s dependence on Ouzo isn’t by accident.
Think there’s an episode that should have been on this list? Let me know in the comments below!
When my friend casually tweeted “What should I write about,” I spent forty five minutes trying to convince him why I Spy should be remembered in its fiftieth anniversary year. The 144 character conversation ended with him apologizing that he couldn’t because of “the Cosby thing.” And therein lays the problem. We’ve known about “the Cosby thing” since 1997, but it’s social media for better that has convicted him and for worse condemned innocents who didn’t know they danced with a demon.
Though every book of faith warns against worshipping false idols, Bill Cosby was always considered safe to worship because he was one of the “good guys.” He is an educated, self-made man, with a loving wife and family. He is also funny as all get out. I switched tenses to describe him because he is still all of those things, though now we understand he is another character played by William H Cosby, Jr.
Now we understand this man may be one of the most dangerous psychopaths we have ever known.
There is no negating what he has done. Countless women were victimized daily by him: at the time of the initial “seduction” when he got them to trust him, at the moment of the violent act, and every day thereafter when these women were denied their rightful justice because no one could believe that Alexander Scott / Fat Albert / Cliff Huxtable could do this.
Because we forget that actors are not their characters.
There is no question he needs to be punished. The Statute of Limitations must be done away with when it comes to sexual crimes, so the victims can come forward when they have made a safe place for themselves to do so. Perhaps that may be his final act for us, to be the impetus for such legislation. In the meantime, the only recompense these victims have is knowing he is guilty in the court of public opinion, and maybe in civil court. Perhaps that will help them; it will not hurt him.
Psychopaths cannot be hurt because they cannot feel.
But in the void of his lack of feeling are pawns who find their collective legacy being wiped out by his.
I Spy was one of the few correct and true things NBC has ever done. The nation needed to see in a non-proselytizing manner that all men are created equal. We were given in a weekly fifty minute non-statement, two men literally equal in size and stature sharing a meal, a room, a mirror, a bathroom. Nothing mattered as long as they got the job done and had fun. The end. This steady dose of Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott walking side by side, living life together was absorbed subliminally and obviously and hearts began to change. Self-doubt about whether it was really OK to sit next to your classmate and eat off each other’s plates, finish their drinks, go camping with them, was obliterated. Ninety episodes later Alexander Scott made it clear to young men they no longer had to fear being the nerd who had done so well scholastically because being so didn’t negate your ability to be a man. To be a good human being.
Mr. Sulu and Lt. Uhura would not have journeyed through Star Trek without Alexander Scott.
Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh would not have their Lethal Weapon without Alexander Scott.
Without I Spy and executive producer Sheldon Leonard’s desire to film the series in those exotic locations the script called for, there would have been no reason for Fouad Said an Egyptian American, to create many of the technical advances that made filming on the big and small screen much easier. Said gave us the Cinemobile, the wireless mike, among many other improved or completely new devices. Filming for TV and cinema didn’t just move forward, thousands of dollars were saved making overseas filming possible when costs would otherwise have been prohibitive.
This equipment also threatened to push out the antiquated cameras, lights, mikes, and men that had been Hollywood staples for years, and no one was happy about that. For most of the time I Spy was filmed Said could not join the unions you would have expected him to be a highly valued member of. That came only as the series was ending, as did other breakthroughs.
Robert Culp made Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck possible. Culp was one of the first actors who also wrote and directed his own material, and ticked off many suits in the business for doing so. He took the first generation of anger so the second and third generations win their Emmys and Oscars. And when Alexander Scott appeared on our television screens, the words that came out of his mouth were the best Culp could make possible. When Cosby won his Emmys, Emmys Culp was nominated for, the latter didn’t mind. It was a win for him, for the show, for humanity.
Remember and celebrate the series for what it has given us. Removing it from the airwaves, trying to wipe it from our collective consciousness, does not in any way harm a predator. We are harming ourselves because we are forgetting how we got to where we are.
I Spy didn’t gently break through glass ceilings of stereotypes. It took a jackhammer to the concrete nonsense that Hollywood created to make itself pretty and in the chaos created true beauty. Its crew did this. Its writers, directors, musicians and producers did this. Its actors and actresses did this. It did this when the country wanted to bury its collective head in the sand and pretend all was well when it knew change had to come but was too painful to look at. I Spy did all of this and can do it again if we allow it to.
One truly disturbed individual cannot be permitted to undo it.
50 years after the land mark show debuted on NBC, its legacy and impact are at risk of fading away just at a time when we need to remember it and be reminded of it more than ever.
The Legacy of “I Spy.”
“There isn’t one. It’s like we never did it.” – Robert Culp, 2007, when asked about the legacy of I Spy.
The concept hardly causes a stir nowadays. A black man and a white man paired equally as partners and working together as a team is so common place now in films and television that it doesn’t get much of a second glance. Several such partnerships are now iconic and the idea even goes all the way to White House.
But it had to start somewhere and on September 15th, 1965 it did with the premiere of a new spy series on NBC called I Spy. The spy business was everywhere in the mid-60s and was the smoking hot genre of the time. With the westerns and cowboys starting to ride off into the sunset and the success of the James Bond films (starting with Dr. No in 1963) it meant television had a new bandwagon to jump on. And it did starting with shows like Man from UNCLE in 1964.
Actor turned producer Sheldon Leonard (Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show) had a different idea in mind for a spy show. Two guys posing as international tennis star and his trainer go globetrotting over the world, defeating evil for the good ol’ US of A. Oh, and one of them is black.
It was unheard of. Putting any black actor in a lead role on television, equal to a white, playing an educated and non-subservient role was unheard of prior to I Spy. And it was born at a time when the struggle for civil rights for blacks in the US was starting to turn from a long slow simmer to a boil.
Consider: Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in June of 1963 and was initially refused entry in a hospital in Jackson, MS because of his race. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech occurred in August of ’63. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of ’63. Race riots erupted in places like Birmingham, Alabama, St. Augustine, FL, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City, prompted in part by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Dismantling of Jim Crow laws in efforts toward desegregation of schools, busing, and restaurants began. Controversial activist Malcolm X was gunned down in February of ’65. The march from Selma to Montgomery AL took place in March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in August with the Watts Riots in Los Angeles occurring just days later.
Against such a background of violence and struggle for civil rights in America, television was about to take a chance to show what equality could truly look like. The show was talked about frequently in the media for a solid year before its debut. Television observers and commentators pondered how the show would do, and how many Southern affiliates of NBC would carry it. Columnist William White proclaimed simply that “NBC has guts.”
I Spy was, to say, A Big Deal.
As the show was talked about, so was its stars. Robert Culp was already a seasoned television veteran having starred in the western series Trackdown a few years before and did notable guest spots on shows such as The Outer Limits, Rawhide, Bonanza, The Rifleman, The Virginian, The Man from UNCLE and Gunsmoke just to name a few. He had also began appearing in feature films starting in 1963 with PT 109 with Cliff Robertson and Sunday in New York with Jane Fonda.
Bill Cosby, on the other hand, had no previous acting experience at all. A stand-up comedian, Cosby began to be noticed around late 1963, after playing various clubs and venues and ending up on The Jack Paar Show and The Tonight Show in 1964. Although he was certainly not the first black entertainer to be featured on television he seemed an unlikely choice to become the first black actor to have a starring role on television.
Both performers came to the attention of Sheldon Leonard via different paths but with the same fork in the road – Carl Reiner. Culp had written a script for a pilot for a possible series, a spy themed show that he took to Reiner. Reiner was on his way out of television at the time but had passed the script along to Sheldon Leonard. Leonard liked Culp’s idea, but liked his own better and as soon as Culp heard it, he concurred. Cosby’s name was mentioned to Leonard as having some potential for a future project and then Carl Reiner, again, passed Cosby’s name to Leonard after his son, Rob Reiner, saw Cosby on the Tonight Show and mentioned it to his father.
Culp was on board to play Kelly Robinson and Leonard offered the role of Alexander Scott to Cosby. The first time Culp and Cosby met and read from the script, it went terribly. Cosby was ill at ease. But there was an immediate connection between the two men, one that would overcome Cosby’s shortcomings as an actor. Culp believed they could make it work, as did Leonard and they managed to convince NBC to carry through with the show, even after the weak “test film” episode “Affair in T’sien Cha” was screened.
Even when NBC wanted to fire Cosby because they didn’t think he was right for the show.
Even when they were afraid to lose the South in terms of viewers.
Even when they were concerned about showing a black man and a white man sharing a room and a wash basin.
It’s the nuances such as that, the scenes showing a black man and white man sharing a table in a restaurant, sharing a hotel room, sharing a bus seat, sharing a car, that we take for granted now, that formed the core of what is I Spy’s legacy. Even more than that it was true friendship and brotherhood that the two characters shared. Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott had each other’s backs and each had their own individual strengths and weaknesses, complimentary abilities that made the working partnership work.
I Spy didn’t go out of its way to draw attention to racial issues or the turmoil going on at the time. This was not to say that racial issues were ignored. There were never racist jokes or any issues of race between the two leads. But it wasn’t unusual in some episodes for the two to cross paths with someone who would say something that was of a racist nature.
For example, in the episode “Danny Was a Million Laughs,” Martin Landeau plays Danny, a mobster and total jerk of character who at one point turns to Scotty and flips him a quarter. “Here boy,” he says, “I’ll leave my shoes outside the door, you can shine them for me.” Scotty and Kelly essentially ignore this gesture but it’s clear through the episode that they have no use for Danny. Karma gets it due from Danny later in the episode.
Sometimes plots would focus on attempts to split the two partners apart, by any means necessary to undermine their equal status. In the episode “Tonia” from the second season, Leslie Uggams plays an American born black woman who grew up in Italy and has become very leftist in her views. After meeting Scotty, she says she knows what the conditions are in the United States as far as minorities are concerned and she assumes Scotty is subservient to Kelly, at one point saying to him that he “carries the White man’s rackets.” When Scotty calls her out on defining the “conditions” in the US she speaks propaganda of the “ruthless exploitation of racial minorities.” Scotty adds in the “capitalist warmongers and their Wall Street lackeys” blah blah, having heard this drivel before.
Tonia believes in the rhetoric, until later in the episode when she learns that the party wants Scotty and Kelly both destroyed because they represent “harmony, equality, racial equality. They destroy one of our most important propaganda points!” Her assignment is to set the “black man and the white man at each other’s throats.”
Seeing they operate as equals, however, she rejects the task to destroy them and unfortunately pays for her defiance. The communist leader still attempts to split Kelly and Scott apart but fails.
Unhappy with “Affair in T’sien Cha” NBC picked from the other episodes completed the Robert Culp penned “So Long Patrick Henry,” to be the episode that premiered the series. In the episode Elroy Brown, a disenfranchised black American Olympic athlete (played by Ivan Dixon), defects to China lured by the promise of cash. Although he gets more money, he’s kept on a short leash by his Chinese handlers and after a year appears disgusted with the treatment. Kelly and Scotty must make an effort to persuade him to return to the United States. Neither of them really care if Brown comes back to the US or not, since he’s basically a jerk toward both of them. He still thinks he got the better deal until Scott throws it in Brown’s face, telling him bitterly that he more or less sold himself back into slavery.
Cicely Tyson plays a supporting role as Brown’s love interest, an educated woman from Africa whose grandfather once ruled over tribal lands. At one point in the story, Brown is seen with her during a press conference, advocating for the Afro-Asian Games. He’s asked how he liked Africa. “Yeah, it’s a beautiful country, would make a nice zoo.”
He talks about a town they had visited, the capital, and she pronounces it for him (Ouagadougou, capital of modern day Burkina Faso, in western Africa). He gives a smug snort, saying “Yeah, I wouldn’t say that even if I could.”
No television show before had ever shown storylines involving black performers on this level. Brown’s indifference toward his African heritage along with being flippant and indignant toward everything else was part of the leveling of the playing field in I Spy. Blacks were now seen as good guys, bad guys and everything in between. They could now be seen as independent, educated, hopeful or pessimistic, angry or kind, ruthless or merciful. Amos n’ Andy need not apply.
At this distance in history, however, such an approach is underappreciated and often misunderstood. In his September 2014 review of Mark Whitaker’s biography of Bill Cosby, New York Times columnist Neil Drumming generalized the series as a “globetrotting fantasy that seemed to ignore the turmoil of the civil rights movement.” This is the only nod to I Spy Mr. Drumming could afford in his review of the book, instead giving more weight and importance to the show he called “the one that forever altered television,” The Cosby Show.
If The Cosby Show forever altered television, dare it be said that it was I Spy that kicked the door down first? The real irony in Mr. Drumming’s assessment is that The Cosby Show, although revered for its positive portrayal of an African-American family, was also panned by some as not being “realistic.” I Spy is revered for its positive image of a black man and white man on equal status, yet in the case of Mr. Drumming, it’s panned for being “fantasy.”
Ok, some of the storylines may have been fanciful, after all this IS television we’re talking about. But I Spy, unlike its various counterparts at the time, didn’t rely on gimmicks, trick weaponry or a Massive Evil Conglomerate Organization Bent on Taking Over the World (Megalomaniacs R Us) as it’s one and only enemy. Kelly and Scotty matched wits and outwitted standard Cold War adversaries from the Russians and the Red Chinese, but also drug lords, mobsters and a few old friends and acquaintances. When either of them were betrayed by somebody, you felt the shock and pain. When either of them were cut, they bled. They were beaten and battered and sometimes bordered on being broken. The spy business was dirty, ruthless, lonely and unforgiving. Innocents were killed while the guilty got asylum.
That’s not fantasy. That’s real.
And the relationship between the partners, equal and unprejudiced, was real. Robert Culp summed it up best in an article in Newsweek from January 1966 when he said, “We’re two guys who don’t know the difference between a colored and White. That’s doing more than 100 marches. We’re showing what it could be like if there had been no hate.”
Fifty years later, America is still wondering what it could be like if there was no hate. We’re so far removed now from the “separate but equal” status of the time, that the visuals of I Spy and of the two characters sharing a meal, a seat, or a mere space within the world, just seem normal and common to us today. What’s unsettling is that I Spy shows us how much further we still need to go and we’re not bothering to look at it now. Even sadder, the revelation of Cosby’s decades of misconduct has caused people to turn away from the show or for those who’ve never seen it to not give it a chance at all, risking it to be marginalized even further. And yet in light of the recent events, from Ferguson Missouri last August to the Emmanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston SC this past June, how are we ever to achieve the kind of equality so beautifully showcased in I Spy if we allow ourselves to dismiss it, remove it and forget it?
Just Under the Radar
Unfortunately, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of I Spy, a show deserving of a celebration, the recognition of the series has always seemed to be lacking in many respects. Robert Culp’s quote from 2007 is a brutally honest assessment of where I Spy has stood within pop culture since the series ended. Although it only ran three years, the show remains fondly remembered by fans but seems to fall just under the radar within popular nostalgia culture.
I Spy never cracked the top twenty in ratings but after the show’s end in 1968 it continued to have a decent fan base with reruns running through the 70s and into the 80s. Limited VHS releases came in the 1990s with a random selection of episodes. However, one particular release erroneously featured a photo of Culp and Cosby from their 1972 film Hickey & Boggs on the cover instead of an I Spy photo. I could say how the shortcomings of the internet back then (which just barely existed) wasn’t like the internet now and thus the people responsible for packaging couldn’t double check on the photo…but Hickey & Boggs photos have been erroneously tied to I Spy for years. Still are.
A set of DVDs was released in 2002, a somewhat odd collection that packaged various episodes together by filming location (Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, Madrid, ect). A two volume set, called “The Robert Culp Collection” was released the same year and featured all of the episodes written and/or directed by Robert Culp along with Culp providing commentaries. Complete season sets finally arrived in 2008 and included the same commentaries from Robert Culp on the episodes he penned and….that was it. No other extras. In 2014 Timeless Media, in conjunction with Shout! Factory, put out a nicely done Complete Series package but with no re-mastering of the footage and no extras or features.
By contrast the short-lived 1967-69 series “The Mothers-in-Law” has more extras and features on its complete series DVD release. What? You never heard of that show?
Prior to Bill Cosby’s rape and assault allegations snowballing in the fall of 2014, I Spy was running on various classic TV themed networks such as Retro TV, COZI TV and Magic Johnson’s network ASPIRE. Retro TV seemed to run the show consistently, while COZI TV shuffled the show around their schedule eventually dumping it in a 1am time slot. Depending on your cable provider, this prime viewing time is usually reserved for infomercials so it’s likely you’d have never seen I Spy. Even when the show ran at a more decent hour, 6pm on Friday nights, it doesn’t appear the show was ever promoted by the network. At least, I never saw a promo for it when I watched shows on COZI. ASPRIE and COZI have since dropped I Spy all together and Retro TV still has a page on their website for I Spy but do not have the show listed anywhere on their broadcast schedule. At the time of this writing, the only place you can watch I Spy either online or on television is at Hulu.com.
Most of the online DVD reviews of the box set in 2014 waxed on poetic about the chemistry between Culp and Cosby, the banter between them, the fact that much of the show as filmed on location in different parts of the world and its place in television history, but were otherwise ho hum on the content of the episodes themselves. One reviewer stated “the series is slow and plodding by today’s standards. Many of the 50-minute episodes on the DVD collection can feel excruciatingly long and sluggish.”
Considering today’s “standards” that statement is partly true. Which is a shame really. Some episodes of I Spy require the viewer to be involved with the story, something that perhaps audiences today just can’t be bothered with. They would rather have less talk and more action, explosions, gun fire, gory deaths, quick cuts, split screens, constantly moving cameras, dark and murky settings and wooden acting.
Which may explain why I Spy seems to fly under the radar as far as nostalgic pop culture. Cosby’s misdeeds certainly don’t help now either but the show doesn’t deserve to be punished further. Maybe it’s asking too much too soon but I Spy still matters. It showed us how it looks with no hate. Something we need to see more of, not less.
According to the IMDB, Robert Culp, who would have turned 85 last month (8/16), did as many TV films (35) as he did theatrical releases (34). I’m still on the hunt for many of his MOTW, but awhile back I polled fans on Facebook as to their favorites. I think I have a respectable Top Ten list of TV movies that, in many cases, are still remembered by viewers to this day.
In order of air date:
The Hanged Man (1964) – Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, The Shootist) this was the second TV movie to air and was an adaptation of the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse. Set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Culp is Harry Pace who arrives to find out why a friend was killed and finds himself embroiled in shady union politics. Edmond O’Brien is the union boss with dirty hands, Norman Fell is the cop trying to find out why Pace’s friend was murdered and Vera Miles is the love interest whose allegiance to any man is questionable. Culp’s performance is dark and brooding and through the lies and deceit, the truth he seeks turns out to be more than he bargained for.
See the Man Run (1971) – Also known as The Second Face, the suspense in this one starts from the get-go and doesn’t let up. Culp is Ben Taylor, an alcoholic out of work actor who has recently moved into a new cheapie apartment with his wife Joanne (Angie Dickinson). Their phone number, previously issued to a Dr. Thomas Spencer (Eddie Albert), is the number a couple of kidnappers dial to say they have his daughter and demand a $50,000 ransom. Culp has no chance to tell them they have the wrong number and after he calls Dr. Spencer and tries to explain what happened, the doctor thinks he is the kidnapper. Caught in the middle and egged on by his wife, Culp runs the dangerous game of go between with the doctor and the real kidnappers for the chance at $150,000. Watching Culp switch roles from cool, threatening kidnapper to trembling victim to mere actor trying keep his wits about him is enough to induce schizophrenia. Angie Dickinson is great as she gets consumed with greed and the twist ending – you’ll never see it coming.
A Cold Night’s Death (1973) – I’m including this one because it seems to be on other people’s top list but here’s the thing: I haven’t watched it yet. I got as far into it as when the helicopter pilot is showing Culp and Eli Wallach around the lab, which is located on some godforsaken frozen mountain, and he shows them the part of the lab with the big vats that hold snow to melt to use for drinking water and I had this awful vision. I won’t share it but since I live in a place that has winters that look like where this laboratory was located, I haven’t had the hot foot to go back to it.
Outrage (1973) – Apparently based on true events, Culp is Dr. Jim Kiler, a veterinarian and family man, living in a gated community somewhere in California. The spoiled rich kids in the neighborhood enjoy raising a ruckus and go hot rodding around in their cars, risking life and limb to anyone who is out on the sidewalk or in the street. Kiler petitions to have speed bumps put in the neighborhood and after becomes the target of the punks and their escalating antics. The basic story line of the gentle man pushed too far, anyone who has seen Culp in his Columbo episodes will recognize the contained simmering anger in this one that builds up to a violent and, let’s face it, satisfying vigilante outburst at the end.
Strange Homecoming (1974) – Culp plays Jack Halsey, who left his small town 18 years earlier and sends postcards back home to his brother, Bill (Glen Campbell), from all these exotic locations all over the world where he does “business.” His business, however, is that of a jewel thief and while in Hawaii Jack adds murder to his resume. On the run from the law, he returns home to the surprise of his family and old friends, who are oblivious to his true trade. Campbell, who’s also sheriff of the town, starts to become suspicious of his brother. Culp is cool yet wild eyed and creepy in this one, having an especially awkward moment involving a pair of ladies nylon stockings (causing him to flashback to the murder in Hawaii). When the brothers finally clash, only one will win and the ending may surprise you a little.
A Cry for Help (1975) – Culp channels his inner Don Imus in this one as a caustic talk radio host, Harry Freeman, who indulges in diatribes and insults his listeners for sport during the morning commute. When a young girl phones in saying she’s going to commit suicide, he blows her off, jokingly asking where she was and that he would join her. When his listeners start phoning in and taking him to point, including a psychologist, Culp scrambles to try to locate the girl via his listeners to stop her from going through with it. The best part of this is watching Culp turn from caustic to caring and seeing the humanity in the character come through…even though he masks it and denies it.
Flood! (1976) – Master of Disaster Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) brings big screen disaster to the small screen with the story of a rain swollen lake, an earthen dam that can’t hold it back much longer and the small town of Brownsville that stands to be washed away when the dam breaks. Culp is helicopter pilot Steve Brannigan who ferries high paying clients back and forth to fishing cabins at the lake. After seeing the water level at the dam, along with a fresh leak, he tells fellow pilot and friend Paul Burke (Martin Milner) who tries to get the mayor and town council to consent to opening the dam to relieve the pressure. They won’t because it will ruin the fishing, thus ruin the tourism…which apparently is more important than, say, preventing the whole town from wiped out by the flood from the busted dam, which is exactly what happens (how’s the fishing now?!). Culp assists in rescue efforts with his bird and looks really good doing it, just saying!
Spectre (1977) – Originally pitched as a pilot for a potential series created by Gene Roddenberry, Culp plays William Sebastian a renowned criminologist and dabbler in the occult. With his partner, Dr. Hamilton (Gig Young), the two are a modern day Holmes and Watson. They travel to England at the request of Anitra Cyon, who believes her brother Jeffrey has come under the influence of some kind of evil. All the Culp coolness you love is here along with a good mystery and very well done production.
Last of the Good Guys (1978) – Culp once said in an interview that the earliest incarnation of “Maxwell” was in this, where he plays a tough, calcified, by-the-book (sound familiar?) police sergeant named Nichols that oversees a misfit squad of cops (including Dennis Dugan, Ji-tu Cumbuka, James Hong and Hampton Francher). When veteran cop Frank O’Malley (Larry Hagman) dies just days from retirement, the younger cops plot to manipulate Nichols by covering for O’Malley at roll call until his retirement date, so that his widow and kids can receive his pension. Nichols catches on to the ploy and after Officer Lucas (Dugan) attempts a last minute desperate shakedown on Nichols involving a “breach of promise” with a young blind girl, it comes down to whether the tough as nails Nichols sticks with the book regarding O’Malley’s pension or not.
Killjoy (1981) – A murder mystery so damn convoluted you’re not sure who really died and who really did it until the very end. Culp is Lou Corbin, a cop and also a suspicious character in his own right, who knew the victim, Joy Morgan, and is trying to find out who killed her. A tip of the hat to Columbo with a touch of Maxwell with a bent, Corbin shows up on people’s door steps, pops in on them when they least expect it (especially when they go rummaging through the victim’s house) and essentially pesters everybody (just like Columbo!) but never lets on that he’s a cop until the end.
Houston, We’ve Got a Problem (1974) – Dramatization of the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis, only this one focused on the lives of the men who were on the ground at Houston Mission Control, having to work to figure out how to get the crippled space craft back to Earth and back to safety. Culp is Retro Officer Steve Bell, who suffers from a deteriorating heart condition that will essentially end his career if not his life before Apollo 13 makes it back to earth. Not knowing if the lunar module itself is damaged, Culp must figure a point of re-entry and calculate coordinates to bring the module safely back through Earth’s atmosphere. The other story lines run more melodramatic and the film was criticized at the time for being so (and for being overly fictionalized) but if you’re a Culp fan his performance alone is worth the watch.
The Blue Lightning (1986) – Although he opens the movie, there’s not enough of Culp in this one, plain and simple. Culp is ex-IRA bomber and cutthroat criminal Lester McInally (complete with Irish brogue) operating in the Australian outback when he goes up against private investigator Harry Wingate (Sam Elliot) who is attempting to retrieve a priceless opal from him. The film is non-stop action and only slows down enough when Elliot takes a bullet in the lung from Culp (ha!). Character development is sparse but the Australian scenery is magnificent. I would have liked to have seen a scene showing Culp overseeing his den of debauchery at McInally’s Casino, ordering thugs around and all but, alas.
Combat High (aka, Combat Academy) (1986) – Military academy version of “Police Academy” (produced by the same people) Culp is in the Commandant Lassard role here (although not as air headed), as the head of a military academy. When two punk kids (Keith Gordon, Wallace Langham) are sent to his school, they turn it and him upside down. Culp suffers the typical sophomoric indignities in this one, including the entire dining table being upended on him in the mess hall dumping just about everything all over his uniform and his office is sabotaged six ways from Sunday. A young George Clooney plays Culp’s son and there’s a subplot involving the strained father/son relationship. The film is loaded with noted guest stars including Jamie Farr (actually in a uniform as opposed to his typical “dress” on MASH), Bernie Koppell, John Ratzenburger, Richard Moll, Dick Van Patten and Sherman Hemsley.
Is there a MOTW you think should have been on this list? Let me know in the comments below!