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March 29, 2010

Robert Culp, Star of I Spy and Other Series, Dies at 79

The veteran actor rose to fame opposite Bill Cosby on the popular 1960s comedic adventure series, and went on to appear in numerous other television projects over five decades.

Actor Robert Culp, who rose to fame as Bill Cosby’s counterpart on the 1960s television series I Spy and continued to on the large and small screens for more than five decades, died March 24, 2010, after collapsing outside his Hollywood home. According to news reports, Culp fell while on a walk. He was 79.

I Spy, which leavened intrigue with humor, aired from 1965 to 1968, and was the first integrated television show to feature a black actor in a starring role.

On the show, Culp played Kelly Robinson, a U.S. spy who fronted as a champion tennis player. Cosby was fellow spy Alexander Scott, whose fronted as Culp’s trainer.

Both actors earned Primetime Emmy nominations for actor in a leading role all three years of the show’s run. Although Cosby won each time, Culp never expressed anything but support of his co-star’s success.

When I Spy ended, Culp starred in his most notable feature film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, directed and co-written by Paul Mazursky. The movie dealt humorously with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Culp and Natalie Wood played Bob and Carol, a couple introduced to wife-swapping by their friends, Ted and Alice, played by Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon.

Culp’s other film roles included The Castaway Cowboy, Golden Girl and Turk 182!.

In 1994, the duo reprised their small-screen roles as Robinson and Scott in a CBS movie, I Spy Returns.

Robert Martin Culp was born August 16, 1930 in, Oakland, California. He attended College of the Pacific, Washington University in St. Louis and San Francisco State College before landing at the University of Washington drama school.

At age 21, just a semester removed shy if earning his degree, Culp moved to New York to pursue his career. He began to score parts in off-Broadway plays, including a production of He Who Gets Slapped. He earned an Obie award for his performance, after which his career took off.

Before long he relocated to Los Angeles, where he found a great deal of television work, including episodes of Kraft Television Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman and many others.

His first starring role in a television series came in 1957 with a short-lived western called Trackdown. In the 1980s, he played an FBI agent in another series, The Greatest American Hero.

In later years he appeared in numerous guest roles, including episodes of Cosby and Chicago Hope. He also had a recurring role as Patricia Heaton’s father in the popular TV comedy Everybody Loves Raymond.

In addition to his work as an actor and director, Culp wrote episodes of The Rifleman and I Spy, among others. In his later years he was reported to have been working on screenplays.

Culp was married five times, to Nancy Ashe, Elayne Wilner, France Nuyen, Sheila Sullivan and Candace Culp, to whom he was wed at the time of his death. He had four children with Ashe and one with Candace Culp.

Robert Culp had the distinction of being interviewed by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation’s Archive of American Television. On November 6, 2007, in Los Angeles, California, he was interviewed for the Archive by Stephen J. Abramson.

During the discussion, which lasted three hours, Culp talked about his childhood interests and how he aspired to be an animator for Disney when he grew up. He talked about his acting training and his move to New York City, breaking into theater and television.

He went on to explain how he was able to get work in television as an indirect result of the Hollywood Blacklist: since he was a newcomer, he had no affiliations. He talked about his early experiences in Los Angeles as a struggling actor and described his first role as a series regular on the series Trackdown, which he called a “western Dragnet.” He spoke fondly of working with Dick Powell, whose Four Star Productions produced this series.

Culp also described some of the roles he had in a variety of the popular TV genres of the day — western, detective, medical, sci-fi — including his memorable parts on the classic sci-fi anthology The Outer Limits.

He then spoke in great detail about the role and the series for which he is most closely associated: Kelly Robinson on I Spy. For this series he talked about the on-location shooting, working with co-star Bill Cosby and the controversial casting of an African-American lead, and talked about some of the episodes that he wrote as. He then spoke about two other memorable series, The Greatest American Hero and Everybody Loves Raymond.

The entire discussion is available here.

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