Robert Culp, 79

Robert Culp dead; actor conveyed charm and wit on TV's 'I Spy'

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Robert Culp, a dashing actor who earned his most enduring fame for his starring role opposite Bill Cosby in the hit 1960s espionage TV series "I Spy" and as part of the swinging quartet of suburban lovers in the 1969 film comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," died March 24 at a hospital in Los Angeles after a fall near his home. He was 79.

Although he appeared on Broadway and sporadically in movies, Mr. Culp was mostly a familiar presence to several generations of TV viewers. Tall and lithe with smoothly combed black hair, he was adept at conveying charm and wit. As the years passed, he developed an appealing grumpiness on such TV series as "The Greatest American Hero," as an FBI agent, in the early 1980s and "Everybody Loves Raymond," as Ray Romano's father-in-law.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mr. Culp appeared in several Broadway productions and in early TV anthology series. Summoned to Hollywood, he proved his versatility in a supporting role in "PT 109" (1963) as Ensign George "Barney" Ross; in the romantic comedy "Sunday in New York" (1963) with Jane Fonda; and in "The Raiders" (1964) as Old West gunfighter "Wild Bill" Hickok.

In later years, his aged good looks and debonair style led to many roles as elected officials, including in "Turk 182!" (1985) as the mayor of New York and "The Pelican Brief" (1993) as the commander in chief.

Television historian Robert Thompson said Mr. Culp's greatest legacy was his co-starring role in "I Spy," which Thompson called one the "hippest TV shows to have ever aired." The espionage adventure, which was on NBC from 1965 to 1968, was groundbreaking in casting the little-known nightclub comedian Cosby. The series was one of the first to present a black male actor in a dramatic leading role.

The show, which combined dry humor and intrigue, attracted a devoted following, and Mr. Culp earned several Emmy Award nominations playing Kelly Robinson, an American spy masquerading as a world-class tennis player. Cosby, also an agent, portrayed Robinson's trainer and traveling companion Alexander Scott. In plotlines, they out-schemed foreign governments and engaged in shootouts with evil henchmen atop skyscrapers in exotic locales. Much of the filming was done on location.

When the show was recalled in later years, Cosby's historical role in the series often overshadowed the easy chemistry between Cosby and Mr. Culp, who was regarded as the finer actor.

"Bob could make mincemeat out of me in front of the camera," Cosby told the New York Times in 1965, "but he's been very unselfish, a tremendous help."

Robert Martin Culp was born Aug. 16, 1930, either in Oakland or Berkeley, Calif., according to biographical sources. He attended several colleges before entering drama school at the University of Washington.

He reportedly dropped out shortly before earning a degree to move to New York, and he soon began to win small parts on Broadway. He said his role in an off-Broadway production of "He Who Gets Slapped" earned him an acting award that led to bigger TV roles, including a starring role in CBS's western series "Trackdown," and then to film.

After the success of "I Spy," Mr. Culp was in great demand as an actor. His best leading role came in director Paul Mazursky's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," a highly popular film at the time that satirized the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Mr. Culp and Natalie Wood played California spouses Bob and Carol, whose therapy sessions at a trendy retreat lead them to embrace a wife-swapping lifestyle with their friends Ted and Alice (played by Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon).

In the 1970s, Mr. Culp, who had written several "I Spy" scripts, tried his hand at film writing and produced a documentary on the economics of black America called "Operation Breadbasket," which he sold to ABC-TV. Mr. Culp, who had grown active in civil rights causes, later admitted that his talents were better used other than writing.

"After I made it," Mr. Culp told The Washington Post in 1985, "Jesse Jackson told me I'd do the most good for the movement and for myself if I returned to my profession, so I did."

In 1972, Mr. Culp co-wrote and directed the movie thriller "Hickey & Boggs," starring Cosby and himself as downtrodden private eyes in Los Angeles. It made no impact at the box office.

Mr. Culp was married and divorced several times, including once to actress France Nuyen. Information on survivors could not be confirmed.

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