Actor Robert Culp, best known for co-starring with Bill Cosby in the ground-breaking television series “I Spy” during the 1960s, died of a heart attack outside his home in Los Angeles last Wednesday. He was 79 at the time of his passing on March 24.
“I Spy” was a groundbreaking first for TV, teaming Culp and Cosby as two buddies that traveled the world as spies – but posing as tournament tennis competitors. The first of many TV and movie interracial pairings, such as “Miami Vice” and many cops and robbers “buddy movies,” “I Spy” began during a period when racial equality was still just a dream and real racial and sexual diversity on TV was still at least fifteen years away. Black faces on TV were still very much a rarity in the mid to late 1960s.
In later years, Culp played presidents, cops, senators, devious businessmen, occasional villains, and more recently, a repeating role as Ray Romano’s father-in-law in the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“I Spy” came along when fictional secret agents were very popular on both big and small screens, riding on the success of the James Bond movies starring Sean Connery and TV’s “Secret Agent,” Patrick McGoohan. Culp and Cosby played their roles with humor and occasional horseplay, rather than the brutality and violence that were central to the themes of their competitors.
Robert Culp on his relationship with Bill Cosby…
After “I Spy” ended, Culp took a starring role with Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in the groundbreaking movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” At the time quite daring and risqué, “B&C&T&A” explored the rather taboo subject (even for the late 1960s) of group sex and wife swapping.
In 1968, I was working for Pacific Telephone Company in Hollywood. After two years of working in the field as a telephone installer/repairman, I accepted a job as a “line assigner” – a somewhat advanced clerical and technical position. My office was on the second floor of the Hollywood Exchange Central Office at 1429 N. Gower Street. The building sat a half block south of Sunset Boulevard and less than a half mile from the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine.
Directly across the street from my office, at 1438 N. Gower, was the Columbia Studios movie lot (now known as “Capital Studios at Sunset-Gower”). Even with a studio right next door, we rarely saw movie stars out on the street, most of them preferring to stay behind the 25-foot high walls that surrounded the studio lot. Occasionally I’d see Henry Fonda drive by in his Mustang or catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Montgomery grabbing a quick sandwich at the little coffee shop down near the corner.
In those days I knew what it was like being poor – really, really poor. I was trying to support my wife and three babies on something less than $3.00 per hour. The only place we could afford to live in was a horrible little house near First Street and Western Avenue, where for $75 per month rent we got a roof over our heads and the company of rats and cockroaches.
Our main transportation at the time was an old 1952 Cadillac that I’d bought for $100. It was nasty – really nasty. The headliner and door panels were ripped and badly stained. We had to put blankets over the seats just to keep the stuffing in and to prevent the springs from scratching our asses.
I started riding a bicycle to work several days a week to save on gas and to avoid rush hour accidents. We had no car insurance; we simply could not afford to pay Allstate and buy food out of the same paycheck. On days when my wife drove the car to do errands, she would sometimes drive to the office to pick me up at the end of my shift.
One evening at quitting time, she parked across the street and waited for me to come out the door. My two older daughters were sitting in the back seat; she was holding the baby. As luck would have it, I was forced to stay for about thirty minutes of overtime, making her wait for what surely seemed an eternity. By the time I got out the door, after work traffic filled the entire length of Gower Street in both directions.
I ran out the front door and across the street, working my way between cars that were waiting for the light at Sunset to change. I jumped in on the driver’s side, gave everyone a kiss, and turned the key. Nothing happened and I knew immediately what was wrong. I knew how to fix it, but getting the car started would be a two-person job. My wife couldn’t help because she had her hands full of crying baby, plus two very hungry little girls in the back seat whining because they were hungry and tired.
I got out of the car and lifted the hood. I looked at the voltage regulator and saw that a ground wire had pulled loose from the firewall. I just needed to jiggle the wire a few times to make contact until the car started and then we could drive away. Even if the wire came loose later, everything would be OK after the engine started. As long as I could keep my foot on the gas and the generator spinning, the car would run and get us home.
With my head under the hood, I tried to find a way to wrap the wire around a bolt or screw in the firewall. I was having no luck at all.
“Can I help you?” I lifted up and turned around. A very tall and slender fellow was standing behind me dressed in a crisp white shirt and light tan pants. His face had a soft orange tint, probably residue from movie makeup. I immediately realized that it was Robert Culp standing there. The “I Spy” guy was offering to get his hands dirty on our behalf.
“Well, well, yes you can – I guess.” I explained the problem and how the fix would work. I offered to let him sit inside the car to turn the key and step on the gas. However, I think that the three crying babies and the old army blankets covering the seats scared him off, leading to his decision to remain on the outside of our car.
“No. Why don’t you show me what you need me to do under the hood? Then you get in and start the car.”
“That would be very nice of you, but I don’t want you to get dirty.”
He smiled back at me and quipped, “It won’t hurt me to get a little dirty. Might even help my image a bit.”
Sure enough, he grabbed the wire, held it up against the firewall, holding it in place even as it sparked away every time I turned the key and cranked the starter. After a half dozen tries, the wire finally made a decent connection and the old Caddie fired up, rumbling back to life.
Culp went around, dropped the hood, checked it to be sure it was latched, and then came around to my wife’s window. “Need anything else?”
My wife offered him a diaper to wipe his hands, but he deferred. I could see visible streaks of grease on his shirt sleeve and right above his belt, from leaning across the fender and into the engine compartment. My wife made a feeble attempt to offer to pay to have his shirt cleaned. “No mam. Thank you anyway. I’ll take care of it. You folks have a nice evening, OK?”
With that, Robert Culp, big time movie and TV star, stepped away and continued his walk, somewhat worse for wear, south on Gower Street.
To everyone else looking on as we drove away in our rust-bucket Cadillac, I’m sure the man we left standing there just looked like any other 38-year old man with a few premature gray streaks in his hair and grease on his shirt. To us, he looked like an angel – an angel that came to our aid at exactly the right time. It was if heaven sent him to us at the very moment we were most desperate.
When we got home, we talked about what had happened. Checking our pockets, we realized that between the two of us we had less than two dollars, not nearly enough for cab or bus fare to get us home that night. If I hadn’t been able to get the car started, we would have had to walk home, about five miles, carrying two babies. Our 4-year old would have had to walk the entire distance on her own.
“You know who that was, don’t you?” I asked my wife.
“No. I have no idea.”
“You’re kidding. That was Robert Culp!”
“Who’s Robert Culp?” she asked.
“You know – the ‘I Spy’ guy. He’s married to France Nuyen.”
For some reason, until I finally told her that he was on the TV show with Bill Cosby, she simply didn’t seem to know who he was. We didn’t watch the show. We rarely watched Johnny Carson – because it was on just too late at night. Culp and Cosby were on the Tonight Show often in those days, but we missed them because we weren’t watching.
Finally, it dawned on my wife what had just happened to us. “We were just helped by a TV star! Good God.” It wasn’t just any run of the mill TV star either, but one of the biggest at the time.
I’m sure it was no big deal for Mr. Culp. He probably never gave it a second thought, just doing what any other Good Samaritan would have done in those same circumstances.
Later, I found out that on the day of our encounter, he had been on the Columbia lot making “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” After the movie was released in late 1969 it was quite successful – and in 1970 was nominated for four Academy Awards.
Years later I saw Culp play three excellent villains on “Columbo.” During the 1970s it seemed like he was showing up on TV several times a week, almost to the point of over-exposure.
I’ve told this story several times to friends and family whenever I’d reminisce about my old telephone company days. More often than not I’d get a blank stare when I would mention Culp. “Who was that? What was he in?”
Robert Culp may have faded from the collective memory of 21st Century movie goers and TV watchers. But not from mine. Never. I’ll never forget his random act of kindness to me and my family that late evening. I hope my readers won’t forget it either.
During my career with the telephone company I came in contact with many movie actors and TV personalities. A few were cordial, but many were demanding, argumentative, and unpleasant. Some wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence, letting their maid or other employee deal with me. I have many stories I could share about my encounters with the rich and famous, but very few of those tales of the Hollywood Hills would be complimentary. There is one very significant exception: Robert Culp.
May you rest in peace, Bob. Your small act of kindness that one evening forty-two years ago made a lifetime impression on one of your fans. You will always be an “action hero” to me – remembered and appreciated.