Robert Culp

Active - 1957 - 2015  |   Born - Aug 16, 1930 in Berkeley, California, United States  |   Died - Mar 24, 2010   |   Genres - Drama, Action, Comedy, Mystery, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Tall, straight-laced American actor Robert Culp parlayed his appearance and demeanor into a series of clean-cut character roles, often (though not always) with a humorous, mildly sarcastic edge. He was perhaps best known for three accomplishments: his turn as a Southern California documentary filmmaker who decides, along with his wife (Natalie Wood) to suddenly go counterculture with an "open marriage" in Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969); his iconic three-season role as an undercover agent in the espionage-themed series I Spy (1965-8); and his three-season run as Bill Maxwell on Stephen Cannell's superhero spoof series The Greatest American Hero (1981-3).

Born in Oakland, California in 1930, Culp attended several West Coast colleges while training for a dramatic career. At 21, he made his Broadway debut in He Who Gets Slapped. Within six years, he was starring in his own Friday night CBS Western, Trackdown (1957-9) as Hoby Gilman, an 1870s era Texas Ranger. During the two-year run of this program, Culp began writing scripts, a habit he'd carry over to other series, notably The Rifleman and Gunsmoke.

These all represented fine and noble accomplishments for a young actor, but as indicated, I Spy delivered a far greater impact to the young actor's career: it made Culp (along with his co-star, Bill Cosby) a bona fide celebrity. The men co-starred in the NBC adventure yarn as, respectively, Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, undercover agents involved in globetrotting missions for the U.S. government. Both actors brought to the program a sharp yet subtle sense of humor that (coupled with its exotic locations) made it one of the major discoveries of the 1965-6 prime-time line-up. During the second of I Spy's three seasons, Culp made his directorial debut by helming episodes of Spy; he went on to direct installments of several other TV programs. The success of Bob & Carol at the tail end of the 1960s proved that Culp could hold his own as a movie star, and he later directed and co-starred in 1972 theatrical feature Hickey and Boggs, which reunited him with Cosby, albeit to much lesser acclaim.

Unfortunately, as the years rolled on, Culp proved susceptible to the lure of parts in B-pictures, such as Sky Riders (1976), Flood! (1976) and Hot Rod (1979), though he delivered a fine portrayal in television's critically-acclaimed Roots: The Next Generations (1979). Culp rebounded further with the semicomic role of CIA chief Maxwell on American Hero, but many now-infamous behind-the-scenes issues (and external issues, such as the shooting of Ronald Reagan) beleaguered that program and ended its run after only three seasons. In the years that followed, Culp vacillated between exploitation roles, in tripe such as Big Bad Mama 2 and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, and more respectable, mainstream guest turns in television series including The Cosby Show and Murder, She Wrote. He enjoyed one of his most prestigious assignments with a supporting role in the big screen John Grisham-Alan Pakula thriller The Parallax View (1993), opposite Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

In the years that followed, Culp's on-camera presence grew less and less frequent, though he did make a cameo in the 1996 Leslie Nielsen laugher Spy Hard. Television continued to provide some of Culp's finest work: he rejoined old friend Cosby for a 1994 I Spy TV-movie reunion and made guest appearances in such series as Lonesome Dove, Law & Order and The Dead Zone.

Following a period of semi-retirement, Culp died suddenly and rather arbitrarily, when he sustained a head injury during a fall outside of his Hollywood home in March 2010. He was 79 years old.

Movie Highlights

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  • Became interested in acting as a boy and staged marionette shows before performing in community-theater productions at age 14.
  • Earned money as a teen drawing cartoons for San Francisco Bay-area newspapers and magazines.
  • Standout in track and field, specializing in the pole vault, and was offered athletic scholarships to six colleges.
  • Achieved success on the New York stage in He Who Gets Slapped and A Clearing in the Woods; performed in the first U.S. staging of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot
  • First lead role on TV came in 1957 as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman on Trackdown before his breakout success on I Spy in 1965, for which he wrote the pilot script and six other episodes.
  • Was nominated for three consecutive Emmys for I Spy, but lost each time to costar Bill Cosby.
  • Active in the civil-rights movement; produced and directed the acclaimed civil-rights documentary Operation Breadbasket.
  • Biggest film success came in 1969 with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
  • Lone film directed was 1972's Hickey & Boggs.
  • Returned to TV prominence on The Greatest American Hero in 1981 as an FBI agent helping a superhero.
  • Broadened his fan base as Ray's father-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.