Just over a year ago, on March 10, 2010, actor Robert Culp passed away after a fall outside Runyon Canyon Park. He was 79 years old.
Culp's death was one of those gut-punch news moments. Though he was no longer a prominent part of the cinematic or television landscape, and was at an age where news like this was to be expected, it seemed unreal. We were used to the actor always being there -- not as an imposing, larger-than-life celebrity, but as the subtly magnetic, distinctively voiced uncle you take for granted and always count on. Boasting a career spanning 57 years, and ending only with his death, it seemed like he could never leave.
Though he didn't make a distinct name for himself until 1965, Culp's career began with television back in 1953, delving into the death of Socrates. Only a handful of years later, his career as a life-long law man began, playing Hoby Gilman in Sam Peckinpah's television series, 'Trackdown.'
He played the law role more straight-faced and serious back then, but that work led Culp to bring the character to 'Zane Grey Theater,' and after more Western gigs and bit parts his break-out role as Kelly Robinson in 'I Spy.' The ground-breaking show ripped Bill Cosby out of the comedy circuit and made history -- it was the first American TV show to feature a black actor, made Cosby the first black man to win a Lead Actor Emmy (he earned three back-to-back) and brought Cosby leading fame. And Culp was the charismatically silent support.
It wasn't a breakout in the traditional sense, a show leading the actor to a myriad of leading roles and lasting fame. Instead, the '60s series solidified him with a life just out of the spotlight. He was the appreciated, but under-recognized backbone, something that would follow Culp through the rest of his career.
Normal for today's times but pretty rare back then, Culp had begun writing some of his own work right in the beginning with 'Trackdown,' and he earned himself an Emmy nomination for his pen work on 'I Spy' (not to mention the three consecutive acting nominations he lost to Cosby).
A few years after the end of the popular series, he even tried his hand at directing cinematic features, grabbing Cosby for a more serious bite of crime -- 'Hickey & Boggs.' As Shadow and Act explains, the film "was barely released or even noticed when it came out in 1972. Since then however, it's grown in stature and now hailed as something of a lost gem of a film that deserves to be rediscovered." (And luckily that same piece notes that it will play through April on MGM HD movie channel.)
As the support -- of the law and his fellow actors -- Culp indelibly impacted the form from 'I Spy' to the '80s wonder of 'The Greatest American Hero.' Ah, Bill Maxwell, the short-tempered and snarky FBI agent who turned a ridiculous idea into a belovedly goofy series with actual heart. Culp's big screen work wasn't much different, whether he played the corrupt mayor taken down by Timothy Hutton and Kim Cattrall in 'Turk 182!' or the president in 'The Pelican Brief.'
Even his biggest cinematic achievement -- the four-time Oscar nominated Paul Mazursky film 'Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice' -- followed suit. Though it did, for an all-too-brief moment, allow Culp to play a character outside his usual wheelhouse (filmmaker Bob Sanders), it was yet another piece of great, leading support that ushered his fame to his co-stars (both Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon were awarded Oscar nominations for their work). Nevertheless, Culp's performance imbued the free-love-living filmmaker with more than just ridiculous '60s pulp. Bob easily flew from serious to ridiculous, from swingingly hip man to insecure husband to knowledgeable man.
In speaking about his recently deceased friend, Bill Cosby said: "His contribution in 'I Spy' was very valuable -- in terms of civil rights, in terms of this country, the United States of America. He played a wonderful part, and never asked a question." Perhaps it was this heart that made Culp's impact so notable for his fans -- there was never a sense of overtaking his co-stars, though he certainly had the charisma to follow through.
Instead, Culp was simply the un-crowned king of the sarcastically smart bravado -- something a certain Eddie Murphy could never dream of imbuing. Though he's no longer around, and never a truly celebrated leading man of the big screen, he can be seen everywhere -- in every aggravated law man Hollywood throws at us, every older man snarking over the annoyingly young new blood.
With 163 projects and almost as many characters on his resume, Robert Culp carved a place into our hearts, and he is deeply missed.