Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp: August 16, 1930 - March 24, 2010

I feel like someone kicked me in gut when I glanced at the L.A. Times web page this afternoon. There they reported Robert Culp's death after a fall at his Hollywood home. I'm still having a hard time believing this. Literally, I grew up watching this actor on television and films--and in a large variety of genres. I feel like an old friend has passed away... even though I never met the man (though, I did see him once in person when he came to visit someone at the medical center where I work). If you look at his profile on the Internet Movie Database, you will see a great and varied career than spanned decades, and it's one that started just a year before I was born. Just like so many, I was first introduced to his work through his guest appearances on the seminal sci-fi TV series, The Outer Limits. It's hard not to think of those episodes right now: The Architects of Fear, Corpus Earthling, and his haunting portrayal of the character Trent in the influential Demon with a Glass Hand (written by the legendary Harlan Ellison). Yes, I Spy is where he really came into his own with his iconic pairing with Bill Cosby, but he was really all over television during that era. He had guest appearances in just about everything good in TV at the time. From Naked City to Bonanza, The Rifleman to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and from Columbo to Police Story. And that's not counting his film work. He played them all, in all types of roles, and he played them with confiction. Quoting a tweet today from my friend Naomi, she said it well about him:
I loved watching him. Not many actors can go from hero to slimeball and back so convincingly.
So true. I remember being at a neighbor's house watching television as a kid, and when Culp appeared in a show, the head of the household would recall how good he was at being the Western villain. How, "he could curl that upper lip of his in just the right kind sneer that would let you know his bad intentions." I never forgot that thought. The man just seemed to be involved in any television program that drew my interest. So much so, I think he influenced what I choose to watch, in fact. Add to this was his underrated skill at writing. His set of 7 screenplays for I Spy were unique to the program and stood out as some of the best in the entire series. Of those, The Tiger, Court of the Lion, The War Lord (where he played a dual role) and Home to Judgment happen to be personal favorites of mine. Even after I grew up, I still managed to catch this actor in a number of things where his just being in it made the program worth watching. The Greatest American Hero, The Key to Rebecca miniseries (where he played Gen. Erwin Rommel), and even The Cosby Show (where he played the character with the in-joke name of Kelly Robinson). He even directed episodes for The Greatest American Hero and I Spy. Robert Culp could do, and did, so much in a career that it's hard to grasp in this day and age. I think I could spend, and probably will, years watching his TV and movie work again on disc. I know I will miss the man when I do because we grew up together. Him on one side of the TV screen, and me on the other. So, I'll end this piece here with a reprise of a post I did from last July of his only theatrical movie he ever directed, and where he co-starred with his famous partner (Bill Cosby) in a highly underrated crime neo noir written by the great Walter Hill.

"Yeah, it's about four hundred grand."

Though I had noted it awhile back, I hadn't viewed the very underrated 1972 neo noir film, Hickey & Boggs, in a few years. Even though I have both the VHS and the horrid DVD versions of this Bill Cosby and Robert Culp movie (in nowhere near their I Spy modes), I hadn't played either in awhile. But luckily, Corey at The Drowning Machine spotted (paraphrasing) 'the paean Duane Swierczynski penned to the film at Secret Dead Blog'--I highly recommend their insights on this film. And that led to the free Fancast link for the film from a post commenter (which Corey cited, as well). So yesterday, I finally had a couple of hours to myself to watch this on my laptop via the site stream. The film, with Culp directing a Walter Hill screenplay (both excellent), gets better with each viewing. No kidding. I also pick up new items of note each time I watch it. If I can piggyback onto Duane's and Corey's stream of consciousness, I'd like to mention some of these here (spoiler warning for those of you who haven't seen this gem):

  • when the two P.I.'s get to take in a hot dog meal together, it's at the world famous (at least for us Angelenos) Pink's - and I'm pretty sure the last time I was there with the kids I did note Bill Cosby's picture up on their wall of fame (and look what I found on their web site)
  • the pint of liquor Boggs takes a periodic swig from is Dewar's White Label Scotch blend (not that I was ever a drinker of any note, but I use to be a stock person at a liquor store a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away)
  • the parking section for the setup and shoot-out at Dodger Stadium was number 32--which is an athlete number of note, especially for L.A. sports fans: Koufax, Magic, Bill Walton (UCLA), Marcus Allen (as a L.A. Raider), and the pre-notorious O.J. But, that was long ago and that parking lot has changed some--that section # no longer exists
  • the early 60's cars for each of our antihero P.I.'s are a perfect symbol for their down-on-their-luck and out-of-fashion status within the story and this genre in the 70's: Hickey's white Chevy II and Boggs' blue T-Bird (both in beat-to-hell vintage condition)
  • when Boggs seeks a replacement vehicle (and it's the exact same car), the used sales lot he buys it at is not a actual one: the filmmakers used the same Inglewood Oil Field that's been used in many a movie shoot (i.e., the Victory Motel for L.A. Confidential); even author Robert Crais used the location for the climatic shoot-out in his book, Sunset Express
  • lastly, the closing title sequence is a perfect one for this film (in the contrastingly somber tradition of film noir): after Boggs (smartly) picks up the fence's untraceable money and trudges after his partner, the camera beautifully tracks right as it follows the survivors into the background of the setting sun--while in the foreground the lens gathers in the juxtaposed deadly wreckage of the story's other principle characters, who are now strewn about the beach
I really hope one day the legal tangle that's keeping this great film from a proper DVD release gets straightened out. Film and noir fans should see it on a disc with a remastered picture and the extras it deserves. The free stream of this movie, though it has commercial breaks, is the full theatrical release and is a pretty pristine print. Playing it on full screen mode softened it only a mild bit. What's interesting is Amazon is now offering H & B on their Video on Demand service for rent or purchase. So maybe this film is starting to get the attention it warrants. Either way, I'd like to send a big thank you to Corey for sending me Duane's post and to Terrill Lee Lankford for listing the Fancast link in his keen comment.

Note: a great looking print of Hickey & Boggs is now on

Hickey & Boggs

(click to go to it)

BTW, the title of this post is a portion of dialogue - Boggs' earlier answer to his partner Hickey's lament:
It's not about anything.
Oh, yes it is, Hickey. Yes it is.

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  1. I didn't know Culp had been in Man From U.N.C.L.E. That seems so strange to me. Going to miss him, that's for sure. Even his role on Everybody Loves Raymond was masterful. He did snooty and elitist really, really well.

    Don't much care for Google Chrome. I could probably adjust to it though, if I had to. Giving Firefox another go.

  2. Yes, he did a guest stint in Man From U.N.C.L.E., like so many other
    shows he was spotted in during the 60's. Thanks for bringing up his
    recurring role in Everybody Loves Raymond. He certainly was good in
    that. And thanks again for telling me about Duane Swierczynski's post
    about the upcoming screening of Hickey & Boggs, Naomi. I sincerely
    hope a print makes its way out here. I know I a few others would love
    to watch it again in a darkened theater.
    On Mar 24, 2010, at 8:54 PM, Comments wrote:

  3. Good call, Culp was cool.


  4. You are so right, Herbc. The man was so cool. Thanks, my friend.

  5. 26, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    I also caught Robert via the wonderful Outer Limits, and admired his work through subsequent shows. A taleneted guy who will be sadly missed. Lovely tribute and review, Michael.

  6. Thank you very much, Steve, for the kind words. Last night, I screened Demon with a Glass Hand again, this time introducing it to my kids. They thought it was pretty awesome (and they'd like to watch more of THE OUTER LIMITS, too).

  7. For some reason, I'd forgotten he was on GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (they need to bring that out on DVD). This is such a heartfelt tribute. Thanks for taking the time to share with us the impact he had on your childhood and beyond.

  8. That is very kind of you to say, Elyse. You know he was married to France Nuyen at one time, right? They met on I Spy. With all due respect to William Katt, I watched GREATEST AMERICAN HERO purely for Culp and his character. He was so much fun to watch in that. Thanks very much, Elyse.

  9. No, I didn't know he was married to Nuyen! And can I say that spelling bugs me? I'm sure you've seen the very common Vietnamese last name Nguyen. She must have removed the G because people have a hard time pronouncing that NG combo, but it just looks wrong to me.

  10. She must have changed it. IMDB has her birth name listed as France Nguyen Vannga. I loved her work. She was in four episodes of I Spy:
    - An American Empress (1967)
    - Magic Mirror (1967)
    - Always Say Goodbye (1966)
    - The Tiger (1966)

    If you're interested, I have all of the seasons and I can lend. Thanks, Elyse.

  11. Thanks for that link to itunes -- the HICKEY AND BOGGS print available for download actually looks great.

  12. You're welcome. It's a good widescreen print. I picked up the 1971 western Hannie Caulder from iTunes this week at a good price, too. Thanks, Christian.

  13. You're so kind, but I have no TV right now. Still shopping...

  14. I felt sad to hear Robert Culp had died. Funny, the way he could sneer his lip was what spring to mind about him when I heard. Loved I Spy. He was on Everybody Loves Raymond playing Raymond's father-in-law and was good as ever. Plus, he looked like he never aged!
    Nice post..good stuff as always...

  15. Thank you very much for your kind words, Bev. Robert Culp was very underrated for comic delivery. His passing has sure elicited an outpouring of love and appreciation for the man.