April 12, 2010
Robert Culp had a huge head, and it killed him.
Culp died last month, on March 24, after a fall outside his home. Apparently he had a heart attack, but the blow to the head was the actual cause of death. The news gave me a chill, because Culp’s big head was what I always thought of first when I thought of him.
I know that sounds morbid, sensational. But seriously – wasn’t Culp’s massive forehead, towering as it did over his narrow jaw, his beady eyes, wasn’t that his defining physical characteristic as an actor? Because most of his characters had a big head too, in that other sense. They were brainy, smarter than the rest of us, and arrogant enough to let everybody know it. After all, Culp was the greatest of the “supervillain” killers who faced off against Peter Falk’s Columbo – only four times, but so memorably that you might have sworn it was once every season.
Culp could “act” in a conventional sense, and very skillfully. (Take a look at his first Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” where his character’s transformation into a monster gives Culp an excuse to play all his lines against a subtext of suppressed physical pain.) But Culp, who was second only to David Janssen as the definitive TV star of the sixties, fascinated me because he developed an intellectual approach to acting that I think was new, and influential. By the time of I Spy, Culp always made you notice that he was thinking – instead of just playing the material, he seemed to be commenting on it at the same time, telegraphing just what he thought about whatever he was saying with a pause, a twinkle in his eye, or a sly mocking intonation in his dry voice. “Just think the thought – the rest will follow,” was Culp’s only acting advice to his I Spy co-star, Bill Cosby.
It may have begun as too-cool-for-the-room attitudinizing, but Culp found a way to build his distance from the material into his acting in a way that was seamless, and exciting. Unlike most TV people, but like most of us in the real world, Culp’s characters considered their words as they spoke. They slowed down as they formulated a thought; underscored a remark with a note of sarcasm or doubt; interjected a chuckle at something that came out sounding silly.
That was Culp’s breakthrough. It sounds sterile: almost always when an actor’s technique becomes visible, it’s considered a fatal error. But as Culp illustrated the thinking process in his performance, every line he uttered seemed fresh, improvised; you felt like you were watching him think up that line on the spot, in response to whatever else was going on, instead of simply waiting for his cue and spitting out something he’d memorized. You could see the wheels turning, and that made every moment alive when Culp was on-screen. The spontaneity that grew out of Culp’s innovative approach was what made possible his legendary repartee with Cosby possible, and that semi-improvised, cadenced, clever patter was what elevated I Spy above all the other sixties spy shows.
“We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times.
That language lent emotional meaning to the friendship between Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in an economical way that kept the writers from having to bring it to the surface and play it as conventional melodrama. And it planted their escapades in the real world, unlike all their competition in espionage fantasy-land. Kelly and Scott may have been shooting it out with bad guys in the Greek isles or the Mexican jungle, but they chatted and joked like normal people. (Smart normal people, but still.)
A few of Culp’s contemporaries flirted with the same kind of distanciation in their technique: William Shatner (before the ham set in), rival spies Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, Robert Lansing, George Peppard, Roy Thinnes, Robert Forster. Cosby’s distinctive delivery in his comedy series drew upon rhythms he picked up from his co-star on I Spy. But none of them did it as well as Culp. And, although Culp’s style was too personal and too extreme to ever be codified or taught in an acting school, I believe that a subsequent generation of TV stars picked up on it. James Spader, David Duchovny, William Peterson, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Steve Harris (of The Practice), Jay Karnes (of The Shield), Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck), George Clooney during his ER / Fail Safe period, all have something of that self-reflexive quality, that perceptible duality of actor and character. All of them were kids when Culp was doing I Spy, and I can imagine them lying on the floor in front of their sets, making mental notes.
(Another way of looking at it: Culpspeak as an ancestor of Mametspeak.)
Over the last decade I’ve made a close study of early television writers and Culp was one of them, marginally. He wrote for himself as an actor, first on shows he’d guest-starred on (Cain’s Hundred and The Rifleman, the latter a two-parter that became the only show he wrote but didn’t play in) and then seven episodes of I Spy, one of which he also directed. All of them were brilliant except one (Culp overreached with “The War Lord,” setting himself up in an embarrassing dual role as a Chinese villain), which may give Culp the highest batting average in the history of television writing. Not hard to do when you have a lucrative day-job on camera, you might argue, but there were other TV stars who wrote or directed for their own series and most of the time vanity outshone talent.
If you haven’t already, you must procure the DVD audio commentaries that Culp recorded for all the I Spy episodes he wrote. They’re not actually commentaries, just wide-ranging monologues on his whole history with the show that made him a household name. They, and to a lesser extent the Archive of American Television’s oral history with Culp, are far more insightful and revealing than anything the media consumer usually gets from a star. Culp names names, brings up old grudges, talks about his ex-wife France Nuyen (who guest-starred in Culp’s I Spy script “The Tiger,” and married him shortly afterward) in a raw way that makes it clear he never got over her, never forgave her for some unspecified betrayal. He shows off the ego that curtailed his career and the brilliance that scared collaborators away. He proves what you guessed from watching him act: that he was way ahead of the rest of us, all the way.
“The War Lord”: Makeup by John Chambers