July 12, 2012
One of television’s busiest everyman actors for nearly fifty years, Robert Pine began his career as an early contract player for Universal’s sixties-era television factory. The same talent scouts who discovered him would go on, for better or worse, to give the world James Brolin, Susan Clark, Don Stroud, Ben Murphy, Susan Saint James, Lee Majors, Tisha Sterling, Cliff Potts, Christine Belford, and David Hartman. By that time, though, Pine had moved on to freelance success as a guest star, specializing in callow youths and finding favor in the seventies with, among others, producer Quinn Martin.
Pine landed his first regular role on a short-lived QM series, Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which turned into one of his worst professional experiences. Fortunately, a year later, he was cast against type in CHiPs, the show that would make him a semi-celebrity. Pine played Sergeant Getraer, the fearsome, no-nonsense sergeant who often had young cops Ponch and Jon (Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox) quaking in their shiny CHP boots. You’d expect to see a loud, scowling actor – someone like Jack Warden or TV’s original highway patrolman, Broderick Crawford – cast as Sgt. Getraer, but Pine, probably a more realistic choice in age and looks anyway, played it with a twinkle in his eye.
Even as his son, Chris Pine, has achieved overnight stardom as the present Captain Kirk, the elder Pine continues to work prodigiously. Just in the last few years, he has appeared on Desperate Housewives, C.S.I., Parks and Recreation, The Office (as Jim’s father), The Event, The Mentalist, Castle, Leverage, and House, M.D.; in another twenty years, he could be his generation’s Bill Erwin. Pine attributes his longevity in part to a willingness to accept small roles; I would add to that a chameleonesque quality that has kept him from ever getting typecast, and also an upbeat (and politically savvy) affability that extends to a reluctance to say anything bad about anyone he’s ever worked with. In a phone interview conducted in May, Pine steered artfully around the bad moments (and bad behavior) he observed on sets in order to share some memories about his early days in television – and, of course, about CHiPs.
You were a contract player at Universal during the period when it was the last studio large enough to actually have a pool of actors under contract.
The contract was my first job. I was so green at all this. I had been a pre-med in college, at Ohio Wesleyan, and graduated in ’63. Decided to be an actor in February of ’64, and ended up doing a scene in front of Eleanor Kilgallen, who was the representative for Universal in New York for new talent. She said, in April, would you like to go to California for a screen test? I said, well, I guess so. So I came out and did a screen test, they picked up the option, and my contract started on May 25, 1964. I drove out to California and really started my professional career under contract there.
When I first went to New York after college, Columbia had an extension thing where you could go take some college-level courses taught by their professors and get credit for it, and I did take some chemistry and calculus courses to see if I could improve some grades to get into medical school. Within three weeks I thought, ahhh, I don’t want to do this. I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I was doing it for my parents, really, not for me. I was in this apartment I shared with my old college roommate, and I said, “Jeff, what the hell am I going to do?” He said, “Why don’t you be an actor? You always enjoyed that.” And, you know, it’s like a light bulb went off in my head. I said, “Holy smoke, yeah, why don’t I do that?”
That previous summer I had been in Nantucket, where my parents had a summer home. There was a summer musical every year, and I did a nice part in it. Robert Anderson, the playwright, was a friend of my mother’s and he happened to be in Nantucket and saw me. He was the first person I called, because he had said, “If you ever want to follow that, let me know.” I had told him, “No, I’m going to be a doctor.” Well, when my friend Jeff said “why don’t you try to be an actor?” I called Bob Anderson. I think Bob probably thought, “Oh, god, why did I open my mouth?” But he said, “Okay, why don’t you come over for dinner.” He lived on Park Avenue with his wife, Teresa Wright, an Oscar winner from the early forties. A lovely lady, and Bob was a lovely person. He then, over dinner, proceeded for the next three hours to tell me what a terrible idea this was, and said, “All my friends who are actors hate it, wish they’d done [something else].” He was talking about guys like John Kerr, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden. They were in their forties, and that’s a big switch for actors, especially for John Kerr, who was a leading man. He’s getting older, he’s not working. Widmark wasn’t working. Karl Malden never stopped working, but I guess he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted and he was miserable. He said, “There’s only one actor that I know that really loves it and never has wavered, and that’s Fredric March.”
This was in November of 1963, and I said, “Well, I have to stay in school until February. I promised my dad I’d finish the semester. He’s paying for it.” Which I did, and then called Bob, and he sent me to every agent – William Morris, Ashley-Steiner, and I went with Ashley-Steiner.
Your real name is actually Granville. How did that become Robert Pine?
Granville Whitelaw Pine, yes. I’d never cared for it. The first day of school, the teachers called the list of names, “Granville Pine,” and immediately heads shot up. I never liked Granville; it was too formal and I felt like an idiot. It was my dad’s name, but I never was close with my dad. Buzz was my nickname all through school, and my oldest and closest friends still call me that.
Then when I went under contract – I guess I was twenty-two, and I looked about seventeen or eighteen – and Monique said, “Would you mind changing your name?” I said, “Fine with me.” “Why don’t you pick something,” and so I picked Robert. Not Bob, but Robert. It’s pure whitebread, but I like it. I liked something that wasn’t quite as oddball as Granville.
What was the experience of being a contract player in 1964 like?
At that particular time, they didn’t have classes or schools. You were just under contract. It wasn’t like the old days, and I know later on, after I was there, a guy named Vincent Chase had an acting class there. But I did get acting lessons with Jeff Corey, who was a wonderful teacher, who taught Jack Nicholson and other notable people. I took singing lessons. I took horseback riding lessons, because westerns were big, which was one of the better moves that I ever made. Then I would go out, because they didn’t place you – you still had to go out and audition with people on the lot. Then I started getting some work. And it worked for about three years for me, but I wasn’t – the way you add value to the studio is, if you were able to get into a series there, or they loaned you out to other studios who wanted your services, and made money on your contract. They were paying us very little, of course, and would loan you out for more. I just hadn’t done enough to be of any interest to anybody but Universal, so that lasted three years until ’67. Then I was out in the cool world.
Did you have an advantage over freelance actors in terms of getting work at Universal?
Yeah, I think I did. There was a woman there who was Eleanor Kilgallen’s sort of counterpart out here, Monique James. She acted like your agent on the lot. She would work very hard, show film to them if you managed to get any. In those days there weren’t tapes or discs; they would actually get a screening room and screen some film that I’d done in another show or something to interest whatever show you were being pitched to.
Monique James’s name comes up in many, many actors’ tales of how they got started.
She was a wonderful lady, a short little woman, but very formidable, and would take care of her “darlings,” as she would call some of us. Very Hollywood. She was the daughter of an editor of the New York Times. She was a terrific lady and I liked her a lot, as I did Eleanor. And Eleanor is still with us, at age 94, and I still keep in contact with her.
Your television debut was a segment of Kraft Suspense Theatre called “A Lion Amongst Men.”
With Jimmy Whitmore and Tommy Sands, who was a big singer back in the day. I remember getting the script and reading it and thinking, “Gosh, this is a terrible script.” Well, it turned out to be a wonderful show. It was just my inexperience at reading a teleplay. There were a lot of flashbacks, which I didn’t understand, reading it on the page.
I’m not sure any of them count as classics, but the features you made during those three years are pretty diverse: an Audie Murphy western (Gunpoint), a spinoff of The Munsters, a beach party movie (Out of Sight), a war movie based on a Richard Matheson novel (The Young Warriors), and a Civil War movie (Journey to Shiloh) that also starred James Caan, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, and an uncredited John Rubinstein, whose big scene was with you.
Gunpoint was my first feature. We went to St. George, Utah. Morgan Woodward was Drago, the head of our bad guy gang – I loved that name. I ended up doing a number of shows with Morgan, who was a wonderful guy. I did a Gunsmoke of his called “Lyle’s Kid,” in which he played my pa. I was at that age – for about ten years I had a lot of “pas.” I did another Gunsmoke with Jeff Corey, and I think he was my pa. Will Geer, he was my pa in a Bonanza.
Did you get to know Audie Murphy at all?
He was a hard guy to know, because he was very protected. From what I understand he slept with a gun under his pillow. Loved to do practical jokes. He had this long, five-foot pole with a string on it, with a fake spider on the end of it, and he’d go around and very quietly put it on somebody’s shoulder and scare the crap out of them. Not unpleasant in any way, but just sort of kept to himself. Joked around with the stunt guys a lot.
Munster, Go Home was great fun. I went in on an interview for that, and Monique said, “Use an English accent. Go in there as if you’re English.” So I did, and they cast me, thinking I was in English. I loved that. Terry-Thomas was in that, and Hermione Gingold. Most of my stuff was with the young woman, Debbie Watson.
Both of those were directed by Earl Bellamy.
“No Sweat” Bellamy. When you’d blow a line, he’d say “No sweat. No sweat, let’s take it again.” Earl was a good guy. He was a very workmanlike director.
You worked with some interesting directors at Universal. Jack Smight, whose films have a bit of a cult following, directed “A Lion Amongst Us.”
He was telling me on the set that he really liked Rabbit, Run, by John Updike. He said he’d bought the rights, and I immediately ran out and read it, to see if there was anything in it for me [that is, a role that he could play]. I didn’t really understand it all that much; I don’t even know whether I finished it. But I didn’t think there was anything in it for me.
And you did a Run For Your Life with Stuart Rosenberg, just before he made Cool Hand Luke.
“The Cruel Fountain.” I had a southern accent in that. My first big guest-starring role. And he came by and paid me a very nice compliment, saying he thought I was a very good actor. That meant a lot to me. Because at the time I came out here, I was really acting off the seat of my pants. I’d done a few plays in high school and in college I did about three plays, but they were smaller parts. So I really had to figure this out when I was out here. I always felt that pretty soon the Talent Police were going to come by and tap me on the shoulder and say, “What the hell are you doing here? Get out of town.”
Robert Pine at Universal: Kraft Suspense Theatre (“A Lion Amongst Men,” 1964, with Peter Duryea and Michael Bregan); The Virginian (“Dangerous Road,” 1965); Run For Your Life (“The Cruel Fountain,” 1966).
You were a guest star on The Lucy Show.
She was great. I was about twenty-six, playing seventeen. Lucy took a real liking to me and said, “You know, I’m about to do a movie with Henry Fonda, Yours, Mine, and Ours. I want to take you over to the Paramount lot and see the director of that. I want him to see you to play my oldest son.” So she took me by the hand over there to meet Mel Shavelson. I was too old for it. The guy who ended up playing it was [Tim Matheson]. He was a little bit younger than I was, and was certainly a better fit. But she was very nice to me. I remember on the set, when Desi [Jr.] called up wanting something, and she was saying, “Desi, I want you to be home now. No, no, no. You’re not to go out. You’re home tonight.” I mean, being a real mother, laying the law down.
I also worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., on a couple of shows. I did a Danny Thomas Hour, which was an anthology show, and of all things, a Charlie’s Angels, which we did at his [Davis’s] house. I remember going into his house and there was a couch there, about twelve feet long and then ten feet long in the other direction, all in Gucci leather with little G’s.
Was there a particular role on television that elevated you from supporting parts to leads?
Yeah, that Gunsmoke with Morgan Woodward. The part was first offered to Beau Bridges, but he had just got a movie. He decided he wasn’t doing television any more. So I got his part, and I got some good attention from that.
During the seventies you became one of the rotating clean-cut young men that Quinn Martin favored to guest-star on his series.
The great thing about Quinn Martin, he had a lot of shows on the air and once you’d done something for him, you never had to go in and read. Your agent’d call to say, “They have a part on so-and-so. It’s worth this much. Do you want to do it?” And, you could work every year, not like today, where in a series like House, if you’ve done one House you [can’t] work that show again for the eight years it’s on. Cannon, I’d do every year. You could do one every year.
I did an NCIS the first year – they called and said, “Would you do us a favor? A guy dropped out, it’s a very small part.” I said sure, and because of that I’ve never been able to work that show again, and that’s been on a long time.
Did you get to know Quinn Martin at all?
No. I don’t think I ever even met him, and I did a series for him!
That was Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which ran for half a season in 1976.
It was a spinoff of Streets of San Francisco, with Paul Sorvino and [Dennis Patrick] as the captain. We did it in San Francisco and I lived up there for six months. It was a tough shoot. What I’d rather you say with this is that the less said about that show the better, and leave it at that.
How did you come to be cast on CHiPs?
Rick Rosner, who created it, had seen a pilot I did called Incident on a Dark Street, which didn’t sell. David Canary and another actor who was new at the time and I would have been the regulars. It was in 1974, I believe, and it was about the attorney general’s office, and 1974 was the year that John Mitchell, the attorney general, was sent to jail or whatever because of Watergate. So they weren’t buying anything about the attorney general’s office. Too bad, because it was a good pilot.
Anyway, he had me in to read for the part, and I told my agent, “This isn’t gonna go. There have been so many cop shows.” And I said that to Rosner when he cast me in it, and he said, “This gonna go. This is gonna go.” “Well, okay, man.” Of course, he was right and it went, much to my surprise, for six years.
Had you played many parts like that before?
No, not really. It was different, because I was only thirty-six when we did it, and very rarely would somebody at that age be [cast as] the head of something like that, or the boss. But, the Highway Patrol being what it is, there are indeed many sergeants who are thirty-six. So it worked out well. I was a little disappointed when we started, because I was hoping for something where I would be more the lead, or one of the central figures in it. Even though I was one of the central figures, I really wasn’t. There were two guys and then you’d go down a little bit and there was me, and then you’d go down some more and [there were] the other guys. But after a year or so, I was fully on board, appreciated it, and realized any job is hard to come by in this business.
Your scenes with Ponch and Jon were often played for comedy. You had a really nice slow burn whenever they tried to explain how they wrecked their bikes or got into some other kind of trouble.
I think it was a nice blend. I did get to have a sense of humor in it, and even though it wasn’t a comedy, there were comic parts in it. You didn’t want somebody who was too hard in it.
I did tell Rosner, I said, “If you could do me just one thing. I understand my position in this show, but when I’m in a scene, I’m in it. I don’t want to be in the background saying yes or no while these two guys do their thing.” He was very good about that, and then Cy Chermak, who really – after the first thirteen episodes, Rick Rosner was gone, and then there was Cy – they took care of me very well.
You’ve said that you liked your scenes with Ponch and Jon, but not the expository scenes at the beginning of each episode.
I didn’t like the expository stuff, because it’s hard. Everything they couldn’t show out on the highway, they’d have me tell at the podium. And it just goes on and on. It’s a challenge to memorize it. But, listen, they paid me well to do it, and here we are thirty-five years later talking about it, so I have little to complain about.
Tell me what happened when Rick Rosner left and Cy Chermak came in.
A somewhat more serious tone came to it. There was less of the comedy for comedy’s sake. But I think the big reason was, we were going over budget. I think this was the first dramatic TV series that Rick had produced. He’d produced game shows and talk shows before that, and he certainly was a good idea man. But Cy Chermak was an old hand; I remember him when I was at Universal.
You had done some of his shows there – Convoy and The Virginian.
He was a very good on-hand producer. We never went over budget after that. Never took more than seven days to do it, never ran over, which is quite a feat. In each episode we had a combination of three big events – either two chases and a crash, or two crashes and a chase, which takes a lot of time to do. Which means when you do get on camera and people are talking, you’ve gotta do a lot of pages. And we did. We had a great crew, who were very fast. And it’s to Cy’s credit that he did that.
And Cy protected your character as much as Rosner had.
He did, and I’d get maybe one or two storylines a year that were more about me. Actually, he’s the one who cast my wife, Gwynne [Gilford], as my pretend wife on CHiPs. There were only six episodes that she was in but when it came to casting her, I said, “I’d really like it if you’d cast Gwynne,” because she was a very accomplished actress at that point. She left the business when she was about thirty-five, but she had two series on the air that had short lives – one with Joe Namath, and then one with Eileen Brennan called A New Kind of Family.
There’s an episode in the year 1980, where she was pregnant with our son Chris, and I said, “You know, you gotta write a storyline about this. This just begs for it.” And of course we’re getting up to the ninth month, and preparing to do this episode, and then there’s a strike and Gwynne has Chris, and we come back and do it later and she’s gotta use a pillow.
So Chris just missed making his television debut on CHiPs. Speaking of children: I have to ask about Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, who made headlines for their ongoing feud throughout the run of CHiPs.
I observed some of it. I’m reluctant to really – this is a family. There arguments and stuff in families. That happens. There was some discontent, and it was a shame. But that’s the way it goes. I try not to take sides in it, because that doesn’t get you anywhere. On the whole, we had a wonderful cast, a wonderful crew, and it was fun going to work. Every show, while Cy was there, got done on time, that tells you right there that people came in and did their work. There were days when things got a little messy, but that’ll happen when two young guys are finding their way. They’re stars, and getting adjusted to that, and getting egos adjusted takes time. There’s a maturation period there.
So would you say it got better as it went along?
Uh … I don’t know about that.
Which of the regular CHiPs directors do you remember?
John Florea was a World War II photographer, and actually he helped me a great deal when I directed two episodes. He was a sweetheart. There was an Englishman, Gordon Hessler, who I also worked on Quinn Martin stuff with. He was a good guy, a little bit persnickety. Les Martinson, he was a piece of work; he was a funny guy, but also good. Phil Bondelli. All different guys but, you know, you only worked our show a number of times if we all liked you. The other ones didn’t last, for whatever reason. So all those guys who were mentioned a number of times were all fun guys.
Occasionally your character got to leave the station and join Ponch and Jon on motorcycle patrol.
About every three episodes they screwed up their courage and put me on a bike. Before the pilot, on a Sunday, they took us to the old MGM lot, which is now the Sony lot, and we practiced the bikes, going through the streets of the backlot. I remember going up one street where it came to a T, and you would go either right or left. On most bikes, if you let go, the throttle goes off, just as if you would press a pedal and take your foot off it. Well, on a police bike, if you were going 60 and took your hand off, it stayed at 60. You had to turn it down. So I’m coming to the wall there and had to make a choice, and I panicked and instead of deaccelerating I accelerated, right into the wall. My pride was hurt more than anything else, but people never forgot that.
The only other time I had a thing was, I had to turn onto a dirt road, and the camera was way back and I thought I would goose it a little bit. I goosed it a little bit too hard, and it swerved in the back and it went down, going about thirty miles an hour. But I did a handstand on the handlebars, because I did not want my legs underneath that thing, and the only thing that got hurt was my pinky. They gave me a wide swath when I was coming near the camera.
Do you have any favorite TV roles that we haven’t covered?
The Bob Newhart Show. Parks and Recreation, I enjoyed a lot –
Both comedies, of which you haven’t done that many. You’re a frustrated comedian at heart!
Yeah, I am. Nobody sees me in comedy, and I always thought that that’s probably where I would make my bones. I mean, my dream job would be working at CBS Radford, which is very close to my house, and playing a deaf-mute, a lovable old guy so they can’t fire me, and never have to memorize any lines. And walk to work. That’d be great. I think I deserve it now.
Along with many of the other principal cast members, Robert Pine will be a guest at the CHiPs 35th Anniversary Reunion, on September 15 in Los Angeles. Correction, 7/20/12: Mr. Pine pointed out, via e-mail, that each CHiPs episode was typically filmed in seven days. The original version of this piece gave the number as six days.
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.
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 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