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

12 Responses to “Culp”

  1. Bulwer-Lytton Says:

    Thank you for an extremely perceptive assessment of my personal hero, the multitalented Robert Culp. He will be greatly missed.

  2. MDH Says:

    Lovely reckoning of what it was that made Culp Culp, right down to that intimidatingly prominent noggin.

    Funny you should mention David Janssen, because he and Culp were well-matched in another way besides ’60s TV star power: They were both lousy at concealing their contempt when faced with bad writing, hammy co-stars, and — could this be partly why neither made it as an A-list leading man? — their own intellectual restlessness.

    I can’t think of a specific I Spy episode to cite, but I vividly recall a few times when Culp so clearly failed to connect with a line of dialogue (or whole script) that he abandoned the thoughtfulness you aptly describe. And because he was ordinarily such a careful actor — as well as a seasoned smartass — it came across not as mere indifference or even outright derision, but as blatant mockery that momentarily broke the spell of the show. Awwk-waard…

    (According to Marc Cushman and Linda Larosa’s generally OK history of the show, our Bob also openly balked at romancing Dolores del Rio, 25 years his senior, in the first-season episode “Return to Glory.” I watched that one not long ago, and Culp doesn’t seem especially creeped out to me. That’s acting.)

    As for Janssen, the last one and a half to two seasons of The Fugitive appear to be an exercise in excruciating tedium for the poor guy. I suppose you can’t blame him — that series had arguably exhausted its premise after a couple of years, and Janssen was apparently arm-wrestling a few personal demons at the time. But his occasionally hostile disengagement from the show is more of a drag for me than CBS Home Entertainment’s notoriously botched music replacement on their Fuge DVD releases.

    So much so that I was pleasantly shocked to remember what a subtle, giving actor Janssen could be once I started watching Harry O reruns recently. He’s as vibrant and in-the-moment as Culp, especially when playing against another worthy performer — series costars Henry Darrow and, later, Anthony Zerbe being prime examples.

    When he wasn’t, well, his lack of patience can be withering: Watch how he responds to guest-star Stephanie Powers’s momentum-killing hissy fits in “Second Sight,” an otherwise decent entry in Harry O‘s first season. It’s the kind of thing that makes me sort of glad, much as I loved the show and wish it had lasted for one more season, that it didn’t drag on until Janssen got as bored with it as he did with The Fugitive.

    These observations aren’t meant to detract from the talents of either actor. On the contrary, this prickliness is part of what made them so damned watchable even when they were phoning it in. Is it fair to say they don’t make actors like Robert Culp and David Janssen anymore? Yes, it’s fair to say that. I miss ’em.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    MDH, what you see as Culp’s occasional contempt for the material is the quality I was trying to get at. He was the original “meta” actor, commenting on the material at the same time he played it. Very few actors could pull that off without looking like jerks or idiots.

    Culp clearly didn’t bother to disguise his contempt for anything that inspired it (a quality I admire, to a large extent). In the Archive of American Television interview I linked to above, there are points where Culp seems to find a question unsatisfactory and just GLARES at the interviewer with a baleful expression. Would’ve loved to meet Culp, but glad I didn’t do that interview!

    • MDH Says:

      Good point. Even when Culp was put off by an I Spy scene he never dropped out of character, and his impatience seemed more pegged to the high standards he and Cosby had set than any sense of superiority. I guess in that regard he never truly phoned it in, as I wrote before; as an actor and a writer, he was clearly too much of a pro for that.

      Still, nobody could take the piss out of poorly conceived, nonsensical, or just plain dull material like Culp, and it’s part of what makes him (and I Spy‘s stinkers) so fascinating to watch.

  4. Yes he was a tough interview…. :)

    Like Ellison he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

    Whats remarkable to me is how he and Bill managed to breathe life into less than ok material, no matter how bad the material was, and with the I Spys not written by Culp, it got pretty bad indeed. I can’t think of a single episode where they didn’t breath some life into a scene somewhere along the way…. whether the writers wanted it or not.

    back to the tough interview…. i know my brother had his hands full for the one i posted a while back from a Hickey & Boggs night at the Aero.(who wouldn’t be!) I still chuckle/cringe when i see my poor friend, director Jeff Burr raise his hand and ask the William Butler question :)

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    David, I found that point in your Culp interview videos. Culp’s reaction (“Why?”) is hilarious, but he does finally engage with it and deliver a detailed, perceptive explanation on the problems he had in collaborating with Bill Butler (the cinematographer on “Hickey & Boggs”). Maybe Culp’s bark was worse than his bite.

    And while I’m here, I should clarify two points: (a) I’ve been told off the record that Culp did die from a heart attack, which, if true, unravels my snarky intro; and (b) I somehow dropped a sentence after the COLUMBO part that mentioned Trent, the android vessel for humanity in THE OUTER LIMITS episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” as another of Culp’s key brainiac roles. Not every actor can play a robot without looking silly.

  6. I met Culp briefly at Comic Con a couple years ago. Just ran into him and politely approached him — he didn’t know me from adam. He was very patient when I told him how much I admired his work, and then when I mentioned loving HICKEY & BOGGS, he came alive. Like I’d thrown a switch. We talked about it for five minutes, some of which was spent with mutual bemoaning of a lack of a legal DVD release.

    My actor pal Mike Cornelison worked with him on AMERICA’S GREATEST SUPERHERO. He liked Culp a lot and had been an I, SPY fan. He felt Culp’s delivery had come to be infected by Cosby’s to the point of becoming a mannerism he couldn’t drop.

  7. To me Culp’s writing is the best. His television scripts rival Rod Serling’s for the time period. My personal favorite is his very well paced “Home to Judgement” about Scott and Kelly on the run and coming across his past. It has a bit of a stretch on the set up, but the show is pure drama and well delivered.
    Martin Landau was considered a contemporary of Culp, also. Landau was in an I Spy episode – “Danny Was a Million Laughs” and his performance as a cold killer was excellent. This was a year before Landau’s being cast as Rollin Hand in “Mission Impossible.”
    The two were up for some of the same roles over the years, with Landau and then wife Barbara Bain being cast in the UK ITV production of “Space: 1999” over Culp. It would’ve been interesting to see Culp take the role as a moonbase commander. I think that show would’ve had more North American audience traction if Culp had been cast in the part.
    Culp has inspired me for a great many years.

  8. po Says:

    Culprit did not have a Hugh head.

  9. Benzadmiral Says:

    Culp is one of my heroes, both as actor and as writer. Harlan Ellison called him friend, and referred to him as a good writer; and Harlan’s standards are high indeed.

    Shelby, that “Home to Judgment” script stuck in my mind for many years. When his two-part “Rifleman” aired locally some years ago, I had no idea he’d written it, but enjoyed it, and was struck by how much the tone, the atmosphere, and to a lesser extent the plot, resembled “Home to Judgment.” I was floored when I saw his writing credit. Surely that’s a high compliment to pay any writer — that his style is immediately recognizable. Especially in a many-cooks medium like television!

    Enjoy heaven, Mr. Culp. I’m sure you’ll have many good stories to tell when we get there.

  10. RA Says:

    so having listened to the commentary, his brief mention on Nuyen came across different to your comments above… he talks about how he was due to go on a first date on a weekend where clocks changed. She had not changed her, so in her view he was 1 hour late and this (accumulated with other challenges) drove a list of issues that later surfaced when they fell out perhaps. Not sure about how he “never got over her” as it was him that divorced her…

  11. Dede Says:

    ;You didn’t read the Coroner’s report. Cause of death was the heart attack, a massive MI. That’s what caused his fall, lack of O2 to the brain. He was PRONOUNCED at the hospital , but was likely dead before he ever hit the ground. Seen it as an EMT. The size of a person’s forehead has nothing to do with their heart.

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