The obituaries are pouring in for actor Robert Culp, who died yesterday after taking a fall near his Los Angeles home at age 79.
They all seem to be focusing on his role of Kelly Robinson on I Spy. We can get behind that, after all the secret agent series in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby was groundbreaking and, frankly, really funny. Sure, people are talking about his sexual revolution masterpiece Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice about two free love embracing couples in the ‘60s. Lots are mentioning his most recent role as Ray Barone’s father-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.
But, as far as we’re concerned, not enough are focusing on what we believe to be Culp’s greatest role – that of FBI Agent Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero. It was Culp that grounded the fish-out-of-water tale of a schoolteacher turned bumbling superhero. The seasoned actor brought a certain bravado to the wacky show that made the whole thing seem maybe just a smidge believable. And, his chemistry with William Katt, who played the incapable crusader Ralph Hinkley, was second only to that which he shared with Cosby.
We’re not underestimating the importance of the relationship between Culp and Cosby. Clearly I Spy was a revolutionary show. They teamed up again for Culp’s feature directorial debut, an unsuccessful crime thriller called Hickey & Boggs. And off screen the two civil rights activists traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support striking garbage workers after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
We’re just saying that his Greatest American Hero work should not be overlooked. In 2007, Robert Culp sat down for a three-hour interview for the Archive of American Television. You can watch the full interview at emmyTVlegends.org and hear his own thoughts on his hit TV shows and his career in Holywood.