Bill Cosby on Robert Culp: ‘We almost had our own language’

March 28, 2010 | 4:37 p.m.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Greg Braxton spoke to Bill Cosby about his old friend Robert Culp and their shared life adventure with “I, Spy.” 

I Spy

Robert Culp and Bill Cosby knew they were taking a risk in the mid-1960s when the actors teamed up as globe-trotting spies in “I Spy.” The NBC series was the first drama in American television to feature an African American actor in a lead role.

But making history ultimately was secondary to their impact on each other, according to Cosby, who spoke warmly about his former costar who died unexpectedly last week after taking a fall near his Hollywood Hills home.

The men developed a personal bond that extended far beyond their on-screen partnership, and their two-member secret society puzzled, even exasperated, their wives.

“Even to this day, [Cosby’s wife] Camille would just walk away when Bob and I got together,” Cosby recalled with a laugh during an interview Wednesday. “We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything.”

“To our wives,” continued Cosby, “it was some kind of code. Sometimes we would start to laugh, seemingly at nothing. Our wives hated the two of us together. It must have been horrible for them. They became friends and just looked at the two of us like we were nuts.”

They worked together from 1965 to 1968 in the groundbreaking, lighthearted drama in which Culp played Kelly Robinson, a government agent posing as a top tennis player traveling the world, while Cosby portrayed spy Alexander Scott, Robinson’s trainer and traveling companion.

“The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them,” Cosby said. “Bob was the answer to my dreams.”

I spy reunion

 

In a 1994 interview, Culp addressed the significance of the show: “No other black man and no other white man would have made it work. We just got lucky. We met and decided that we liked each other. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other.”

When the series launched, Culp had a full résumé of film and TV roles, but Cosby was still an unproven dramatic actor — even though he could point to a booming stand-up career and wildly popular comedy albums. Despite Cosby’s mainstream success, some affiliates, angered by the black actor’s prominence, refused to air the show.

The two overcame other potential land mines as well. During the three-year run of “I Spy” they competed head-to-head three years in a row for an Emmy in the lead dramatic actor category. Cosby won the award each time.

“Bob was the actor and I was the entertainer,” Cosby recalled. “The day after each of those awards, I went to work with a feeling of guilt and darn near embarrassment. As soon as Bob appeared at work, he would come and say, ‘How you feeling?’ I said, ‘OK.’ The next thing I knew, I had forgotten all about the Emmy.”

– Greg Braxton

WATCH FULL EPISODES OF “I, SPY”

SO LONG, PATRICK HENRY” (September 15, 1965)

CHRYSANTHEMUM” (October 6, 1965)

 “DRAGON’S TEETH” (October 13, 1965) 

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Comments


7 Responses to Bill Cosby on Robert Culp: ‘We almost had our own language’

  1. arcee says:

    That is the kind of real friendship – brothers, actually – that inspire and illustrate how it doesn't really matter what color you are on the outside. It's what's inside that counts. Also, family doesn't have to share the same blood.

  2. Mary Williams says:

    What a sad day for those of us who fondly remember Robert Culp. There was never any sense of the superior white man and his black trainer in I Spy. They were always equals, and you didn't pay any attention at all to the color of their skin. It was a groundbreaking moment for America, and Robert Culp was always a class act. He will be remembered.

  3. I grew up on this show.
    I think the words " I Spy" were among my favorite things to say when I was child. When I was older I truly appreciated everyone connected with this show and how a head of their times they truly were.
    Mr. Culp will always be a class act in my mind……
    God Bless him and his family….

  4. Michelle Clifton says:

    That's what true friendship is all about.

  5. Cy says:

    I met Mr. Culp at the 2003 Spy Convention in Long Beach.
    I almost didn't go in because it was …gasp…$15.00. If I didn't it would have been deeply regretted.
    Among the numerous real-life spies and celebrities were Gloria Hendry (Live and Let Die), Yvonne Craig, plenty of Bond girls including Maud Adams, even George Lazenby (who was so funny and personable!).
    But, Robert Culp surprised me because unlike the other stars seated behind their desks at a distance, he was sitting on top of the desk leaning over to a fan telling a story. I'll never forget seeing the I-Spy star have a good time at a convention like this.
    Also, check out SuperHeroGadgets.com
    It has easy and elaborate projects that show how to make Spy and Super Hero gear.
    Cy

  6. Great items from you, man. I have remember your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely wonderful. I actually like what you have acquired here, really like what you’re stating and the way wherein you say it. You make it entertaining and you continue to care for to stay it wise. I can not wait to read far more from you. This is really a great website.

  7. auntiekaykay says:

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. It reflects so clearly the kind of relationship Robert Culp and Bill Cosby had — a relationship that inspired many of us, and helped change the culture not only of primetime TV, but also the country as a whole. Without the kind of relationship they showed us on I Spy, and the changes that helped bring about, it would likely have been another generation before we had a black president.

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