Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp (1930 - 2010)

Only a week or so after losing the talented Peter Graves, another great cult-TV actor who became famous in the 1960s has passed away; this time the incomparable Robert Culp.

Culp is perhaps most well-known -- also like Graves -- for his lead role on a popular espionage series, I Spy (1965-1968), for which he was nominated for an Emmy as best actor. His co-star was Bill Cosby.

But Culp is also beloved to Generation X'ers like myself for his role as the surly but heroic F.B.I. agent Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero (1982-1983).

In that ABC series, he joined William Katt and Connie Sellecca to form a heroic, funny, charming triumvirate. On Hero, Maxwell often talked about "the scenario," a catchphrase for the mission of the week. Also, Maxwell often goaded the reluctant superhero Ralph (Katt) into action by telling him "this is the one the suit was meant for." Despite the repetition of these remarks week-to-week, episode-to-episode, Culp always made them feel fresh, and more than that...funny.

In addition to starring on The Greatest American Hero, Culp also wrote episodes of the superhero series, including season two's "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell" (April 28, 1982) and the third season installment, "Vanity, Says the Preacher."

Culp also guest-starred in two of the greatest episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1964) ever produced. First, there was "The Architects of Fear," about a dedicated scientist and pacifist (Culp) who altered his very biology to appear as an invading alien (a Thetan) and thus unite the warring factions of Earth. In Harlan Ellison's "Demon with a Glass Hand," Robert Culp played Trent, a man with the power to save the future...if only he could remember who he was.

Culp also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He even appeared in one of the finest horror pilots ever produced, Gene Roddenberry's spooky Spectre (1977). Outside of the genre, Robert Culp starred in the theatrical box office hit, Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice (1969).

I've always admired Culp's approach to creating his memorable characters. Even when he played a straight-up hero, like Bill Maxwell or Kelly Robinson, Culp always gifted those personalities with his strong sense of humanity. This vision included fallibility, temper, attitude and a core of decency. Mr. Culp will be sorely missed, but his range and talent is preserved in his fine performances.

Tonight, I think I'm going to watch "Architects of Fear" again...


  1. You said it John, "beloved." I got home from a coaching clinic to find this unfortunate news.

    I loved him opposite William Katt in Greatest American Hero.

    Losing a guy like Culp really emphasizes my own mortality. I don't like it one bit. Very sad to see him go.

  2. I knew you'd write something special for Robert Culp, John. Well done. I grew up watching this man do his stellar work on TV and film. I just finished posting something on him today. What a career he had! Damn, I'm going to miss him. Thanks for this, my friend.

  3. :(

    I also mentioned on my blog how he used the word "scenario" all the time on GAH.

    He was totally awesome. I am so sad he's gone.

  4. Anonymous1:32 AM

    I always liked the film Hannie Caulder with Culp and Raquel Welch. A kind of a hippie western.

    When is the Elizabeth Montgomery TV movie version of The Legend of Lizzie Borden going to come out on DVD? I remember the scene where Lizzie Borden's mortician father drops a catheter tube from the corpse he is working on and it begins spraying blood all over little Lizzie's face and dress. Also when the father massacres all the pigeons in the attic was memorable.

    When is the Byron Haskin/George Pal film "The Power" going to come out on DVD? The scene where this guy is trapped in one of those doo-hickey's the astronauts use to test for gravity stress tolerance and when they open the hatch door his eyes are bulging out certainly traumatized me as a child when I saw it on TV.

  5. One of my favorite Culp moments in "GAH" was in the second episode, "The Hit Car." Holed up in a house with no food, Maxwell scrounges through the cabinets, and comes up with a box of dog biscuits, which he grudgingly starts to eat. In later episodes, Bill was shown to have developed a fondness for dog biscuits, as he had some in his own kitchen cupboard.
    Culp was kind enough to record a promo for Destinies in 2008, without ever appearing on the show. Capt. Phil, who met him and got the recording, said Culp seemed amused by the use of the word "scenario" in the bit, as well as the line, "The green guys say, it's the show radio was made for." You can hear the promo at the end of the March 26, 2010 episode of Destinies at
    William Katt said, "Bob will be missed." Even though I never met him personally, I totally agree.