Robert Culp: From ‘I Spy’ to ‘Hickey & Boggs’

Retro Remote never quite got a handle on Robert Culp, an actor who seemed to carry an intangible esoteric intelligence, bringing a sense of serious thought, emotional depth and a high forehead to roles that could easily have collapsed into generic insignificance in the hands of a less sophisticated actor.

Culp died in March of this year at 79, and a brief glimpse at obituaries and filmographies suggests that maybe popular culture never quite got a handle on Culp, either. His talents as a writer and director remain interesting but unexploited. As an actor, his potential for charming depth never seemed to find another perfect home after his role in I Spy (in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby); and even that seems to have been dismissed as lighter fare than it was or, at least, attempted to be.

Culp is now perhaps most recognisable thanks to perpetual reruns of the soul-numbing Everybody Loves Raymond, in which he appeared occasionally as Debra’s (Patricia Heaton’s) father (he’s fine, but the show isn’t). Sadly less-remembered is the feature film Hickey & Boggs, a 1972 crime/detective/neo-noir film in which he reunited with I Spy co-star Bill Cosby, and also his sole feature film as director.

Hickey & Boggs, directed by Culp and written by Walter Hill, is one of the gloomier entries into ’70s neo-noir, and that’s saying something. With audiences still fondly remembering the underlying warmth of I Spy, throwing Culp and Cosby into a state of run-down existential despair, broken marriages (like, really broken, man) and self-torment (Cosby’s Hickey spends his time torturing himself at a strip club, gazing at his stripper ex-wife) wasn’t exactly a path to box-office success. Like Robert Altman’s great 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (with which it is paired in Elizabeth Ward’s ‘The Post-Noir P.I.’ in Alain Silver and James Ursini’s ubiquitous Film Noir Reader), Hickey & Boggs casts its heroes as bereft anachronisms, obsolete and clinging to a perception of the world that has long since moved on.

Altman isn’t quite ready to shrug off such an anachronistic presence in the world — his Marlowe, played by Elliot Gould, isn’t willing to be a patsy just because he’s out of touch. Culp presents a much grimmer take (which doesn’t, incidentally, mean it’s automatically more insightful — the usual mistake of modern culture’s flimsy obsession with ‘darkness’): Hickey and Boggs are just lost in the cogs of the passionless and pointless emptiness around them (‘Nobody came … nobody cares. It’s still not about anything’, says Hickey when it’s all wrapped up in death, violence and money. ‘Yeah, you told me’, Boggs flatly replies.)

Our two detectives are powerless and irrelevant (‘I gotta get a bigger gun’ says Boggs in one of the most quoted lines, ‘I can’t hit anything’); Glenn Erickson (of the indispensable DVD Savant) notes that ‘by the time of the final showdown our heroes seem to be going through the motions propelled only by existential inertia’ and Elizabeth Ward neatly sums it all up: ‘Hickey and Boggs are the only survivors; but they have survived only because they are unimportant.’

With Hickey & Boggs presented so often as being in complete contrast to I Spy, it’s perhaps surprising to see that so much of what propels Culp’s film can be found, in some nascent form at least, in the earlier, and somewhat rosier, series. In fact, Retro Remote approached I Spy only quite recently, expecting some fun but simple ’60s spy action that would only re-emphasise the attitudinal break in Hickey & Boggs. Instead, a random sampling and a jaunt through the first episodes suggested a series that, while amusing and warm, was nevertheless concerned with the difficulties and conflicts inherent in the modern heroic role.

Of course, the 1965 series already starts off as a big deal, cementing a thoughtful presence in an often conservative and reactionary medium and genre: Bill Cosby became the first black man to star in a US TV drama. According to Bill Adler’s The Cosby Wit, Culp described Cosby at their first meeting as ‘the angriest man I ever met … Bill Cosby, without a question, agonized over what kind of a black man, what kind of a black American, he ought to be’. In a Playboy interview (excerpted here) in 1969, Cosby describes the relationship he formed with Culp as more than that of mere actors sharing scripts, especially with Cosby on uncertain footing in the world of TV drama:

At Bob’s suggestion, we agreed to make the relationship between the white character, Kelly Robinson, and the black man, Alexander Scott, a beautiful relationship, so that people could see what it would be like if two cats like that could get along. Bob’s a fine actor and a fine human being.

As witty and full of banter as it turned out to be, I Spy also starts out as a suitable vehicle for Culp’s apparent thoughtfulness and Cosby’s apparent anger, and the first episode, ‘So Long, Patrick Henry’, written by Culp, may be a surprise for the uninitiated viewer. Its pace is slow and quiet, beginning with Culp and Cosby simply taking in the key information as its also being presented to the audience. Already it’s understated and a refreshing change in pace when most modern TV heroes are instant savants and have lost the ability to just shut up and listen: in fact, it’s a rare treat to simply watch characters take in information and respond naturally to a simple, but intriguing, storyline.

While the racial element of Cosby and Culp’s pairing was essentially treated as a non-issue on-screen, the series opener doesn’t shy away from dealing with racial issues. Elroy Brown (played by Ivan Dixon), a black American athlete, defects to China, with Culp and Cosby sent to bring him back. The first we see of the athlete is his Muhummad Ali style showboating, with Cosby expressionless and clearly unimpressed (for what it’s worth, if anything at all, the episode aired after Ali converted to Islam but before Ali refused to be drafted). Later Brown bosses around some of his Chinese ‘minders’, pointing out to Culp and Cosby that it’s important to ‘let ’em know which end of the bus they belong in’, a heavily loaded statement that the show doesn’t ruin with overemphasis.

Finally they manage to pin down Brown’s motivations, and Culp and Cosby find themselves in the same scenario they’d be stuck with in Hickey & Boggs: forget political and social motivation, it was just about money. In a more conservative or straightforward show, this might seem a convenient way to simply diffuse the mere possibly of authentic political radicalism; but for Culp and Cosby, as in Hickey & Boggs, the greatest disgust, or defeat, is reserved for the moment when larger motivations dissipate and it all turns out to be about nothing at all.

Culp’s dialogue makes the contempt for inhabiting a moral vacuum clear, and it’s hard to ignore the civil rights connotations:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. Remember the man who said that? Remember him? There are a dozen other men right now picking up where he left off. They’ll be remembered. So will you. You’re the fella who went away laughing at all of them.

Cosby’s dialogue again emphasizes the racial element:

The whole world’s trying to keep bloody fools like you from selling themselves back into slavery. But you did it anyway. You gotta laugh at that. No deals, Elroy. Nothing. You get your citizenship back and a plane ticket home. After that, you’re on your own.

It’s been pointless knowing you,” Culp summarises.

When it all wraps up (generically, but perhaps unavoidably), Cosby even gives us a little more race-related talk, nicely wrapped up in a gentle jab at James Bond:

Listen, this guy is really wonderful, now. I’m telling you. Not only does he get the women but he gets them painted all different colors of the rainbow. It’s called wide-screen integration.

Some of the same philosophical despair echoes through the second episode, ‘A Cup of Kindness’ (which includes a similar amount of intelligent and sober discussion, as well as the always-blissful lack of constant background scoring). Culp is asked to kill his old teacher, and his refusal to do so is not given lightly. In a nice sombre moment, he acknowledges that he hasn’t necessarily been able to avoid adopting a greater evil than the evil he’s fighting.

When Culp is betrayed by the man he sought to protect, the same idea of ideals larger than money weighing heavily on the souls of the men overrides the obviousness of the twist. Betrayal isn’t about being on the wrong side, but in the evacuation of ideals and the inevitable lure of practicality.

It’s a perspective that marks the characters as more heavily idealistic and perhaps fatalistic than they seem at a superficial glance; the presence of witty banter doesn’t remove them from the anachronistic world of the moral outsider of Raymond Chandler as much as it might seem, and the vacuum of pointlessness which swallows the heroes in Hickey & Boggs is already present, even if they manage to keep a generally chipper attitude. In fact, when the episode finishes with Cosby shot, the final dialogue, with Cosby and Culp repeating ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Don’t worry about it’, seems to anticipate the morose fatalism of the final ‘yeah, you told me’ dialogue in Hickey & Boggs.

Culp and Cosby may have come out of the beginning of I Spy with a good win-loss record, but, emotionally and philosophically, they already seem to be on a losing streak. If there’s witty banter, it’s defiant rather than oblivious to the realities of the world.

By ‘A Room With a Rack’ (1967) in the second season, I Spy‘s heroes still didn’t seem considerably toughened by experience or emotionally shielded by their often whimsical nature. In one moment in ‘A Cup of Kindness’, the trainer-turned-traitor states simply and directly that he gave up information because he was tortured, the banter of the episode never overriding the seriousness of the idea. In ‘A Room With a Rack’, we start with Culp on a torturer’s rack. It may be a typically ’60s over-the-top setup, a medieval torture rack and grinning inquisitors, but the scenario leads to some relatively sober and serious suggestions that such an event isn’t just something that can be shrugged off lightly by some invulnerable James Bond-style superhero.

Culp ends up fine on the outside, but retreats into himself, wary and subservient in the face of the smallest confrontation; he’s in treatment for months, but it doesn’t do any good. It’s presented about as simply and bluntly as it can be: Culp, our hero, is scared and has no idea what to do.

In many ways, it’s a continuation of the cute but effective jab at James Bond from the first episode: even the supposedly gritty and realistic Casino Royale (2006) still buys into the same old tough-guys-get-over-torture-and-are-more-desirable-for-it nonsense. Culp’s not presented as superhuman, just a man, and the joys of the opening Grand-Guignol-style torture scene lead to a hero who spends the rest of the episode cowering. The examining doctor undercuts the spy genre expectations with typical directness: ‘In most human occupations, when there’s a foul-up, a piece of equipment gets damaged, a machine. In your particular line of business, it happens to human beings — like him. Now, he’s damaged. Maybe beyond repair’.

Later, in Spain (where Culp and Cosby are amusingly introduced in the distance near a bull pen scraping the bottom of their shoes with sticks), we’re presented with a bullfight announcement to provide further correlation between Culp’s very real predicament and a more primal/genre-aware view of the world: ‘If they charge well and honestly, they are fit for breeding. If they prove cowardly, they are sold to the slaughterhouse’. Not surprisingly, Culp’s soon brought down to the ring to fight a bull. In seconds, he’s cowering behind a barrier, barely having swung the cape. In the next scene, he’s drunk in a cinema, watching the tough heroes on the screen, drawing attention yet again to the divide between macho fantasy and the weaknesses of the real world.

‘Room With a Rack’ may resolve itself fairly neatly, but such is the sad necessity of most episodic television; it’s what happens on the way that really matters. ‘Room With a Rack’ undercuts expected spy bravado and isn’t afraid to acknowledge the presence of fear and anxiety, as well as the thought that perhaps it’s not the kind of thing people should be going through alone in stoic manliness.

Perhaps they’re just lucky examples, but at a glance, I Spy seems to be far more grounded in serious ideas (or, at least, in taking ideas seriously) than its reputation might suggest (especially after the dire and barely-related 2002 film remake). Much of this is no doubt due to Culp, bringing quiet intelligence to his portrayals along with a steady wit and an insightful world-view; apparently he and Cosby were often dissatisfied with the scripts they were given and were active in changing them to suit their needs.

Culp’s writing on ‘So Long, Patrick Henry’ (he wrote seven I Spy episodes in total), his understated portrayals, and his direction on Hickey & Boggs (Culp also directed season 1 episode ‘Court of the Lion’) certainly suggest that his work behind the camera was more than just genre filler and deserves some serious attention.I Spy shouldn’t be presented as merely in contrast to Culp’s extraordinary Hickey & Boggs, however, so many of its key ideas and tones were already being established in Culp’s TV work.

As Bill Cosby said of Culp, quoted in an Associated Press obituary: “His proudest moments were when he was writing and directing ‘I Spy’ and ‘Hickey and Boggs,’ … Bob was meticulous and committed.”

I Spy may revel in the humour of its two leads, but it’s a shame if this sees it dismissed as lightweight entertainment. Culp and Cosby’s wit and warmth seem to go hand-in-hand with intelligence and insight. After all, it’s only dullards and emos who think that serious ideas must only ever be treated with absolute seriousness.