The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, March 25, 2010

RIP Robert Culp

A terrific story:

A boy decided to study judo, despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a horrific car accident. He began taking judo lessons with an old Japanese master. However, after three months of training the master had only taught the boy one judo move. “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” the boy inquired of his master. “This is the only move you’ll know—but it’s the only move you need to know,” the teacher replied.

Several months later, the teacher took the boy to his judo tournament. Amazingly, the boy won his first three matches quite easily on his way to the tournament final. However, in the championship match, he would face an opponent who was bigger, stronger, and faster. In fact, the boy appeared to be outmatched. Concerned the boy might get hurt, the referee was about to stop the match. “No,” the teacher insisted, “let him continue.”

As the match resumed, the boy’s opponent made a critical mistake—he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used the one move that he was taught and pinned his opponent. The one-armed boy was now the champion of the judo tournament.

On the way home from the match, the boy asked his teacher how he was able to win the tournament with only one move. “You won for two reasons,” the teacher responded. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo...

And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”


Robert Culp died yesterday. Sigh. He was absolutely instrumental in the creation of "I Spy" and the career of Bill Cosby. Because of Culp, who was actor, writer, director, and martial artist (Kenpo karate--Ed Parker actually appeared in at least one episode) the hip, smooth banter between him and Cosby became part of the American cultural flow. Really, only about 1 1/2 of the 3 seasons of "I Spy" were really good. I don't think writers knew quite what do do with this show, or how to treat two men, one white and one black, who were so clearly equals, friends and brothers. Note how horribly they got it wrong in the Eddie Murphy "I Spy" movie--it is hard to imagine something further off the mark. Thirty years later they couldn't handle the idea of Alexander Scott as an intelligent, multi-lingual scholar. Culp fought for that, and worked himself into exhaustion trying to keep the level of the show high. He tutored Cosby on acting, and as a result Cosby won three Emmys (competing against Culp each time!) And never seemed to feel anything other than pride. The man was way, way ahead of his time.

My very favorite episode of the show was, I think, in the third season. I'd purchased the complete set of I Spy DVDs, and this season was set around Europe. Maybe second season. Anyway, I'm watching the episodes, and there is one with an elderly Spanish scientist who is also a Cervantes scholar fixated on Don Quixote. And the scientist was played by Boris Karloff, my very favorite actor when I was a kid. Here was my favorite actor, on my favorite show, and I had no memory that this wonderful episode ever existed. For an hour I sat on the couch, transported back to the twelve year old I once was, improbably happy and content. Mom was still alive, in the kitchen baking perhaps. For an hour, Culp and Cosby and Karloff had given me a time machine, and it was one of the best television experiences of my life.

Culp is gone. I really wanted to shake his hand, to thank him for making a difference. To this date, there have been precious few shows that showed a black man with anything like the intelligence, presence and full humanity that Cosby had on that show, forty years ago. He was the real deal, an artist. Good bye, Kelly.


Steve Perry said...

Yeah. All that.

There were stations in the south that wouldn't run the show, but fortunately the one in Baton Rouge did. What Cosby said about the statement they were making about race was that they weren't making a statement. Here were two guys, one white, one black, and nobody gave a rat's ass. Forty five years ago.

That's what so amazing.

Adios, Bob.

His Sinfulness said...

I have exposed many of my younger friends and students to "I Spy" and they are always amazed at how forward-thinking it was. Culp was well ahead of his time. Via con Dios, amigo.

Larry said...

I agree with you Steven....
This team and show with Culp's leadership created a standard in my mind from which I have judged all covert action in show business since that time...few have even begun to have the richness and fullness of "I Spy"...My entertainment desires have yet to be fulfilled to the extent they were from watching that show.
I am back today looking for more things to learn from you, Steven, and saw this too are an amazing feature in our entertainment world...thank you.

Steven Gould said...

We must be roughly the same age, Steve, cause I also sat with my Mom watching those episodes.

Culp's martial artist background was apparent to me in retrospect and may have been responsible for my twenty years of training.

But it was that relationship between him and Cosby that made it. I couldn't bring myself to watch the remake.