“GENTLEMEN, GENTLEMEN…” Brief Times With Robert Culp
It’s been a cold month for Leos. After a curious string of what I believed to be unrelated relationship-ending stories from other Leos over the past few weeks, I finally had my own to tell. Then yesterday afternoon while huffing gusts of compressed air blasted by our presses’ archaic, heavy-metal toy foil stamper, I received a call from my cousin. I just heard on NPR Robert Culp died, he said. Didn’t you know that guy? I do. I thought momentarily of something my friend Maria (another partner on the Zodiac map) told me at the Soft Spot, “It’s supposed to be a tumultuous time for Leos right now.”
I did a quick search on the Internet for any confirming information about Robert and, perhaps overlooking it at first, found nothing. But then I saw the tiny wire report seemingly blinking off to the right, the tagline “Robert Culp, star of ‘I Spy,’ dies”; his obit waiting just underneath like I knew it would be.
I’m not one to believe in astrology or that the stars are anything for us mortals but pretty things to look at and name bands after, but the streak of bad luck that’s befallen us Leos has somewhat shaken my doubt. For the past few weeks I’ve had this morbid obsession with checking the obits in the New York Times, for some sinking reason hoping to not see Robert’s name there. I don’t know for what reason I had this awful premonition, perhaps it was preservation through persistence, or maybe it was the alignment of Mars (I don’t believe the latter). For every day I secretly checked the obituary page I exhaled an inaudible sigh of relief. But I knew it was coming and I don’t know why or how or if I could even know something like that. When I saw the confirmation there was only shock, and any awe at my peripheral psychic connection to this terrible moment fleeted past unnoticed.
I met Robert through his daughter Samantha, before I even knew who he was. I was in the middle of filming some weird student-film short with the photographer Pat Tsai back in 1999. Samantha played a minor female lead, which I believe Pat cast in order to enhance my own character’s limitless capacity for malevolence. A real incorrigible, unlikeable bastard. My friends kept telling me Robert Culp was Sam’s dad. Who’s that? I said. “An actor. He usually plays a general or something military.” Like the renegade general from Spies Like Us? Is that your dad? I never said I had good taste in film, either. My friends kept insisting I knew who Robert was, but I couldn’t attach a face to him. Now I can’t stop thinking about his great hair and that chiseled distinctive jawline he kept. His features are as clear as a well-lighted photograph.
I went over to his house once when he wasn’t home. I noted that, at this particular house near Sunset Junction, he owned what I believed to be the largest refrigerator a man could own. He also had a guest house, which, also at the time, was very impressive to me. Over the next many years I visited Robert and his then-wife Candace (they separated a little while ago) in their ever-changing series of homes whenever Sam was back from school in the North East, one of those East Coast colleges that only existed in my head in late 1980s vignettes of Bret Easton Ellis. They were always very generous and kind, like my foster family during the six years I lived in California, welcoming a dirty and unmannered orphan into their home. Despite the fact that Robert didn’t drink, they had an impressively well-stocked liquor cart to which I was also welcome. I never touched it, at least not until he and Candace were asleep. Robert had a study in the last house I visited, and it was always very neat and well-kept. Great lighting. With a large oak desk and a typewriter at the ready, loaded with a fresh page. On the walls were illustrations and collages he drew while in college. He loved old comics. I was fascinated with the guy’s seemingly endless talents he set by the wayside in order to pursue his true passion, acting. I was captivated by his life story (by then I knew Robert’s work quite a bit better) and intrigued by his history of previous wives (I thought Candace was quite wonderful).
He was this charming man, that’s for sure. I remember seeing him in a photograph from the set of I Spy, with those pencil straight pants and trim suit, that great hair blowing in the breeze. Probably holding a cigarette. In fact, if I were to start smoking again, I’d think about how cool Robert looked with a smoke. A few years ago I found a message board dedicated to him called “Culpalicious”; a site where devoted fans romanticize over their favorite of Robert’s hunky moments. I forwarded it to Sam who told me it’s weird for her to read about people who fantasize about her dad in a swimsuit he wore in the 1970s. Once in a hotel room in Washington D.C. I was flipping through the channels and stopped. “Look, there’s Bill Cosby,” I said to Sam. A second later, “Hey look! There’s your dad!!” I Spy Returns was on. I was very excited to have this moment, bringing screen and real life together. She was unimpressed, and a little bit embarrassed. “Yeah, that was the summer we were in Greece,” she said. She may have been covering her eyes with her covers.
I always held this special respect for Robert for the I Spy series. When I was visiting my parents I would always watch old episodes (I didn’t have TV or cable the whole time I lived in California) and think about what a weird and special time that must have been: to be part of the first television series co-starring a black man and a white man, and that their roles were essentially reversed—whereas the black actor usually provided the comedy relief and was limited by stereotypes, it was Culp’s Kelly Robinson who was the irresponsible and international playboy and Cosby the levelheaded and practical partner. They traveled under the guise of a globe-trotting tennis pro and trainer. As a young man growing up in Berkeley, Robert was a great tennis player. They were great friends. Cosby is Sam’s godfather and I remember there was a large autographed picture of Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr. hanging in his house.
Another aspect that fascinated me with Robert was his friendship with Hugh Hefner. He always called him “Hef,” like they were old buddies. Once I went to LA to spend Thanksgiving with Sam and her parents, but when I got there I was told Hef invited them over for dinner instead. “We have to go to Hef’s house for dinner, Mike. Sorry,” he said. No hard feelings. If I were Hef I wouldn’t want me over for dinner either, especially back then with my ragged, self-inflicted haircuts and tattered clothes. Sam and her parents went to Hef’s for Thanksgiving. I went to Sam Woo with my friend Bill, and discovered the culpaliciousness of Chinese roast turkey. It would always crack me up, though. We’re going to Hef’s. That I knew Robert and Candace would just go to Hefner’s house for dinner and watch a movie or just to hang out was bewildering to me. It was like seeing that giant refrigerator for the first time. What kind of man can own something like this?
After I Spy I felt Robert never really got a fair shake in that town. Sure he had roles as FBI agent Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero and almost replaced Larry Hagman as the unsinkable J.R. Ewing in Dallas, but his roles in later years were mostly guest appearances or one-offs. He was nominated for three Emmys, but lost each time to Cosby. That was always okay with Robert. I always felt like he deserved better. Like in Everyone Loves Raymond, he didn’t play Ray’s in-laws. He played older brother Robert’s potential in-laws, along with Get a Life‘s Chris Elliot. He did star in another groundbreaking project, that of the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969, a role I think he was well-suited opposite Natalie Wood, and teamed up again with Bill Cosby in Hickey and Boggs. Robert certainly had an extensive resume of his own, but for one reason or another I always thought he was born to take Steve McQueen’s action roles from him (no offense to Steve McQueen). I have no empirical evidence to back this up.
During the last ten years Robert has given me three things. One a copy of the screenplay he was writing. It was his dream to produce a movie based on the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” and he gave me a copy asking for notes. I did a close read and sent notes back his way, but am not sure where the project now stands. Second is a personal note he sent me a couple years ago, written in his fine, distinctively-messy handwriting, all in caps. Third is a copy of “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway”—a collection of Hemingway’s articles and reporage that Robert gave me in 2002 as I was starting graduate school. On the yellowing title page he inscribed the book thusly, “Dear Mike: In here you will find the writing, both the ideas and economy of style, that made him the writer he was. To experience his growth in these works of journalism is an awesome journey. My best wishes to you, Robert Culp.” It was an unexpected, inspiring, and very generous gift, though my description does little justice to personify the man himself.
Every Christmas I send the Culps a holiday card. They are the only family to whom I’ve ever sent a holiday card. During earlier times I would send ridiculous cards of sea creatures: my Christmas Cards of Ancient Sea Horrors I called them, and would write wild, winding prose weaving some story about the particular creature’s history and what luck the Culps should find themselves to be a part of a such select group to learn these little-known truths. I knew Sam would get a kick out of them: I mostly wrote them for her entertainment, but I wish I would have written to Robert more often, man to man. I will miss him a great deal.