REMEMBRANCES OF ROBERT CULP
A Final Good-bye To One of My Personal Heroes
Don McGregor –
March 29, 2010
I suspect you’re never truly ready for it when people you love die.
I don’t think it matters if it is a long time coming or suddenly.
When you learn of the death, the reality of the death, the permanence of it, the
immediacy of the loss is like a sucker punch to the gut.
At first news, it takes the wind and heart out of you.
I felt that way when someone wrote me on Facebook that Robert Culp had
died. I guess the person thought I knew. I didn’t. I read the words; I
understood what I read; but there was a part of me that couldn’t comprehend
them, and didn’t want the statement to be true.
How could this be?
Bob was always so vital, so creative a person, and surely, yes, his work would
live on, but you knew he was always thriving to do something new, to do
something he loved, whether it be writing, or directing, or acting, or a cause he
thought worth taking up the blade for!
One of the upsides of being a writer is that sometimes you get to meet people
who influenced your life, who were your own personal heroes, and that’s been
true for me over the years. I had the chance to meet Evan Hunter/Ed McBain,
who taught me about New York City long before I ever lived here, and Grace
Bradley Boyd (Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy) who was another great story-teller and
human being and as terrific as the man she had married and loved.
Bob by the way adapted Evan Hunter’s A HORSE’S HEAD into a screenplay.
Bob told me Evan said it was, at that time, the best version he’d ever read of
one of his books.
And just to tie Bob in with Grace, when Bob saw the interview I’d done with
Grace, he said he could not wait to show this to Hugh Hefner, since they were
all fans of hers.
I also had a chance to meet many of the people involved with the James Bond
films, including Maurice Binder and John Glen, and that indirectly lead me my
first conversation with Robert Culp.
I loved Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. I loved them as individuals. I loved who
they were together on screen.
When people would talk about chemistry on screen, and talk about pairs like
Paul Newman and Robert Redford, I’d think, sure, fine, but they’re no Cosby
I said to Bob, some years back, when introducing him on stage on the Queen
Mary at the first Spy Convention run by Matt Sherman that when I first saw I
Spy, on its debut night, with the Bob Culp written, “So Long, Patrick Henry,” it
was love at first sight.
Now, looking back, fondly, and with remembrances, now that I’ve caught my
breath and have to deal with the fact I won’t have any new remembrances with
Bob, I smile a little, because I know I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t seen
I Spy. It’s kind of like when I was a kid and loved Hopalong Cassidy, and in
later years that love has become so much a part of you, you can’t untangle
that love from who you are.
It was that way with I Spy and Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.
I’ve written elsewhere on this: I’m not much of a joiner, but I do believe in
individual friendship. While the series I created DETECTIVES INC. is NOT I
SPY, I believe it would not exist if there hadn’t been an I SPY. Denning and
Rainier are NOT Scotty and Kelly, but they, like me, are influenced by them.
They have seen them. They have loved them. They have been influenced by
There will always be a reference to both Bob and Bill in every DETECTIVES
INC. story, even though the stories themselves are unlike I SPY in many ways,
and certainly contain elements that could never have been done on episodic
television, although Bob pushed the medium right from the “get-go” with “So
Long, Patrick Henry.” We not only have a black partner for a white guy, Bob
has a black sports figure who rejects the United States and seeks asylum
overseas. Who the hell else but Robert Culp would go there in 1964? Not
Some of my heroes are cowboys.
A lot of my heroes are writers.
So, here’s how I came to know Bob.
Just about anybody who knows me as a writer or in my daily life or in comics
knows my love for I SPY. Howard Zimmerman was editor of STAR LOG
magazine during the time period Bob was starring in GREATEST AMERICAN
I had been doing interviews for Howie, who I’d met through his reviews of my
comics in ROCK SCENE. Howie had asked me if I’d do some interviews, and
even though I could hardly afford to take the stance, I’d said I would if it was
about people whose work I was passionate about.
Howie called and asked me if I would interview Robert Culp.
There was nobody I was more passionate about than Robert Culp.
But I told Howie that if I did it I wasn’t interested in interviewing Bob about just
GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, I wanted to cover his life and his body of work.
Howie probably figured what a prima-donna.
It turned out though that when Bob’s agent, Hillary Elkins, got back in touch
with Howie that Bob had said he would do the interview, but he did not want to
just talk about GREATEST AMERICAN HERO.
And so, the interview was on.
My wife, Marsha, can tell you that she’d never seen me so nervous as before I
had to make that phone call to Bob. In any of the other interviews I’d done, I
never even had notes. I knew the people’s work; I knew I wanted to quote
them accurately, and I just took it from there.
Interviewing Robert Culp was another matter entirely. I had read his
interviews in TV Guide Magazine, and knew he’d begun one with a terse, “First
question.” I knew he was quick, intelligent, talented, and I knew I loved his
work. I had all kinds of notes for myself before making that phone call,
although it would be quite true to say I knew Bob’s work better than I had any
of the others I’d talked with. I need not have bothered. Bob was a
consummate story-teller, and we did a long interview that would be followed
by an even longer, second one that would cover much of his work from
TRACKDOWN to I SPY to HICKEY & BOGGS.
Bob told great stories about his days in New York City, and meeting Steve
McQueen in Greenwich Village. Every once in awhile he’d say maybe that
shouldn’t be a story for print. And I told him not to worry, if there was
something personal we talked about he felt shouldn’t go onto the printed page,
it wouldn’t be there. I kept my word.
Before we did the second interview for STAR LOG, I sent Bob some of the
comics I’d written, including DETECTIVES INC. and RAGAMUFFINS, which was
the first comic to print color over penciled art, by Gene Colan.
When we started the new phone call, Bob talked enthusiastically about
RAGAMUFFINS, and how it had brought a tear to his eye. This was incredible.
Robert Culp is telling me he likes something I wrote. I interrupt him and say,
“Tilt, Bob! Hold it! I’m supposed to tell you how much I love what you’ve
written. I’m having a hard time processing this!” Bob probably wondered
what the hell I was talking about.
Anyhow, we did a marathon phone call and I learned all kinds of things about
Bob’s life that I’d never known. We covered a lot of ground, and that piece can
be found on the internet at:
Don’t ask me who put it up there; the only thing is I know that it is there. I’m
not sure if the first part of the interview is also on that site, but it might be.
Bob had mentioned during that call that he thought RAGAMUFFINS had real
potential as a film. This was exciting to hear, of course, even though it would
probably never happen. I scarcely told anyone about it.
I thought it would be safe to tell my old friend, Dave Kraft, who had his own
publishing company, Fictioneer Books, and who did a magazine called
COMICS INTERVIEW dealing with comic creators. Dave lived on a
mountaintop in the middle of the country, who would he tell? Dave would
know what just the idea would mean to me.
The conversation with Dave resulted in him wanting me to call Bob about
doing an interview with his magazine. I felt compromised. I didn’t want
anything from Bob, and I did not want to ask for anything. If anything, I wanted
to give him something for all that he had given me with his work over the
I should have known Dave better. He got someone else to call Bob and do an
interview and then ask Bob about the RAGAMUFFINS series as a movie.
I read it in print and just cringed.
Bob and I met for the first time when he was in New York City filming TURK
182. He invited me to the Russian Tea Room, one of his favorite places to eat
in Manhattan. Marsha insisted I wear a tie. And sports jacket.
It was a sweltering humid June day in Manhattan where your body instantly
feels like a sponge, moist and soggy, even if you aren’t wearing a sports
I stood in the open area to the dining room looking for Bob, not seeing him. A
voice came to my left, almost beside me, startling me.
I turned. There in the prime booth was Bob with Candace. I sat down and told
Bob I would not come into Manhattan on a Hell’s Oven day like today even for
the President of the United States, but I would come for Robert Culp.
I had brought some artwork from whatever project I was working on at the
time. I know I had some Gene Colan art, so it might have been more
RAGAMUFFFINS, although we could have started on NATHANIEL DUSK, I just
don’t recall. Immediately, Bob is asking me all kinds of questions about
comics and me. I keep telling him I have questions I want to ask him.
I had a great time.
Later, Bob and I were walking the streets of Manhattan. Candace had gone
back to the hotel. There was a sudden “BOOM!” Loud! Somewhere near us!
A blasting sound!
For a brief instant, Bob was the Kelly Robinson from I SPY. His senses were
instantly alert. He was looking intently for where the blast had come from and
if it had any kind of negative potential for us.
There was building construction to the side of us, and something had smashed
into the wall near us.
He was Robert Culp, and he was ready in an instant.
The next time I saw Bob I’d come to the apartment he had while filming TURK
182. I knew Bob was an aficionado of comics and loved TERRY AND THE
PIRATES. In that time-frame it was very difficult to find beautifully reproduced
daily comic strips of Milton Caniff’s premiere comic. I had an entire years
worth of dailies from 1939, and I’d managed to get the same as a present for
Bob. It was a small way of thanking him for all he’d given me over the years.
Bob wasn’t at the apartment when I arrived. I talked to Candace and then
played on the floor with Samantha, who was very little at the time. When Bob
came in, and I gave him the TERRYs, I don’t think he could quite understand
why I was giving it to him. He loved it. Took out his reading glasses as we sat
in the long hotel room and started going over the strips, continually asking
how I’d gotten my hands on them.
Now, understand, for many comic books were almost a sign of illiteracy. In
movies, if a character read a comic book that was often short-hand for the
character being mentally challenged.
Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were the first heroes on TV, to my knowledge to
read comic books on screen! If you’re a comic book writer this is very
impressive stuff. These guys are really hip! If memory serves, the first time
they read comics was at a poolside in the I SPY episode, “Sparrowhawk.”
I dedicated the first NATHANIEL DUSK series, Lovers Die At Dusk to Bob,
THIS ONE IS FOR ROBERT CULP,
WHO WRITES FROM THE HEART,
AND WOULD MAKE ONE HELLUVA NATHANIEL DUSK!
The words are still true, for me, today, on this day several days after his death.
I was out on the West Coast during the time period when Bob was writing a
movie version of I SPY for Warner Brothers. We met at a Hamburger Hamlet
or Haven or Heaven, one of those words. I was working with Gene Colan at
the time on a series called PANTHER’S QUEST, dealing with South Africa and
Bob talked to me about doing a comic version of the script, with Gene
drawing. Robert Culp is asking me to adapt an I SPY script! The Kid from
Rhode Island would never have believed this. Bob had not finished writing the
script, but already he was considering marketing. The guy did everything! He
didn’t just write, direct, act, he was cooking on all cylinders creatively.
Some time later I asked Bob about the I SPY script. “What happened.”
He said, matter of factly, “They fucking hated it.”
That ended that version of I SPY forever.
My mom called me the other day to ask how I was doing when she learned of
Bob’s death, and reminded me how he’d sent her a card when she was ill. She
still had the card.
We both loved Buster Keaton, as did Bill Cosby.
I did a magazine on Buster, that originally was supposed to go with the films
when they were shown as a retrospective around the world. I interviewed
Buster’s wife, Eleanor, for the magazine and she told me how they both loved I
SPY, and that when Buster died, he left his costume from THE GENERAL to
Bill. Bob told me Bill had taken him out to meet Buster, but it was at a time
when Buster was very sick, and may explain why Buster never ended up in an
episode of I SPY. I think along with Boris Karloff, that would have been an
experience both would have loved. I think a framed photo of Bob and Bill with
Boris is one of the few Bob and Bill had on their walls.
I know Bob told me he had the NATHANIEL DUSK dedication page on the wall
of his office. To my knowledge, it is the only piece of Dusk original art that is
not with either Gene or me.
On my own wall is a framed I SPY poster, the sensational art promo from NBC
when the series
premiered. At the Queen Mary convention Bob signed it for me:
My dear friend and champion
I’ll just give that poster and the inscribed photo of Bob below that discusses
“the time for reality” a slight salute, a flicker of the fingers in a good-bye wave,
but that I will never forget him.
Thanks, Bob, for caring enough to give the world all you gave.
March 29, 2010