By John C. Alsedek:
Today, Bill Cosby is best remembered for his conviction as a violent sex offender, having been accused by more than sixty women of sexual assault/rape/sexual abuse. But before that, before he was Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, even before the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoon series of the Seventies, Bill Cosby was a legitimate pioneer on American television. For in 1965, Cosby- then an up-and-coming comedian- became the first African-American to star on a network dramatic series. That series was I Spy.
1965 was the height of the 007 James Bond craze, and all three major networks were eager to green light new secret agent programs. Actor/writer Robert Culp, best known at the time for Western shows such as Trackdown and Zane Grey Theatre, had a spy series treatment that he ran past producer friend Carl Reiner. After reading the treatment, Reiner suggested that Culp talk with another producer, Sheldon Leonard, who was already at work on a pitch for his own spy show. Culp and Leonard met, hit it off, and began incorporating elements of Culp's script into what would become I Spy.
The basic premise of I Spy was this: internationally known tennis player Kelly Robinson (Culp) traveled the world playing matches against rich amateurs while at the same time also working as a U.S. intelligence agent. He was accompanied by another agent, Alexander Scott, whose cover was serving as Robinson's trainer. Sheldon Leonard had originally intended to cast an older actor as Scott but had recently seen a young comic named Bill Cosby perform and was convinced that Cosby was the right fit. Culp agreed, but on one condition: instead of Culp being the lead and Cosby a supporting character, the two men should be treated as equals. Leonard concurred, Cosby was cast, and I Spy went into production.
Making Cosby's character into Culp's equal on I Spy may not seem like a huge deal now, but in 1965 America it was a pretty bold statement—bold enough that a few southern NBC affiliates initially balked at airing the show for fear of backlash from their viewers and sponsors. But I Spy not only aired nationally, it became a ratings hit, and the relationship between Culp and Cosby's characters was a major reason why. The two actors became close friends and carried that relationship onto the screen, frequently writing or improvising their own good-natured banter. Culp and Cosby developed their characters to a far greater extent than most of their small-screen secret agent rivals. Culp's Kelly Robinson was the more stereotypical spy: a charming rogue who lived by his wits and had a weakness for the fairer sex. Cosby's Alexander "Scotty" Scott, by contrast, was the intellectual: a Rhodes scholar, fluent in at least a half-dozen languages, straitlaced but with an understated sense of humor. Cosby worked quite a bit of his own background into the character, ranging from throwaway mentions of "Fat Albert" (a childhood friend of Cosby's) to wearing a Temple University (Cosby's alma mater) sweatshirt on occasion.
I Spy wasn’t just a trailblazer in terms of casting, it set the standard in terms of production as well. Leonard served as executive producer and both directed and acted during the course of the series but largely left the production to Triple F Productions: Morton Fine, David Friedkin, and Fouad Said. Said handled the cinematography, while Fine and Friedkin took on much of the writing duties; all three served as producers. While its contemporaries such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart were filmed mostly on Hollywood backlots and soundstages, I Spy was shot on location all over the world: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Venice, Macau, and Madrid were just a few of the locales featured prominently on the series. The result was that I Spy had a much more cinematic feel than other TV shows.
And then there was the writing. While there was plenty of humor spread around the series—including tongue-in-cheek episodes such as "Chrysanthemum" and "Mainly on the Plains"—I Spy played it a lot straighter than its secret-agent show contemporaries. There were no ridiculously impractical 007-style gadgets or megalomaniacal, over-the-top supervillains; Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott dealt with realistic opponents and realistic situations. I Spy also touched on subjects all but ignored by other network series. One such subject was the Vietnam War, which to this point had only been mentioned once on dramatic TV in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode "In Praise of Pip," starring Jack Klugman and Billy Mumy. But I Spy did it, adapting Culp's original series treatment into the season one episode "The Tiger," which co-starred Vietnamese-French actress France Nuyen. Another largely taboo subject I Spy touched on was that of heroin addiction in "The Loser"; guest star Eartha Kitt's gut-wrenching performance as a junkie club singer earned her an Emmy nomination.
By the end of the sixties, the Bondian secret agent craze had faded in favor of more "grounded" fare like urban police/private eye shows, and I Spy left the air after three seasons. It was resurrected briefly in 1994 when the TV movie I Spy Returns ran on CBS; in it, Robinson is now the head of their agency and Scott is retired to private life, but they are reunited when their now-adult children need a hand. There was hope that I Spy Returns would become a series; that didn't come to pass, but Cosby and Culp remained close friends until Culp's death in 2010. I Spy left behind a substantial legacy, including a Golden Globe and four Emmy Awards: three by Cosby for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and one by series composer Earle Hagen.
Cosby’s co-star, Robert Culp, had a long and highly successful television career that included stints on programs such as Columbo, The Greatest American Hero, and Everybody Loves Raymond. But his two most memorable performances came on the sixties science fiction anthology The Outer Limits. We’ll be taking a look at that storied series next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.