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This is definitely one of *the* best TV series ever made. It broke the
of conventional television in several ways: It was the first series to do
actual location work around the world. It was the first series to feature
black lead. It was the first series to feature a multi-racial cast and
guest-cast on a regular basis.
Culp was definitely wanted by Sheldon Leonard (creator). Culp offered Bill Cosby to play his partner, Alexander Scott. The networks reluctantly agreed, but Cosby instantly proved that the network's apprehension was unfounded.
Fortunately, some TV stations are nice enough to re-air the series (KDOC in California aired it three years ago, with some [mostly minor] syndication cuts. WFTC in Minnesota is currently running it, with no syndication cuts. Obviously I'm very happy right now!) Even better, "I Spy" has some new episodes released on video and on DVD (what, no laserdisc?) With luck, "I Spy" will regain some popularity as these episodes really are timeless and should be more readily available for all.
"I Spy" represented NBC at it's most daring, in 1965, and proved that
actor/producer Sheldon Leonard, best known as the guiding force behind
"The Andy Griffith Show", "Make Room For Daddy", and "The Dick Van Dyke
Show", could offer a first-class dramatic entry, as well. Certainly in
an era when civil rights was an explosive issue, and television series
were predictable and shot exclusively on studio sound stages and back
lots, a program that was filmed 'on location' and featured an
African/American in a leading role for the first time (in a mainstream
dramatic show) was not only revolutionary, but was potentially
disastrous, as well. It is to everyone's credit that NBC, the most
successful network at that time ("Bonanza" had a 'lock' on Number One
in the ratings) was willing to take the risk, and introduce this
remarkable series to American audiences.
Robert Culp was an established television star when the series debuted, a respected 35-year old actor with credentials that included one of the first major 'made-for-TV' movies (THE HANGED MAN), strong theatrical film work (PT 109 and Sunday IN NEW YORK), and Emmy-nominated TV guest performances. A gifted writer as well as actor, he and Leonard had discussed a TV series for a while, something that would capitalize on his dramatic abilities and avoid the stereotypes rampant in weekly television at the time. When a script involving a tennis pro and his trainer/manager, actually CIA agents, who would use their covers on worldwide missions, was hammered out, Culp knew he had found the right formula. The co-starring role became the focus of attention, and while Culp would later take credit for 'discovering' Bill Cosby, both he and Leonard were impressed by the 27-year old performer's brilliant stand-up comedy work (Leonard's friend, comedian Allan Sherman, had 'introduced' Cosby for the young comedian's first 'live' album), and both men deserve credit for offering the project to the 'untested' actor. With Cosby in place, filming began, and magic appeared.
While the initial focus was on Culp's flamboyant 'Kelly Robinson', with Cosby's 'Alexander Scott' relegated to the more serious role of the 'contact' man with the CIA, Cosby had a way of 'punching up' his dialog, adding hip one-liners and asides that not only improved scenes, but gave the character of Scott a humanity that the scripts lacked. The stories became funnier and far more interesting, and Culp and Leonard were more than pleased with the results. The series quickly became an audience favorite, with Cosby winning the first of three Emmys in his role. Culp began ad-libbing, as well, following Cosby's lead, and the chemistry between the actors was so natural and easy-going that "I Spy" became television's most popular 'buddy' show.
With the show 'on location' for much of the shooting schedule, a season's worth of scripts would have to be available by the start of filming, a practice unheard of for any other series. This resulted in some 'clichéd' episodes that writers had little time to polish, and Cosby and Culp's ad-libbing skills would be necessary to 'lift' their overall quality. The resulting humor would give the series a 'freshness' that not only made even the weaker entries enjoyable, but resulted in a series that still 'works', nearly forty years later.
Eventually, even the stars' best efforts couldn't disguise the thinning material, and after three seasons, "I Spy" was canceled (although Cosby would win his third Emmy in a row for the last season, a testament to his talent), and the remarkable experiment was over.
Sadly, "I Spy" did not dramatically change the African/American presence on TV, at that time, but Bill Cosby's success would provide him a window of opportunity for continued television exposure, and with each subsequent success, more opportunities would become available for gifted performers of other races. He was, and is, truly a pioneer of the medium, and the most enduring tribute of the series Sheldon Leonard created for Robert Culp may have been in introducing Bill Cosby to 'mainstream' America. It is a legacy that both Leonard and Culp were justly proud of!
It so common that we like things because they help us to escape. We like
things because we know they're not good for us. We like things because
nobody else like them. And sometimes, we don't know why we like things, we
Those of us who love and adore the 1965-1968 television series I-Spy have many reasons to like it. We can like it because it was the first, and up to this point the best, of the buddy pairings that have become so commonplace in TV and movies. Think about it. As far as drama/comedies go, who were the first evenly matched hero team? Crockett and Tubbs weren't, and don't compare. And there isn't anybody else worth mentioning. The rapport between Kelly and Scotty has never been equaled. Spenser and Hawk come the closest.
Then there's the presence of Bill Cosby, who wasn't handed charity. He was given an opportunity and made the most of it. The three Emmys on his mantel attest to his skill and his popularity.
Then there's the location filming. And the fun. And the charm. and some great guest performances along the way. This was and is a great show. Terrific and timeless.
"I Spy" cannot be denied its contributions to history, both in
television production and the Civil Rights movement. As documented in
the book, "I Spy: A History of the Groundbreaking Television Series,"
this was the first series to cast a black actor opposite a White, with
equal status and billing. And, by doing so, Bill Cosby become the first
Black to win an Emmy - and he would win three in a row, as Best Lead
Actor in a Drama for his work here. During that first year, show
business trade magazine Variety wrote that "I Spy" was a "test show,"
putting NBC southern affiliates "on the spot," and that the series
would show "which way the winds were blowing in Dixie." The door swung
open in September 1965, and, within one year, black performers were
finding regular work with non-stereotypical roles on "Mission:
Impossible" and "Star Trek," and, just a couple years after that, being
cast as series leads, with equal or greater status than Whites, in
shows such as "N.Y.P.D.," "Room 222," and "Julia." TV, and the world,
changed that quickly.
"I Spy" was also the first series to shoot around the world, introducing the technology needed to achieve this. And many believe that this is where the "buddy picture" began. Series such as "Starsky & Hutch" and "Miami Vice," and even movies like "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid," certainly took their lead from "I Spy."
This historic series proved that sometimes television can do more than just entertain.
Not only was this show groundbreaking, but it had such quality to it that it really should be as well-known as another series that aired on the same network in those years called "Star Trek." I became such a huge Robert Culp and Bill Cosby fan after this series originally aired, and wish it would be released on DVD or VHS complete. Now that I have them in BOTH forms, I can die happy now. And I SHOULD mention here that I am the same John Peel who worked on the TV site with the late Donna Lemaster, and my e-mail has now been for some time email@example.com rather than the longer jwpeel@imw/tiac.net that still appears at that site, in case anyone would like me to give them any info on the show. This fabulous show inspired me to become a writer as well as feed my love for acting, but unlike other series of its type like Mission Impossible, it did not merely copy familiar ground in the spy genre like so many James Bond-type clones, but reinvented the form with great straight drama laced with comic highlights. It is just a shame that we don't see more of the dramatic side of Cosby. He was quite good in those shows, and won three Grammys to prove it, and he owed it all (and said so in his acceptance speeches) to his buddy and costar Robert Culp. Just the locations alone make it a memorable show, but the quality of writing makes it all the more memorable. If you have never experienced this show before, you must.
Robert Culp didn't "phone in" his performances. One throw-away shot had
him discover a dead body just before a commercial break, and the
expression on his face was genuinely intense.
The show was ground-breaking for showcasing black talent. Yes. And huzzah for that! But it was a cracking good show regardless of racial issues. Among the many reasons already mentioned, the heroes were vulnerable. They were not stronger, better-armed or backed up by SWAT teams ready to rappel from helicopters. They often got into situations where they elected to run ... yes, RUN! Like intelligent, realistic men when facing superior odds. They were beaten (temporarily) more than a few times, and sometimes were close to death. And they weren't the only heroes in the program, as secondary characters appearing only in that episode would step in and prove useful.
"I, Spy" turns out to be superior Cold War fodder in that it showed perhaps the most realistic (although certainly still unreal, being it was early television) depiction of the stalwart American intelligence operatives trying to keep a lid on a shifting world of mayhem, out on the edge, largely alone.
And the friends, with humor and intelligence, leveraged each other into a team more formidable than three independent agents could ever muster.
These fellows showed a healthy appreciation for good things and fine women, but when the chips were down they were quick to be Boy Scouts ... and made it look convincing and even "cool." It is childishly acceptable and common to make fun of the mores of those days, but having grown up on Norman Rockwell I can tell you that the concept of being a "good guy" was serious in those days, and many men behaved with a genuine courtesy and courage that seems unrealistic today.
Cosby deserved his Emmies ... but Culp really supplied better performance than almost anyone else in those years.
Looking for a new favorite? Something you haven't already memorized and become slightly tired of? Get these DVD's and make your acquaintance with two of the coolest, yet still "upright" heroes fictional America ever produced.
I bought the entire series on DVD recently and have spent many evenings
watching two or 3 episodes each. While I grew up during the shows
original run, I'd only watched a few then. So for a while, due to the
invariable trappings of the times it was filmed during, I was taken
back a bit. However I was really involved with the adventures and
characters of the two main characters (and the venerable Kenneth Tobey
as their most frequent handler). This show being compared to any of the
numerous other espionage series is not a serious comparison. The
location filming and abilities of cast and crew made this as special a
show as another series from the same time period that made such an
impact on me. Culp and Cosby will forever be unique for a multitude of
reasons, together they made a good entertainment greater. Long live "I,
Apparently only one comment a year is allowed for this show, so here's
The misgivings that I've got about the Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson take on "I Spy" would seem to be justified by most accounts (even allowing for the presence of the scrumptious Famke Janssen), and now that Carlton Direct has closed down it's unlikely repeats of this fine spy show will be back on British television in the near future. Too bad.
Unlike most other series, the adventures of Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott (spies under the guise of a tennis player and his coach, played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby respectively - the latter won three Emmys in succession for his performances, which are indeed easier to take than his subsequent incarnation as the endlessly self-adoring Dr. Cliff Huxtable) benefitted from actual location shooting around the world and from intelligent scripts, some by Culp himself - though not "To Florence With Love," a two-part story which had a most unusual ending in part one; our heroes are trying to get information from someone by threatening to cover him completely in plaster of Paris, and it ends with the would-be stooge about to be totally closed up. (He cracks at the start of part 2, obviously, but there's no doubt that they really would let him suffocate if he hadn't.)
The chemistry between Culp and Cosby and the great theme music by Earle Hagen (plus scores from him and Hugo Friedhofer - bless Film Score Monthly for issuing a CD of music from the series) are two more reasons this plays well on TV today. If you take care with a product, it'll be good forever; which is why "The Cosby Mysteries" won't be fondly remembered 30 years from now. If ever.
This show was very unique when it comes to spy shows that were on television at the same time. Of course, the fact that it was one of the first shows to feature an African-American in a non-demeaning role made it unique as well as the humor, but there were other factors that helped make this show one of the most memorable of the 1960's. First, it was probably the only spy show that didn't rely on any special gadgetry as was the norm on shows like Mission: Impossible, The Man From Uncle and even the Wild Wild West. The two spies had to rely on their wits in order to take on their weekly antagonists. The second thing that was very unique about the show was that it relied on heavily on characterization. The characters of Kelly and Scottie were probably the most fleshed out characters on not just shows dealing with international intrigue, but of any show in that era. However, the most interesting aspect of this show was the fact that the characters actually questioned why they were in the business. Of course, this was in the middle of the Cold War, where loyalty was never an issue on the various spy shows, but this was probably the first one where the characters actually would question why they were being sent on these missions.
I was quite young when this series was filmed, but remember the re-runs
quite fondly. I have to echo the sentiments I've seen expressed. After
finding 2 seasons of episodes on Hulu, I have engaged in an orgy of I
I don't think that we in modern (2009) American culture really remember just how recently it was that the rest of the world was truly mysterious. In the 1960s and early 1970s, going out for Chinese food, even in New York and some other cities with Chinatowns was a bit of an event. We certainly didn't have 10 places that would deliver cuisine from pretty much any culture of the world directly to one's door, as even the suburbs often do today.
It is with that backdrop that I would call any prospective viewer's attention to the often breathtaking location shots in this series. Not only do you get a real feel for how various parts of the world looked, but you get to do so in a time when telephones weren't always right there in a pocket, and a car was a massive yet often stylish thing.
In a time now when it seems no drama can run for more than 10 minutes without something exploding, I Spy still holds the attention of the viewer, transporting them to places we've not been (and can't go back to in time), while presenting themes that recur even in a post-Cold War world.
Alexander Scott is a genteel man, but in no way effete or effeminate, despite his education. He also was someone who came from the city and worked his way to an exceptional education. Scotty tries, wherever he is in the world, to be the antithesis of the "Ugly American", but is a patriot at the same time. His skills as a polyglot certainly don't hurt.
Kelly Robinson is a little more coarse than Scott, but not above finding opportunities for adult frivolity and perhaps even silliness. Though occasionally falls off the straight-and-narrow, is an upstanding guy by most modern standards.
As someone who has lived and worked in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. and the government it houses for most of my life, I find it refreshing that these characters can discuss some of the moral vagaries around their jobs and missions without immediately leaping (as characters seem to in modern movies) to defection or total dissipation. (Don't even get me started about the first Mission:Impossible movie.) Yes, sometimes they face some difficult ethical choices, and they do the best they can, but as you'd expect, some choices weigh more heavily than others on them.
The thing that makes I Spy resonate with people is that these two seem like normal guys. Granted, one is brilliant and they're both very highly trained to do an exotic job, but they're all too human while still, in some humble way, being heroic.
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