19 January 2004 | cariart
Groundbreaking Series Made Bill Cosby a Star...
"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!