Robert Culp, the rangy leading man who made his mark as co-star opposite Bill Cosby in the iconic 1960s series “I Spy,” died Wednesday from injuries suffered in a fall during a walk near his home, according to the Los Angeles Police Dept. He was 79.
Culp was taken to Queen of Angels Hospital, where he was declared dead. An autopsy is pending.
In a career that spanned six decades, Culp was a steady presence on in programs ranging from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to The Greatest American Hero” to several segs of “Columbo.” In features, his notable credits include a starring role in the 1969 wife-swapping comedy “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” and he directed 1972’s “Hickey and Boggs,” a detective romp in which he co-starred with Cosby.
But Culp was best known for his work in “I Spy,” the groundbreaking espionage actioner from producer Sheldon Leonard that was the first to pair a white actor and black actor as co-leads in a primetime skein. It ran on NBC from 1965-68, an era when civil rights and equality issues were front and center for the nation.
A key feature of the show was the screwball, often ad-libbed banter between Culp and Cosby, who played covert agents who traveled the world under the guise of Culp being a tennis player and Cosby his trainer. The show allowed Culp to show off his real-life skill on the court. He wrote and directed several episodes of the series, including the script that became the series pilot seg.
Cosby, then a standup comedy star, was an unlikely choice for the co-lead in “I Spy” as he had little acting experience. He has long credited Culp with showing him the ropes. On Wednesday, Cosby referred to Culp as the “answer to my dreams” for an older brother.
“No matter how many mistakes I made on ‘I Spy,’ he was always there to teach and protect me,” Cosby said. “His proudest moments were when he was writing and directing ‘I Spy’ and ‘Hickey and Boggs.’ Bob was meticulous and committed.”
Born in Berkeley, Calif., Culp had an interest in theater from a young age. After attending several colleges, he went to New York in 1951 and got his first break with “He Who Gets Slapped,” for which he won an Obie, and then to Broadway with a role in “A Clearing in the Woods.”
The stage experience led him to Hollywood, where he landed the lead in 1957-59 CBS oater “Trackdown,” about a maverick Texas Ranger, which remains a cult-fave among TV aficionados. He made his feature debut in 1963’s “PT 109,” playing a member of the crew of John F. Kennedy’s submarine.
From 1981-86, Culp starred opposite William Katt in ABC’s “The Greatest American Hero,” playing an oddball FBI agent whose quirks included a habit of absentmindedly eating dog biscuits. In 1994 Culp and Cosby reunited for the 1994 telepic “I Spy Returns,” which ran on CBS. He had a recurring role as the father of wife Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
His many other TV credits included “Death Valley Days,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Zane Grey Theater,” “Bonanza,” “The Love Boat,” “Hardcastle and McCormick,” “Hotel” and “Lonesome Dove: The Series” and numerous telepics.
An interest in the civil rights movement led him to work on a documentary, “Operation Breadbasket,” which he wrote, directed and narrated for ABC.
Outside of showbiz, Culp was active in the animal rights movement and in recent years mounted a vocal protest against the Los Angeles Zoo for its treatment of its elephants.
Culp’s survivors include five children and five grandchildren.