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The Culp Commentaries
This is the complete transcript of the commentary provided by Robert Culp to accompany the I SPY Volume # 20 DVD (featuring "So Long Patrick Henry", "The Loser" and "The Tiger.") While certainly nothing can replace the thrill of hearing Culp reminisce about I SPY, this transcript is provided primarily for those I SPY fans who are unable to acquire or play that DVD.
I'm doing this, of course, without the usual permissions but I don't feel I'm treading on anyone's toes or taking money out of anyone's pocket because the availability of this transcript isn't going to cause anyone to say "Oh, well, since I have this I don't need to buy the DVDs." If anything, I think it might encourage a few who weren't planning to make the purchase to change their minds. And, as those familiar with this website may have already figured out, my goal is to create an online history of this ground-breaking series, and these commentaries are an essential part of that history. This is also for those non-Region 1 I SPY fans who have written me; I hope this makes you feel better and not worse!
Part One
Hi. This is Robert Culp. I played "Kelly Robinson" in I SPY, with Bill Cosby. And this is the way I remember it.
I SPY ran for three years, 82 episodes, eight-o'-clock Wednesday on NBC, Fall '65 through Spring '67. The third year we moved to Monday [Fall '67 to Spring '68-JM]. Big mistake. The series was not ever a monster hit in terms of numbers for several good and very painful reasons. It made the Top Ten in reruns the first summer, and never again. To be perfectly frank about it, the team didn't really give a rat's face about what was going on in the Top Ten. We were having too much fun.
I SPY was about something. Could a black guy and a white guy team up and come into your living room every week? I know it seems terribly simple-minded today, but thirty-five years ago it wasn't. It had never been done, and I am here to tell you that it wasn't simple and it damned near didn't happen. A lot of folks, and not just in the South, were determined that they were going to remain cold to this particular team of irresistibly charming young men invading their living rooms. But the team of Kelly and Scott was never to be forgotten by those who knew them. Remember, the buddy movie as we know it today hadn't been reinvented yet. I mean, they'd had stuff like that in the Thirties -- Gunga Din and some of the pictures of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, but not since then. We invented the buddy movie idea for television, and unlike Gable and Tracy, we liked each other a lot and it showed. We were an honest-to-God team. It was very, very, very rare.
Nothing has ever been said about I SPY in any detail and I've always wondered why. If you think about it, there was never a TV show more remarkable on more levels. Innovative, socially relative, bold nee groundbreaking, on time of its time, hip as opposed to hep, as I SPY. From the very beginning teaser of the de facto pilot episode, which I wrote, it was very clear that Kelly and Scott were best friends and equal partners in their profession. Such a relationship had never been tried before in features or in television. It was just first, that's all.
The series was a technical, logistical and, sometimes, an artistic marvel, if you will, for it's time, for any time, and one of the few action-adventure-comedies ever made "straight up" -- that is to say, without an ounce of camp. Of the handful that were made for TV it was certainly best of breed. Nobody before or since has had the temerity and the unimaginable gall to shoot one-third of a weekly television series overseas and two-thirds on stage in L.A. That hat-trick by itself puts Sheldon Leonard in the Producer's Hall of Fame, if there was one.
According to the mail in the years since -- and this is cool to me, I mean, really cool -- I SPY changed thousands of lives. Mostly young men and boys who wanted to be or to think like Kelly and Scott. I have been waiting patiently for somebody who was there at the beginning to say or to write something about what happened. Nobody did, and now they're all dead, except for Frick and Frack -- those were the pet names the two writers-producers had for Bill and me.
I started acting at 14 and I guess writing seriously at 15. My first plays that I wrote were for my marionette show which I had had since I was 9, and featured such stalwarts as the Frankenstein monster and the mad maniac of Bill Petas and stuff like that, but when I got to junior high school and into high school I started writing short stories and I had my first short story published at 15. I wrote one-act plays and radio plays and stuff, but, you know, just sort of like, you know, for my own education or whatever.
But then that all changed in the first year of college. I had an English teacher, John Dennis, God love him, who, uh, I was in his clas by mistake -- it was bonehead English -- and he came to me one day and he said, "What are you doing in here? These are all returning veterans who can just about write their name. Why are you in this class? This is, you know, dunce-cap English." And I said, "Well, I like you, you like me, why don't I stick it out, 'cause the credits are the same." And he said, "Fine with me." I wrote a couple three papers for him and he took me aside, finally, alone in the room, near the end of the semester, and he said, "Look, I'm not a senior citizen yet and I've only been doing this about ten years, but I do know a lot about writing, and I'm telling you, you can write. I mean really write. But the thing is, of course, there's a responsibility that goes with that. You gotta stick to it. Always." It was the first time anybody had ever really, you know, praised that on that level, somebody I really respected, and he knew what he was talking about. So, I never forgot about it, even though I was nuts to act at the same time.
By the time I got to New York, at one point, I edited and directed and produced and starred in a series of LP records of classic plays, and the recording studio was in my apartment bathroom because it had superb reverb, and at the same time acting jobs were very rare. I was teaching speech, phonetic speech, in my apartment to make a living, and I wrote my first Broadway play with another guy who then deserted me in the middle of it and I stuck it out and finished it, and I was very proud of that, and I went out to peddle it and it just never got produced. But it was a good piece and it only missed its time by a bit.
And Hollywood, by the time I got there to do my first television series, a thing called Trackdown, I was rewriting my own dialogue and incurring the wrath of the producer, a guy named Vincent Fennelly, and I wrote out of desperation an episode called "Back to Crawford" for Trackdown. And, amazingly, he bought it. He approved it and put it on the schedule, despite our running feud. I mean I really hated the guy and he hated me. And I said, "Why did you do this?" and he said, "Because it's that good. In fact, it's one of our best scripts." And that was the only nice thing the guy ever said to me. But the experience of seeing what was in my head go onto paper and from there into somebody else's head and then to a production stage and then up onto the screen is something -- I got to tell you, there's nothing like it. And I was hooked then.
Culp in Trackdown
[photo courtesy of Tatia]
Right after that, when the show was cancelled, I wrote and sold a spec episode for The Rifleman, and the producers insisted I turn it into a two-parter, which I did, and The Rifleman's producer, Jules Levy, to this day, insists it was the best show they ever had in the five-year life of the series. At the same time, a guy named Sam Peckinpah, who was doing a little half-hour western at the time called The Westerner, read it -- he read the script -- and he called me on the phone. He cussed me out as no man has ever cursed me, ever, and made me promise that I would never sell anything to anybody else ever again without his permission. You can imagine how much that strokes the heart of a young aspiring writer, and I wrote for him from then on, off and on, for the next ten years.
Then I wrote a thing called The Gunfighter for Sam to produce and direct on the Dick Powell Show, that was an anthology at Four Star. It was all set to go starring Tuesday Weld and me, and I said "Wow. Finally, I've written myself a really great role!" And in pre-production Mr. Powell had a massive heart attack and died, and the show was cancelled, literally overnight. The Gunfighter, which Sam picked up, because he was entitled to do so, out of the assets of the show, was never produced. And it was the best thing I'd ever written up until then.
We made a pilot together, Peckinpah and me, called The Summer Soldiers. We wrote it for Four Star. It was just a little tad before its time. Tom McDermott, who was then in command at Four Star, read it, threw the finished script out of his office window, literally onto the sidewalk, and ordered the two crazies -- that was Sam and me -- off the lot.
Working for Peckinpah was exciting always. Always. It was never not exciting but, you know, he was aggressively acquiring a bad rep and I started to write some other things, and I'm getting warm again as a TV actor, and, you know, people would say "What we need is a  Robert Culp type" and somebody else would say "Well, wait a minute. Why don't we get Robert Culp?" And I became one of the highest paid actors still doing character guest shots on TV, on other people's series. But it didn't help, because I was virtually priced out of the market anyway. So there were still very few jobs.
I was just 34, with marriage problems, serious rollercoaster stuff. I was busted, broke, and the family was growing -- three sons, a daughter on the way. I got to tell you, being broke is a great goad. The best. Being broke. And I wrote and costarred in a Cain's Hundred series episode for writer-producer Paul Monash. Charles Champlin, of the L.A. Times, wrote a great review, all about me as a writer-actor, and it changed my life. So I was inching up the ladder as an actor, getting more and more in demand, but then I looked at it and said "Wait a second. I've written the Trackdown, which was a hit, best of breed, the two-part Rifleman, more kudos, everybody just loved that, thought it was great, then I wrote the Cain's Hundred, big time reviews. I'm three for three as a writer. And my agent, a man named James McHugh, Jr., my former personal manager, Hilliard Elkins, still a close friend at that point -- he's back now for life as my personal manager -- and my wife, too boot; everybody I know keeps saying "Write yourself a pilot, for Pete's sake. Make the lead a spy, because James Bond is hot now."
I wrote what I thought was this good, solid pilot script for myself. Action-adventure, comedy. American James Bond type, comes out of retirement for special cases. It had touching relationships and clever dialogue and wild adventure in exotic jungle locales, and I got all excited about it. I took it to Carl Reiner, whom I had met through Sammy Davis, Jr., who was my first friend in L.A. and godfather to my second son. I was hoping Carl could get my brilliant pilot a nice home. Carl read it and he liked it but he said he was leaving TV for at least a year to make a movie, so, well, he's given it to this Sheldon Leonard, the actor turned producer who wanted to see me in his office, he said. And I said "That's fine."
I went over right then, and I remember vividly that in Sheldon's outer office was his Girl Friday secretary and his right hand, Skippy, everybody's best pal.  I fell for Skippy immediately. Opposite her desk on the wall was a photograph of an exquisite French drawing room in an expensive frame, gold leaf no less, and if you walked close, and I did, and you look at it carefully, you'll finally see a rattlesnake coiled on the Aubusson rug, warming itself in the afternoon sun. There was a tiny brass plaque on the frame. It said simply: "James Aubrey", who was then head of CBS. And I decided then and there I was going to like Sheldon Leonard a whole bunch.
He called me in. He was very charming and I did like him. He said, "Okay, I like your idea, kid, but I like mine better." He always talked like that, with a cigar in his mouth. Even when the cigar wasn't there. "Gosh, okay, I'll bite. What's yours?" And it came out, like, rehearsed, without a flaw. "Two American secret agents, working out of The Pentagon, go around the world on the professional tennis circuit, posing as a tennis pro and his trainer. One of them is black." I thought very carefully about that last sentence there for at least a full second, and I said, "Yes, you're right. Yours is better."
Now, as we talked, Sheldon said he didn't want any James Bond gimmicks, pens that shoot poison, cars that fly, telephones in your shoe. They wreck reality, which wrecks the possibility for genuine comedy. He wants the real thing, not camp. Well I was, you know, I was really knocked out. I was turned on, thinking for a producer this guy isn't so dumb. Sadly, it was the last time we agreed completely on anything.
When we finished stroking each other he asked me to wait for him, and I said, "Well, you know, sure, but I have a family to feed and so how long?" "Oh, not too long, a couple of months. Gotta find a black guy, has to have a special gift for comedy." I think it was about a month, he hired two writers-producers, David Friedkin and Mort Fine, to run the show. They were just finishing a series of their own, a half-hour western anthology, a fairly classy little show. I hung out with David and Mort so I could watch them work, and, you know, I liked them. They seemed okay. But mind you, what I was aware of was that Sheldon was selling this thing on the basis of my name, and I was attached, so that gave me a certain perogative and responsibility at the same time. And a lot of weeks went by, and I'm just sorta twiddling my thumbs, and Sheldon -- I keep calling him --  he can't find a black guy with the special gift.
 Suddenly, out of the blue, Carl Reiner, the soon-to-be moviemaker, one of life's omsbudsmen, spotted an achingly young, a very very young 26-year-old Bill Cosby on the Carson Show, and he called Sheldon and said "Hey, I think I found your guy." Well, Sheldon, David and Mort had come up with a storyline. David and Mort had written a script. I wasn't...I wasn't really all that thrilled with it, but I didn't feel, you was kind of marginal. But the characters were a bit shallow and it felt simplistic, formulaic, and it didn't have any bite. No edge, no irony of any kind. But, you know, I'd done worse. Maybe it'd work.
So, the first reading of this thing was to be in Sheldon's office. So I walked in and Bill was already there, and so we met for the first time. His handskake was something I didn't understand. It was just the tips of his fingers. It never occurred to me that it was a stylized handshake, and I didn't understand it, and that was that, because I didn't come from his neighborhood. And that was cool and we sat down, and as the reading went along, I was so intent on watching Bill that I kept losing my place. Now, see, in the room for the reading were Sheldon, David, Mort, Bill, me and Roy Silver, who was Bill's manager. Now, from a layman's point of view I suppose, I guess, you know, that it was not a very successful reading from Bill's point of view. But I tell you, I didn't really notice. Because under that was something else. Something that I never...I don't think I've ever seen it before. This guy was fascinating. He was so angry. I couldn't believe how a guy could be so angry and still hold all of his wits about him. We finished the reading and there was a lot of silence; it was one of those moments like you wish to God there were women in the room. Everybody was very much too polite. Mort and David excused themselves and went back to their office. I waited a few minutes and then I snuck out, left Sheldon and Bill and Roy Silver to talk, and I snuck around that second floor balcony hallway to see Mort and David.
I was really really excited. I suppose I was over the top. And I said, "Whoa! Do you know what we just saw?" And Mort was kinda sour and he said "Yeah, bad actor." And I said "No, no. Forget that. That's not important. It doesn't matter. He's gonna be fine. Anybody as angry as that can be an actor, trust me. But my God, you realize where he's coming from? That's the brightest mind I ever saw. And so inventive. Did you remember...did you see how he turned all the lame jokes upside down. And that's another thing. No more watermelon jokes. He hates 'em, and so do I. Anyway, look, he'll catch up. That's not the point. The point is, this relationship that we've been talking about is not 75-25 the way we thought. These two guys are not Matt Dillon and Chester from Gunsmoke. No way. I mean, didn't you see it? He's too bright. He can't play Chester. We've got to be 50-50. We're equal partners or the comedy doesn't work. Nothing works." And Mort groaned out loud, and both of them looked at me as if I was a bush.
The real hands of power in network television did not totally rest in the arms of the network itself, in the network execs, but rather with talent and the ad agencies. Soon after I Spy closed down that all changed. It reversed. And the power went to the networks, and they had the absolute say, and all they had to do was add a whole bunch more suits to your show and drive you crazy, and those good old days of freedom and creativity were gone on that level. And it makes it very tough today whereas it was almost a snap before. But the thing about Sheldon was, first of all, he'd never produced an hour show before. He's only done half-hour sitcoms, which is quite a different animal, much much simpler in every way. Especially then, in those days, because they were all shot with film camera and no tape because the tape hadn't been invented yet. In fact, he had never produced anything before without his mentor, Danny Thomas.
Sheldon's scheme for this, his first hour series was more than ambitious. Sounds like a logistical nightmare of total impossibilities. He wanted to shoot six weeks of locations -- exteriors -- overseas in exotic locations, and then twelve weeks of interiors in L.A. on stage. Now that's one-thirds, two-thirds, and making nine episodes in that time. And you wanted to do this three times a year, three bunches of scripts set in three different locations around the world, nine episodes for each location, for a total of 27 episodes per year, which was his deal with NBC. Now, what seasoned producer would dream up this lamebrained stunt with no studio to back him, just his own money, and the answer is none, only our Sheldon, Mr. Hubris, would ever have attempted this stroll on the highwire without a net.
To make this even remotely possible -- this is the key to getting it actually done -- NBC agreed to approve scripts quickly and with a minimum of notes, so that we could have that vitally important batch of nine scripts each time we head out to location overseas. This logistical prerequisite became the lynchpin of the series. Without at least nine scripts pre-approved it just wasn't possible to amortize the price of going to these overseas locations which are the stated signature of the show. Nine one-hour scripts pre-approved by a network is, was, a new concept. Never been tried before. Nobody to this day is able to figure out how Sheldon put that one over. And his feat, Sheldon Leonard's feat, has never been accomplished by anybody else, ever again.
Sheldon's biggest concern -- the thing that terrified him the most -- was the price of going overseas. It was such a wonderful idea, and he had shot his mouth off, you know, to the network, that was what we were going to do, now he had to back it up. And he had no way to do it, and everybody who gave him bids they were all too high, and he was afraid to get somebody just overseas, just once, or something. There had to be some sort of continuity. And suddenly this young man walked in out of the blue, from an article in the newspaper. Well, the most fortuitous thing that ever happened, outside of Bill and me meeting, was Fouad walking in the door. He walked into Sheldon's office one day, I'm told -- Sheldon said -- and said -- I'm not going to do the accent; he was Egyptian. His family was from Egypt. They were very highly placed. They had a very large trucking firm and the kid had dough, you know. But he wanted to do this. He wanted to be a member of the art scene, and he wanted to be a cameraman in the United States, and by golly he was going to do it. And this was his way to do it. He walked in and he said "I will guarantee picture and sound, that is to say and all the concommitants, lighting and so forth, overseas for a fixed amount." Sheldon said "What's the amount?" And he told him, and he said "Done deal. You're on, kid." I think Sheldon probably did that without ever seeing any of the kid's film. But I happen to know Fouad was perfectly capable of going over to Mitchell, the camera company in Pasadena, and field-stripping, in the dark, a Mitchell camera, and putting it back together, in the dark. There wasn't anything Fouad didn't know, it seemed, and behind the camera there wasn't anything he couldn't do. That included sound, and understanding it totally. We'll get to that later.
And one day I met him, you know. And I met him finally. He was a very dark, extremely handsome young man, and Fouad Said was our cinematographer and all-around genius-magician overseas. His opposite number, if you want to call it that, on stateside for the IATSE camera team and crew was our DP, Fleet Southcott, who was a lovely, quiet gent, a total gentleman and a complete godsend to replace the mad genius of Fouad and his scruffy band of shuffling ninjas overseas. We would come back to complete sanity and calm, and it wasn't as exciting, no, but it was very helpful, because all the hard stuff was being done there, in the studio.
And Fleet was capable, very quickly, when Bill and I got to a place where we were really grooving with one another, and the scene didn't work at eight o' clock in the morning, and I would say, "Okay, here's the setup. You're over here." The director would mercifully allow me to do this, at least for the first setup to get a master. And I said, "Look, we're going to move there, there and there, but after that you're going to have to follow us because I don't know what we're going to do." And we'd go over in the corner and bat it around and say what is the scene about, really, and tear it down, and get ready to shoot it, ad lib.
But, I must say, as opposed to Columbo, which I did many of, where Peter Falk would retire to his trailer with the guest star and they'd hammer out the scene that didn't work and 65 guys were standing around looking at their watches for an hour, but that was the price of working with Peter, and it came out, of course, superbly. It was wonderful what Peter was doing because he was really winning the game for the producers. They knew it so they allowed him to do this when the scenes didn't work. Well, we never made anybody wait for ten seconds. We were always ready, because we could shorthand it. Because it was the two of us and we were already on the same wavelength that we could practically -- we were -- we were finishing the each other's sentences.
So, that's the way the camera situation broke down. One-third overseas, with Fouad Said and his little ninjas, and two-thirds back in town with the very very respectable, and swift, Fleet Southcott shooting on the stage.
The pilot. Well, we shot a week in Hong Kong and a week back here. Two weeks for the one show, which, you know, is very expensive. What happened? Well, the actors were unable to overcome scenes that, you know -- admittedly, I SPY wasn't supposed ot be real; this wasn't supposed to be documentary stuff, but it was supposed to be totally, you know, up-to-date and relevant for today and not be James Bond. And here was a piece where it was all, you know, completely, sort of phony. And even the relationships were that way. The scenes between the people were as lifeless and banal as they were on the page when they got finished with them, on the stage. And the writer-producers whom I had, you know, thought, oh well, they'll be there, they'll be rewriting stuff as we go along if it doesn't work -- they weren't rewriting anything. And I quickly got the idea, and I strangled it at that point, that David and Mort were both in over their heads. Mind you, these are not stupid men. They were all very very bright, especially Sheldon, and maybe they did see something was wrong and they just weren't telling me. I did not know, and I still don't know. But at that point I didn't intend to ask.
What I did know for sure was that this pilot was an unqualified disaster and it can't be saved in the cutting room and nobody's yelling "Fire!" And I also knew who was going to take the rap for it, just as surely as the sun comes up. Bill. Okay, he was the new kid on the block and he was a little unsure, but a clever script with an edge and a director to match would have easily balanced that. We could have whaled a little bit, but we didn't have either one and he was going to be the easy fall guy when the time came for the inevitable finger-pointing when the stuff didn't work. And, in all truth, I wasn't very good myself in this thing because it was phony and I was phony and everything about it was phony. I tried so hard, but I knew I was going to stand to share the flak and again, above all, I knew we were never going to get on the air. I hate to walk away from anything in the middle, but I really had no faith in this thing at all.And I was really depressed.
I'd been in shows before that I knew that this was not going to work, and I didn't really care, so I let them finish it up and I went about my way, and sure enough it didn't sell. A thing called The Raiders that Universal made, that was supposed to be a pilot about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane that I did a couple years before this -- I knew it was never going to sell so I was not worried about it. But this....Okay. Look, you've got to remember what I was looking for. I was looking for something like this. I had written a pilot that was half an hour, to be sure, but it was somewhat like this. And this was the rightest idea. By this time, even in two weeks of doing one show with Bill, I knew it was the rightest idea I had ever stumbled into, and by that time the process had taken so long that I was bonded to it. You know, the way you bond to a dog or a cat and you take for granted until the animal is sick or hurt or in danger and you suddenly discover what the dumb animal means to you. Mine was in the hands of the dogcatcher, headed for the gas chamber. And I thought, well, you know, I've gotta do something. I argued with myself at one point that I was doing it for Bill. But that was not true. That's bull. I was doing it for myself. My dog.
From there on I lost faith in all the dogcatchers, especially Sheldon. I mean, I liked this man. I don't say I love him but I liked him very much. I did. But for this show he wasn't the right director. And he was a world-class general. Always. He was George Patton for his troops, and he had cajones that clanked. And I would follow him anywhere, God bless him, but he was terribly limited in terms of what was supposed to be my stated profession. So, anyway, I didn't trust anybody. Except my co-star. And, well, that's another thing. I loved working with Bill. Bumping into his mind everyday is like a narcotic. I think probably, then -- I thought -- that he felt the same way, but I'm not sure and it doesn't matter. I saw what was happening between us and where it was going, more clearly than he did at that stage. It was very early. And he was concentrated on whatever was directly in front of him every day in terms of problems, not on dreams of pie-in-the-sky. Like me. And we were still clumsy together, but eventually I could feel it; I knew that we wouldn't be. I was already ready to bet my life on that. Even now -- even as clumsy as we were -- we were starting to groove. I think I said before, to finish each other's sentences, which we did all the time.
To leapfrog into some, well, what we wound up with -- a new and unique language that wasn't forced and hadn't yet formed. And I knew that Bill would lead us there, because as good as I am with language -- and I am good -- he's better. And pretty soon that grew, would be second nature without conscious thought or effort. I could already feel it. I could hear it.  I could taste it. It's the most exciting working relationship I've ever had. I knew it then.
So, not all at once, but a little bit at a time, I revealed to Bill what I was afraid of and my disaffection. And I couldn't tell if he was surprised and pulling back from me or just being cool but he didn't respond very much, not the way I thought he would, and if he'd thought I had gone completely crazy he never let on. We agreed there was nothing that he could do about it, or should do about it, and Roy Silver set up a schedule of club dates for Bill back east to take up the time between now and April, when we were supposed to start shooting on a regular basis. And while he was gone we made it a very firm rule, an absolute rule, to stay in touch by telephone, talking every day without fail.
Well, I was a bit chicanerous at this point, and I have to admit it. I arranged to bump into Sheldon, at the studio, and I asked him, like a joke, like I was kidding., "Oh, it's so hard to believe what I've heard, can it be true that you really have a firm deal with NBC, pay or play, no pilot, and this so-called pilotor test film that we just made is merely a test film, an afterthought." And he kind of like puffed up a bit on cue and said "Yes, that's the deal." I was trying to get to the point of asking him in all innocence if he was going to make all of the episodes or stand firm on the test film and pocket the rest of the money because if anything goes wrong and we don't get a time-slot that's what most people would do. And he said no. He was very firm and very calm and he said "I'm going to make all thirteen, every last one of them, no matter what happens. Mort and David are busy writing now." And I said, "Oh, well, are they gonna write 'em all?" He said "No, of course not. We'll commission some. But in any case we're going to have a green light because I say so and we're going to start shooting in Hong Kong in April."
And he was starting to get on me about my -- I remember vividly -- he never stopped ragging me about my tennis, because I was supposed to learn tennis, which I didn't play. So he started on that and I really wasn't paying much attention then, and I jumped in my car, and I drove home to Woodland Hills, and I climbed up to my wonderful office at the top of the house. It was a wonderful three-story house, but the top story was just this little redwood room, one room with a bathroom, and it was my office. It was the best office I ever had. And I locked the door at the bottom of the stairs. My wife and my babes were not too thrilled that, but I said "I have to," and I turned off the phone and I began to write. I guess I was just a man possessed. I knew I could do this and I was going to do it and thats' that.
Now, this was early December. And Mort and David were holed up at the studio doing the same thing I was, and it was a race to April, with me at the top of my redwood house, me listening to the sound of one hand clapping, versus Mort and David and Sheldon at the studio who had no idea this weird Zen contest was going on. Because I had no authority whatsoever to do what I was doing, writing multiple episodes, hopefully seminal episodes, formative episodes, all on spec without telling anybody. I was determined to create something new. New for me, new for everybody. A new writing model for a TV series that didn't exist. And my wife, of course, at this point, thought I had completely and finally gone nuts. Fortunately, she was preoccupied then with our fourth child' Rachel had just been born.
And the only other person who had to know what I was doing was Bill. I couldn't really avoid telling him, talking to him every day on the phone. For all I knew, he thought egghead guerrilla warfare was normal since he'd never done any of this before, but he became the perfect voice of reason and strength, by phone. I came to depend on that voice for everything. When my spirits would get low and I'd get tired, and it's easy to get low and tired when you're doing something you're not supposed to do, doing it alone, and not knowing what the hell's going to happen, but it has to be at the top of your game. Anyway, he was always there. He was sometimes a solid backboard, sometimes he had suggestions, and he was always encouraging, and it set the tone between us which continued unchanged through the series and for a lifetime. And it was in these daily phone calls that the team really became a team.
Early on I told him that I thought I had three crucial advantages over David and Mort, setting our respective skills aside, and maybe even a fourth advantage. First, they have to go through Sheldon for approvals on story, act breaks and everything, everything that wasn't dialogue. And they have to come up with story outlines that Sheldon likes, that kind of ring his bell, which don't necessarily lead to easy writing, or skillful writing, but they are there, those one-line kind of stories that you can tell in one sentence. That's the kiss of death at that stage, when the guts to experiment is everything. And I answered to nobody. Second, I know the secret of writing dialogue for Kelly and Scott because I had the voices. The rhythms were in my head, and these guys don't. It's too early for them to have that, to know that. Third, the network approved this deal for Sheldon with me as the star of the show, thusfar the only one, and without me the project, well, it'll founder before it's possible to get somebody else that NBC approves, and Sheldon knew it. That knowledge gave me strength I've never had before. My fourth advantage, maybe, maybe just in my imagination, but one of my first fantasies in childhood, seven or eight years old, when I wanted to become a cartoonist, was the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, by the immortal Milton Caniff. I collected everything I could get my hands on, and it seemed to me that I SPY was the closest thing I had ever seen to that tone, that spirit of a kind of noir-heightened realism that I so loved in Terry and the Pirates.
I don't have the slightest doubt that I can write for us as well as I think I can, but Bill had to reserve judgment on that since his expertise so far, at that point, was pretty much limited to one bad script, the one we just did. So I made it clear to him, hopefully without whining too much, that the part of this outrageous Kafka scenario that is scary is not if I have the skill for the job but if I have the concentration to stick it out for the next four months, starting then.