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Robert Culp: Building A Career in the Hollywood Jungle
by Don McGregor
STARLOG (Feb. 1982)
Robert Culp was born in August, 1930, in Berkeley, California. His grandfather, Joe Collins, influenced his life profoundly during the years of the second world war; Collins was teacher, friend, the man who first opened up the world for Culp. Collins was sixty years old when his grandson was born, and during his life he had many adventurous professions that read almost like a run down of American folklore. the kinds of jobs that people make movies about: a professional hunter, trapper, gold-miner, carpenter and cowpuncher, among others.“In one of the scripts Culp wrote of “I SPY,” the part of his uncle was based upon his grandfather. Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, the two hip secret agents, have returned to the summer home of Kelly's youth, hunted and trapped, and with little time to be hip.
Culp's Kelly Robinson mourns for innocent, sunlit pleasures of the past, and now Culp himself has the chance to portray Joe Collins, to pay his tribute to the man he has loved all his life.
“My favorite movie in the whole world is “Treasure of Sierra Madre.” It has some of the greatest images, truth ... everything. Anyhow, what Walter Huston was doing, that was my grandfather,” Culp says with great pleasure. “It was him right down to the last notch. He was a prospector all his life, never struck it, always right out there, ready to go again. Get a stake and “Go!” At the last of his life, he struck it real heavy, but he was too old to work it and he had to sell it out to two partners he hated.”
Joe Collins hasn't seen the homages Culp has paid him, but he did see some of Culp's first efforts on television, during the fifties. most notably “Trackdown,” where Culp played Texas Ranger Hobey Gilman.”
“By the time I was 26, he was 86. When “Trackdown” came on the air, he could still see. My grandmother could still see, sort of. They would huddle around the TV which was over in my Mom's side of the duplex, and when I would go back to Berkeley, as often as I could, I would sit and talk to my grandad and he would say a thing that really knocked me out that I still remember so much. He says,” and Culp's voice changes again, older, very assertive, a man with definite opinions, “`Well, I was never one for watching movies, But, you got a good horse there.' `What?' I said. He said, `No, the most important thing that you got there is the horse. That horse is a good horse. And if you go back tomorrow, an' open his mouth and look on the roof of his mouth, you'll find it's black, I'll betcha, just as I'm sittin' here!' I went back, opened the horse's mouth, whose name was Mexico, who tried to throw me every morning of his life, throw me and stomp me and kill me, and I loved him dearly, and the roof of his mouth was black. `That makes a good horse. Never doubt it. A horse or a dog, if the roof of his mouth is black, that's a good horse or a dog!'”
Culp seldom had the chance to go to the movies when he was a kid. “We didn't have much money, and I wasn't very good at cadging nickels and dimes out of my mother. My father used to take us to the movies, sometimes, maybe once a month. But I never knew the Saturday Matinee, the thing that I really do miss. In high school it was a different situation. I had a job. I stacked wood and delivered it, and I shoveled horsesh*t and cowsh*t into big bags and sealed them up and delivered that. I got 95 cents an hour, I believe. So, in 1946 and 1947, I would take the train to San Francisco, from Berkeley, where they were opening theaters which showed foreign movies. We had never seen foreign movies in America before, outside of 1 or 2 theaters in New York, 1 in Chicago, and maybe 1 in Los Angeles. My mom and her best friend, during the war, took me to San Francisco to a brand-new theater called the Music Box to see “Henry the Fifth” with Olivier - and I went bananas! At 14, I'd said I wanted to be an actor, and now I'm looking at the best “young” actor in the world. There was Richardson, Geilgud and Olivier in the world - “for me!”
Culp played in little theater groups around Berkeley and he became very interested in make-up, because he was always playing older characters. This interest culminated in the elaborate make-up job that John Chambers did for an episode of I SPY, entitled “The Warlord,” which Culp wrote and in which he portrayed a Chinese warlord.
“We worked every weekend for 6 months in Johnny Chambers' backyard on the makeup. Finally, he said, `I know you don't have any money, and you might not get this thing on, and if we don't I won't charge you anything. If we do get it on, I want to charge the company.' I had posed him a very difficult problem that he had never had before, apparently. I said, `I want to become Chinese, but I don't want any Fu Manchu hair.' And he said, `But we always use the hair because it makes it work.' And I said, “Yeah, I know, but this guy (the Warlord) was brought up in Burma, and he was educated at Cambridge. He doesn't have a beard, and he doesn't have a mustache.' And he said, “Ohh-kay.' I got nominated for the Emmy for best screenplay of the year because of John Chambers' work. He made it work. I wouldn't have gotten nominated any other way.”
Culp has campaigned against the inequities the make-up people have faced in the Academy Awards. There is no specific category for their contribution to the art of movie making.
During his late teens, Culp earned money as a cartoonist. He was also offered athletic scholarships to six major American universities, due to his prowess as a pole vaulter. He went to the College of the Pacific, because of their Theatre Arts department, and in 1949 he switched to San Francisco State. He met the lady who would become his first wife, and then travelled to the University of Washington, Seattle.
From there it was on to New York City to fight for the dream, to fulfill the ambition: to become an actor.
In New York, the fight had him on the ropes. “I finally realized I had to face up to my responsibilities to my then-wife,” Culp recalls matter-of factly, “and to the two of us as an entity. I had to take a real job because we were starving to death. I went to work in a bank. This was in 1952. I promised to stay with the bank for at least a year, or they wouldn't put me through their computer training program. They said you could have any shift that you want, and I said, `I choose the graveyard,' If I worked from two a.m. to ten a.m. I could come right off the street, get on the subway, go uptown, and start hitting the offices, pounding on doors, it's gonna be terrific!” The tempo of his speech picks up, as if remembering the fighter's battle plan. “I was 22 years old and hadn't thought it out too well. By the time I was about two weeks into the job I was so tired, by ten o'clock in the morning, that I just wanted to crawl into a hole. But I couldn't do that because my then-wife was teaching speech, as we both wound up doing eventually, teaching phonetics and syntax to opera singers, and I couldn't go home because we had a one room apartment and she was teaching. I went to a friend's apartment and tried to sleep. That didn't work out too well. Finally I said, “I don't know what's going on here with me! I can't go home, and I can't go to these people's apartment, because they don't really want me there,' so I started to go to 42nd Street.”
Culp points out, “That is not the 42nd Street of today. The golden days, the halcyon days, the classy days of 42nd Street were already on their way out, but the worst you got was some winos. I went to the 42nd Street movie houses. That's where I first learned about Buster Keaton. I would go in about eleven o'clock and sit there until four-thirty. I would hide in the dark with the winos. I used to watch the movies. Walt Disney shorts. All the stuff of Max Sennett. All day long. “Our Gang.” That's here I learned about Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. All the stuff no one wanted to see in the theaters any more they stuck in here. It was an education.”
He had left Seattle, Washington with a letter of recommendation from the Dean of Theatre Arts, Glen Hughes, which got him in to see Howard Lindsey, who was part of a famous playwriting team. He had gone to see Lindsey, who was sick in bed with a cold, only to learn Lindsey had no shows in the works. He received the disheartening news in that room, filled with the smell of eucalyptus oil.
The second time he went to see Lindsey, months later, the man had another cold.
“He was laid up in exactly the same bed,” Culp says, laughing at the memory, “exactly the same towels, and the same smell in the room.” He imitates Lindsey's voice, and sounds approximately like Sidney Greenstreet in the “Maltese Falcon.” “He said, “Well we're doing something, Mr. Culp, but I don't know. What are you doing now?” Culp's voice changes, a humble, meek reply. “`Well, sir, I'm ... working in a bank.'” His voice changes now to a low snarl - Greenstreet antagonized. “He said, `You're doing what? But you're an actor!' I said, `Yes, sir, but I don't know what else to do.' He said, `YOU'RE DISMISSED, MR. CULP!'”
One night he fell asleep while working the computer and every check was punched in wrong. The fighter was on the floor. The count was nearing ten. But Culp didn't quit.
“A week later Lindsey called me on the phone himself. Not his stage manager. It's proper by the way in the theater for the stage manager to call and tell you you are hired and to report. The phone rings about six o'clock, and my wife answers it, then shoves it out to me, `It's him!'” he says, in her awed whisper. “And he said, listen to this, man, this is a mother, he said,” and Culp goes into the Greenstreet drawl, “How ... soon ... can you ... get out of ... the bank? Well, I started to cry, of course, I had been fainting in the bathroom at the bank. I said, `Two weeks.' He said, `Make it one.' I said, `Yes, sir.' The guy saved my life. The role was in “The Prescott Proposals” with Katherine Cornell.”
After the play's run Culp wrote his own play. Later, he won the first Obie Award for his performance in “He Who Gets Slapped.” He wanted to stay on Broadway, but the lure of money, and offers from the West Coast after he'd done live television in New York, finally convinced him to make the journey back to California. His manager, Hillard Elkins, had gotten every casting director around to come see his performances.
It was in Hollywood that he did the pilot for “Trackdown” after not telling the producers that he didn't know how to ride a horse. He took a brutal week's training on how to ride from a tough old cowpuncher.
Culp's first marriage had dissolved in New York City. His second wife would administer alcohol to his bleeding butt after the riding sessions.
He also learned how to do gun twirling and a fast gun draw, which he did diligently, in fact, becoming one of the fastest guns in Hollywood.
“I learned how to handle a gun at the foot of the bed. You stand at the foot of the bed, and you practice for about six months. You stand at the foot of the bed so you don't break the gun, because you drop it constantly. And finally when you get your act together, and you don't break the vase or the windows, you're ready. Sammy Davis and Mel Torme were the fastest draws in Hollywood, and I had a bet with Sammy that I could beat him. I never came up against him, but I did come up against a time clock, and on a reasonable day, from an absolutely relaxed start, with a single-action, five-inch barrel, I was seventeen one-hundredths of a second, to draw, fire, hit a target straight in the heart -- at twenty-five feet!”
He pauses for a moment, and then recounts another fast gun anecdote. “I had never seen anybody on film get off three shots in one from a single-action gun. I said, `Some day I'm gonna do that, I'm gonna do it on film.' In other words, you're in a gunfight. You draw the weapon, cocking it with your thumb at the same time you're drawing the weapon and it's coming out. You pull the trigger, and your left hand, the thumb comes across the hammer again, cocking it, and you fire a second time, and the little finger of the left hand draws past it also, and you fire a third time. Onetwothree! I did it on film, and the take was never printed. I did it once, and I couldn't do it twice! On film, to this moment, no one has ever done it, and I did it for an episode of “Trackdown.”
When “Trackdown” was canceled, Culp often had to do fairs and rodeos. He wrote an episode for a series called “Cain's Hundred” entitled “The Swinger,” with a Sinatra-esque character role he designed for himself. He also worked on three episodes of an anthology series in the mid sixties, “The Outer Limits.”
“The first one I did was `Architects of Fear.' I was at that time just getting re-established after “Trackdown,” as the guy who could play the heavy or the difficult guest role better than the next guy, and make something interesting out of it.”
Culp would find he would have difficulties adding mannerisms, voice inflections - perhaps a hint of W.C. Fields for a wry line, perhaps a nod to Stan Laurel.
“Most of the guys directing episodic TV are not very imaginative. They think that you are interfering with the basic simple-minded fabric of the story, which is true. I'm trying to stretch it, make it more elastic instead of less. `The Architects of Fear' came off very well. Then Harlan [Ellison] wrote `Demon With the Glass Hand' specifically for me, even though we'd never met. He said so to the producers, so they said, `Fine.' They offered it to me and I took it, found it was really interesting on paper. It's a bloody classic! It's one of the few classic science-fiction pieces on TV. Harlan showed up on the set one night and said, `My name's Harlan Ellison, and I wrote this for you.' We got along famously. We've known each other ever since.”
Recently Culp tried to resurrect “Demon” as a movie project, but was unable to bring the deal to fruition.
Even with the guest roles on various shows such as “The Outer Limits.” “The Rifleman,” “Bonanza,” among others, Culp found that he was without work. He had sworn, after “Trackdown,” that he would not do another series.
“I had been too selective. I've got to get this career off the ground again for everybody, for the family. So I had created a couple of notions for a series for myself, half-hour, and I took one of them to Carl Reiner, who was a friend, and Carl had passed it on to Sheldon Leonard. I went to see Sheldon and he said, `I like your idea, kid, but I like mine better.' He told me his, and “I said, `You're right, yours is better.' He said, `Will you hang loose for me?' And I said, `Yes, I will.' Four months later he called me and asked me if I wanted to work and I said, `You're damn right, I do!' That was September or October of `64. He told me the concept in one sentence, `You and this other guy, who's black, are secret agents for the United States, working out of the Pentagon, pretending to be a tennis player and his trainer.' That's one sentence, and that was it!”
Neither Bill Cosby nor Culp were aware of each other's work before they met for the first time in Sheldon Leonard's office to read over the first “I SPY” script.
“By the time we were finished with reading the script, I decided Bill was the most intelligent man I'd ever met. And I said `Whatever he wants, that's what I want.' Bill knew a lot of people that I knew from New York, and he knew he either had to trust me or get out of line. For him to get out of line about being an actor at that time would have been absurd, so he didn't have any choice but to trust me, and fortunately, he trusted the right guy. I didn't have any trouble with Bill at all, because every day that we talked on the telephone, which we did for the first several months, because he was in Chicago or New York or Quebec, we would talk on the telephone every day and I would tell him what I was doing about the scripts I was trying to write for us. We built the relationship that way, on the telephone.”
During one of the first meetings, Culp made a statement to Cosby that the two of them would have to create a kind of marriage.
“It was true,” Culp says, “I understood it and he didn't understand it. He thought that if a person said that, that person was weird and probably wanted to do something weird with his body. But it wasn't true -- I wanted to do something real straight, with his mind.”
Culp's scripts for “I SPY” were darker, subtler, more complex than traditional television fare. They often dealt with emotional confrontations, with the complexities of love and hate. Events were often not at all what they first appeared to be.
When Culp speaks about those “I SPY” episodes he says he had little difficulty getting approval for such unusual scripts. Grant Tinker was in charge of West Coast programming for NBC. He now runs NBC, and he is about the most tasteful gent in the business. He was responsible for putting “I SPY” on the air. At first, “I SPY” was going to be taken off the air, because the pilot film, or the test film, as it was called, that we made in Hong Kong in November of `64 was so bad that, in fact, it had to be buried in Christmas week of the following year.” Culp makes the statement matter-of-factly. “They looked at it and said, `Let's recast Cosby, or cancel the show.'”
“I said, `Please tell them, they've got to relax. This guy is going to be dynamite.' Two of my shows, my scripts, were in post-production when they made up their minds to cancel it, and to pay Sheldon Leonard off for the thirteen episodes commitment. And let the whole thing die.” Culp's voice is still unemotional, clear, precise. “`So Long, Patrick Henry,' which I had written, and co starred Ivan Dixon and Cicely Tyson, was far enough into post-production that they said, `Oh, well, okay. If that's what you're about, we'll let you get a start.' So they put it on the air. And the rest is history. But I wrote those first four, that's `So Long, Patrick Henry,' `The Loser,' and two others. From the beginning, I knew we were going to be in trouble on the writing, because I knew the only person who was going to be able to zero in on the dialogue for Bill and me was going to be me. I could feel it instinctively when Bill and I were first working together, in that so-called test film. So I closed the doors and locked them and turned off the phones for four months and wrote the first four. I didn't tell anybody I was doing it. I just kept handing them in. Now, we had some arguments about that, because I was being unilateral about it, but nevertheless, Sheldon said, `Well, take them anyway, they're still good scripts,' and they, plus the next three, I wrote seven altogether, including the pilot, were all produced. `Home to Judgement' was the last one I did. I just didn't have anymore energy.”
“I SPY,” of course, was the first series to have a black star, a black hero.
“This is real history we're talking about,” Culp says, intensely. “Let's get it real straight. I've never dealt with this with anybody before. This is the first time the racial barrier was broken. I kept trying to tell the people who were trying to drive a wedge - a spike - between Bill and me .... and there were hundreds of them, Jesus! It was unreal. People coming around saying, `Take it from him. It's easy. You can take it away from him.' But, see, Bill had said that way on back. And I knew it was true. And I said to them, I never said it to him, I said, `If I do that, the series is over the next week. It's finished, because we won't be able to work with each other anymore. That's how strong this is when it's vital ... when it's right ... and how weak it is ... how negative it is ... if it were to go wrong. `Cause we're really dealing here with something that's historical. That's the beginning and the end.' We said, and we agreed, that we were making a statement by the non statement. I've said it a couple of times before but nobody's ever gotten the quote right.
“We can make a statement,” he says, with quiet deliberation, choosing each word carefully, “for the world, forever, by making a non-statement.” And Bill said, `Okay, that's real cute, but what does it mean?' `We say nothing. We make no racial references. No watermelon jokes, No shoeshine jokes. No jokes of any kind having to do with race. That's the way we make the message clear. We don't make any statement, that's “how” we make the statement.' He said, `Gotcha! Hundred percent!'”
But even with the agreement between the two of them, and the beginnings of one of the great screen-teams, they still weren't left alone.
“He had an agent, I had an agent,” Culp says. `I did not at that point have a personal manager, but he did. Every one of those people are counseling you to take it away from the other person. Every one of `em! Without fail! They can't help it. They keep saying, `The other guy's getting this, are you getting that?' There was real good reason, on every side, to get hostile with each other and blow it away. But we didn't. And we never will.”
“He's the best partner a man ever had. I want that quote in there,” he says, with the same quietness, with the same warmth and friendship for that partner.
The possibility exists that Cosby and Culp will come together again, not as Scott and Robinson, but for a new movie that Culp has written. There were rumors that there would be an “I SPY” remake, but they were all untrue.
At the close of “I SPY,” Culp was approached to play John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. It was ideal casting, but the script done for “Darker Than Amber” caught none of the essentials of MacDonald's book and Culp bowed out of the project.
During the late `60s he made a documentary on black economics called “Operation Breadbasket.” He began production in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He financed the project out of his own pocket and sold it to ABC when it was finished. He lost fifty cents on the dollar, but it is still one of his proudest achievements.
In the `70s he gained custody of his four children from his second marriage and decided he wanted to devote more time to writing and directing. And then Stephen J. Cannell approached him to do the “Greatest American Hero,” and there he was, after saying a second time he would never do another series, caught right in the middle of one.
In a business where ethics are sold at the price of a contract, where greed is as infectious as the lure of gold in the Sierra Madres, Culp has maintained the values he learned as a child.
His grandfather would be proud.
Finally, when asked about his views on the Moral Majority, which threaten what can appear on the medium in which he works, Culp answers carefully. “I don't know exactly what to say, because you don't know what to say to a bully. Your instinct is to put up your dukes or pull a gun. And what we've got here is guys who are trying to seize power - for money - money and nothing else - Rev. Falwell, Sun Myung Moon, the cats who run the Hare Krishnas - all these men are the same. They are Christians. They believe in Christ, and what they want to do is knock down their neighbor, when, in fact, they ought to observe Christ's most personal maxim: Let he who is without fault cast the first stone."