Robert Culp died yesterday at 79 after suffering a heart attack on a walk near his home. I don’t do obituaries (I used to do the police blotter for a newspaper), but this actor was one of the special ones for me.
I first saw Culp in the gothic-horror-science-fiction television series The Outer Limits in my favorite episode, “The Architects of Fear,” in 1963. He played a scientist who drew the short straw among a group of peace-minded conspirators who had decided the only way to bring together the Cold War enemies of Earth was to create a threat from … outside of Earth. Culp, as Allen Leighton, would be slowly and surgically transformed into a ‘scarecrow’ alien from another world, who would land in a rocket, address the U.N., and frighten the people of the world to unite against a common enemy. Of course, the plan backfires, he lands off course, and a couple duck hunters shoot him. Dying, he makes his way back to the lab where he was transformed, only to be confronted by his wife, who had been told months ago that her husband had been killed in a car accident. As she watches this monster die before her, he makes a ‘sign against evil’ with his finger that she recognizes could only be made by her late husband, and the tragic consequences of these frightened men’s scheme unravels before her tears.
What a mind-blowing impact that story and Culp’s amazingly sympathetic performance had on me at nine years old. His performance must have had the same impact on the producers of the show, because they brought him back a few episodes later for “Corpus Earthling” to play another character dealing with space rocks that morphed into soul-stealing parasites. And, they brought him back again for still a third character, Trent, in the forever classic episode from the second season written by Harlan Ellison, “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Trent wakes up in the future with no memories, aliens trying to kill him, and a glass computer hand missing fingers needed to complete the data base required to provide full information about where the missing six billion humans of Earth have disappeared. Imagine his surprise when he ultimately discovers they’ve all been transposed onto a copper wire embedded in his own chest circuitry – he’s a robot. And the human chick he was just starting to emotionally connect to? Not so interested anymore. Bummer.
Culp played characters that, undoubtedly like his own personality, were instantly likeable, instantly empathetic. They could connect with the deep pathos required of any role, but there was also great levity. Even in the direst of circumstances, he could find amusement or absurdity in the situation. Sure, life is serious business, but what’s the point if you can’t blow out the fun on the other end? And who wouldn’t want a buddy like that? To be sure, he played the ultimate buddy when he was teamed with comedian Bill Cosby as world weary spies in I Spy from 1966-68. Culp played U.S. spy Kelly Robinson, whose cover was a tennis player on tour. Cosby played his trainer, Alexander Scott. This show was not only notable for being the first dramatic television series to cast a black man in a co-leading role, but it showed what remarkable chemistry and improvisation both actors could create and enjoy together. Again, it was deadly serious business, but these guys always found a way to enjoy the journey and have a blast. And so did we. They set an impossibly high standard for what the perfect buddy relationship was all about.
Culp went on to direct television episodes, star in some memorable movies, and build a whole new television generation fan base with his role on The Greatest American Hero. But, for me, those iconic early 60s roles are the ones that glisten; the ones I connect to; and the ones I still get such a kick out of every time I pop a DVD in and see that classic glint in his eye: A glint that seemed to include us as it winked, “Isn’t it great to be a thinking man in such a silly business? Wish you were here.”
You brought us along, Robert, you brought us along. Thank you. Now go in peace.
Columnist Michael Ventura, who writes the excellent Letters at 3 a.m. column for The Austin Chronicle (and used to write for the L.A. Weekly), suggested this ‘exercise in know thyself’ for the New Year: “List the Top 10 cultural artifacts that shaped you most. Be honest and unembarrassed. That’s the dare.”
Here’s mine for the second 25 years of my life (in no special order):
10) The I Ching Workbook by R.L. Wing I can’t count the number of times this brilliant and brief meditative journal has delivered me from anxiety regarding a life situation and preserved my sanity in the process (actually, I can count – I’ve consulted it more than 391 times in the past 25 years). The “I Ching” is an ancient Chinese philosophy on coping with change that remains spot-on today, but is greatly misunderstood by Western standards: You toss three coins, combine a couple Trigrams and come up with a number and situation corresponding to where you’re at, and where you’re headed (e.g.; Nourishing – Advancement). How could something so seemingly random produce such profoundly personal insights? The answer is simply … it doesn’t: You do. The process gets you to actually sit down and focus your own mental energy and inner wisdom toward accepting change or resolving conflict. These inner resources are always present, but we seldom take the time or trust ourselves to look for them and listen. Someone brilliantly pointed out that prayer is like asking God for something, but mediation is about actually listening to God. The I Ching puts you in a place to listen to God resonating within yourself to provide your own best counsel. It directs you to an answer, and you provide the meaning relevant to your situation. Writing that meaning down in the workbook is powerful therapy toward acceptance or resolution, and inner peace.
9) “GROUNDHOG DAY” I doubt director Harold Ramis ever set out to deliberately make the perfect Zen movie, but he did. Bill Murray plays a cynical weatherman doomed to live out the same mundane day over and over again. Anyone who’s ever held a regular monotonous job or been stuck in any kind of life rut can identify with that, right? Plus, it’s Bill Murrary, for crying out loud. He IS the Everyman. But what finally snaps him out of this ‘doomed’ existence? One day, perhaps day 1,002, he finally tries a different attitude and decides to embrace every single moment of the day no matter how banal or excruciating (an insurance salesman!), and that shift – to embrace each moment – is what ultimately delivers him from his ‘hell’ on Earth. It doesn’t get more Zen than that. But the fact that enlightenment arrives in the form of this goofy comedy instead of some inscrutable Buddhist koan is what makes it … perfect.
8. “SIX FEET UNDER” on HBO Death (and dealing with death) comes out of the closet. A funeral director dies prematurely (he’s hit by a bus), and for five seasons (2001-2006) we explore the emotional fallout of his surviving widow and three adult children (six feet under, get it?). Perhaps because my father died the same year this premiered, and my mother the year after it ended, the themes of loss, coping and healing speak volumes to me. But this show is so finely tuned to the human condition, the writing so pure, the presentation so jolting, and the acting so phenomenal, anyone can find some intensely felt connection with the events or emotions of these characters during their life journeys. You laugh, you weep, you marvel, you cringe, and you bear witness to 60 unbelievably awesome hours of television, and the best finale every aired.
7) “IN MY TRIBE” by 10,000 MANIACS I haven’t heard an album this immediately interesting and catchy since, well, since this first came out in 1987. And I’ve been listening carefully ever since, believe me. Hanging out with Jack Kerouac and the beat poets. Warning your brother not to become a gun nut now that he’s joined the Army. Listening to a haunting Verdi opera playing in the guestroom next door at your family’s beach vacation. Wondering about the madness behind a child-abusing neighbor. Trying to talk sense to an alcoholic. Lamenting what a circus the city of Los Angeles has become. It all sounds so depressing on the lyric sheet, but is positively infectious with melody, great hooks and some of the most sparkling electric guitar shadings you’ll ever hear on CD. Delivered with Natalie Merchant’s passionate and unique vocals, you have a classic that will survive any time capsule as a knowing glimpse of “our tribe” toward the end of the twentieth century.
6) “THE POWER OF NOW by ECKHART TOLLE There’s nothing new about the concept of “be here now.” We’ve all heard a hundred variations of this theme from self-help books to religious texts, and from mystics to little league coaches. But for those of us either blessed or cursed with a rational mind, this book speaks clearly, profoundly, and easy to grasp. Hell, even Oprah ‘got it.’ Once you understand that all fear is your mind’s projection of an outcome, event or piece of information that isn’t even real yet, you start to get a sense of the forces within ourselves that trap or hold us back from truly enjoying any given moment. I read this book again and again whenever I feel stuck. Or I listen to the CD to get a good laugh, because Tolle reads his own words, and he must not have been happy with the sound of his own voice because he had the tape slowed down to give him a lower, more ominous pitch. It’s a little bit creepy, but surprisingly effective, and it never fails to crack me up.
5) YOGA Okay, this is beginning to sound like a list of every New Age fad you are required to believe or buy into once you start living in California; which is fair dig, since the second 25 years of my life were mostly spent there. But two decades on from my first exposure to a Kundalini Yoga class, and it’s still an essential part of my health and exercise regimen. Oh, sure, I don’t touch my toes to the floor behind my ears while lying on my back anymore or make my head come out of my ass like the guy in this picture, but that was never really what it’s about anyway. It’s moving or stretching in ways that bring (and burn) energy to those inner places (and organs) that other exercises often ignore. Yoga translates as “yoke” or union with God, or Atman. The poses can be a form of meditation. But you don’t have to betray Jesus or buy Buddhism to benefit. I just say, “If it feels good, do it.” Namaste.
4) “AFTER ECSTASY, THE LAUNDRY” by JACK KORNFIELD Okay, so you’ve had your great moment of enlightenment, your life-shaking epiphany, your cosmic orgasm of understanding, or maybe just the LSD has worn off; what do you do for an encore? Once you’ve peeked behind the veil of mere physical existence, how can you ignore the experience long enough to function with the daily, mundane tasks and concerns this Earthly existence requires? And how do you imbue those tasks with any meaning beyond the now drearily ordinary? Why even bother? Well, I make no claims to having meditated long enough beneath a Bodhi tree to discover everlasting nirvana, but Kornfield took the fearless leap, walked the walk, and includes a bonanza of inspiring and reassuring wisdom from some masters and teachers out there who talk the talk. And who provide enormous comfort to those of us who thirst enough for insight to listen, and who are willing to let go of the ego that separates us from God and one another. This book will never leave the shelf closest to my reach.
3) ROY ORBISON Speaking of epiphanies, I’ve never seen an audience instantly levitate from their seats and respond more ecstatically than they did to k. d. lang when she channeled the spirit of Roy Orbison singing “Crying” at a tribute concert to him at the Santa Monica Civic Auditoreum in 1989 shortly after his death. Bob Dylan was there, the Byrds reunited; all the musical icons in the constellation came to pay tribute. Because Roy Oribison’s voice came from a place not of this lowly Earth; and his songs about loneliness and yearning and the sheer jubilation of when the “pretty woman” turned and walked his way can stir your heart and rip your soul. Orbison’s first success arrived during 50s, when he shared rock n’ roll’s infant airwaves on the radio with Elvis Presley. But many of us didn’t come to discover or appreciate his ethereal gift until he was re-introduced in the 1980’s through David Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet; Or Chris Isaak’s entire repertoire of Orbison-influenced songs; Or George Harrison , Dylan and Tom Petty forming the Traveling Wilburys with him; Or lang making the hairs on the goosebumps on the back of my neck stand up that magical night of ghostly-inspired music.
2) CDs, DVDs and BLU-RAY I was an early adopter for all of these superior sound and video compact media storage systems, having one of the first Sony CD player models back in 1985. I immediately began trading in my scratched and popping vinyl LP collection and never looked back (though I saved a few choice LPs for the over-sized cover art ,or for sentimental reasons). I never collected movies on VHS because it always seemed a bulky, primitive system, with tape that would tangle and a format you had to fast forward or rewind to get anywhere. I love DVDs, and now Blu-ray for the experience of convenient, relatively cheap (remember laser disks?) and superior image on the movies I treasure and watch over and over again. Younger consumers claim to be less interested in actually owning stuff like we were, and have no qualms about downloading individual songs in compressed audio quality MP3 formats, or waiting for the inevitable streaming HD movies they can play on their computer-merged television. I still relish the feel of a newspaper in my hand at a café, or a handy hardback book on my library shelf, and love to browse the titles and art on my DVD/Blu-ray collection to find exactly what suits the mood.
1) “DEADWOOD” on HBO In the immortal words of saloon/brothel owner Al Swearengen, “Any of you cocksucking motherfuckers have a problem with this?”
— A. Wayne Carter
(Not the same performance as the tribute concert, but around the same time)