And here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

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.

— A. Wayne Carter

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