Monday, June 23, 2014

The Wonderfulness of "I Spy" Arrives on DVD

The cultural significance of I Spy--which Timeless Media will release as a boxed set on June 24th--has been covered in numerous books and essays. It was, after all, the first U.S. television series to feature an African American actor in a lead role. In 1965, that was a landmark achievement--and a bold one. Four of NBC's affiliates in the southern U.S. refused to broadcast I Spy.

The irony is that the people responsible for the success of I Spy went out of their way to avoid focusing on the fact that co-star Bill Cosby was an African American. Their show was simply about two friends who happened to be spies. It was incidental that one was white and one was black. In fact, racial insults were banned from the show after a season one episode ("Danny Was a Million Laughs") in which Martin Landau's smarmy criminal flips a coin to Scotty (Cosby) and tells him: "Here you are, boy. I'll leave my shoes out for you tonight."

The series was the brainchild of actor-turned-producer Sheldon Leonard. After producing such hits as The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leonard wanted to create an hour-long drama. With the James Bond craze in full throttle in 1965, Leonard developed the idea for an espionage series that utilized international locales--but few gadgets. Robert Culp, who had approached Leonard with a proposed TV series about a retired spy, was a natural choice for one of the roles. The original premise was for Culp to play a protege to an older spy. Leonard dropped that idea when Carl Reiner suggested the other role be played by an up-and-coming stand-up comic named Bill Cosby--who had no acting experience.

Cosby's "test" episode "Affair in T'sien Cha" did not go well. The acting novice was stiff and his natural charm came across as muted. Still, Leonard and and Culp pushed ahead with the series (that episode was eventually broadcast midway through the first season).  I Spy debuted on September 15, 1965, with Culp starring as Kelly Robinson, a veteran espionage agent who maintains his cover as an Ivy League-educated tennis pro. His Rhodes scholar partner, Alexander Scott (or Scotty), acts as Robinson's trainer.

Yes, that's Culp as Chuang Tzu.
Culp, who also wrote several episodes, was clearly the intended star during the first season of I Spy. He appears in the opening credits, his name comes first, and the font size of his name is larger than Cosby's. The breakout star, though, turned out to be Cosby. He won the first of three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. Each year, Robert Culp was among the other nominees in the same category (Culp even played a double role in the season 2 episode "The War Lord," also appearing as the villainous Chuang Tzu).

The success of I Spy can be attributed almost entirely to the breezy interplay between Culp and Cosby. The two, who became good friends off-screen, sometimes improvised their dialogue. A favorite expression was "wonderfulness," which was first used in the second episode "A Cup of Kindness." As Scotty makes a homemade explosive to escape from a warehouse, he explains how he'll use a cigarette as the fuse. Kelly quips back: "Is there no limit to the wonderfulness of your mind?"

Mr. & Mrs. Culp in "The Tiger,"
an episode written by Robert Culp.
While some episodes tilted toward comedy ("Chrysanthemum") and others went for straight drama ("The Loser"), the best ones were a combination of both (the delightfully twisty "Dragon's Teeth"). Many well-known performers appeared on the show, such as Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, Keye Luke, and Don Rickles. Some of the guest stars gained fame later on television or in films, to include: Carroll O'Connor, Gene Hackman, and Nicolas Colasanto (Coach in Cheers). I Spy also provided a unique platform for African American performers. Earth Kitt won an Emmy for playing a drug addicted singer in "The Loser." Other episodes featured Ivan Dixon (Kinch on Hogan's Heroes), Greg Morris (Barney on Mission: Impossible), and Godfrey Cambridge. Culp's favorite guest star may have been France Nuyen, who appeared in four episodes. She and Culp were married from 1967-70.

The snazzy credits complimented
Hagen's theme.
From a production standpoint, I Spy stood apart from its espionage TV series rivals by setting the action in scenic international locales. In fact, much of I Spy was filmed throughout the world, in colorful countries like Hong Kong, Greece, Mexico, and Italy. Finally, no mention of the show would be complete without highlighting the catchy opening theme by Earle Hagen. The composer also scored the background music for the series, often incorporating ethnic music from an episode's locale.

Hickey & Boggs movie poster.
While never a Top 20 TV series, I Spy enjoyed a solid three-year run. Four years after its cancellation, Cosby and Culp reteamed as a pair of private eyes for the theatrical film Hickey & Boggs (1972), which was directed by Culp. They also reunited again for the 1994  made-for-television movie I Spy Again. It was intended as a pilot for a television series which would feature the grown children of Kelly and Scotty as spies.

The new I Spy boxed set from Timeless Media includes all three seasons on 18 discs. The picture and sound quality are excellent. Although the discs feature no extras, there is an attractive booklet containing a brief history of the series, synopses of each episode, and interesting trivia.

The Cafe received a review copy of the I Spy boxed set from Timeless Media.


  1. I remember this was a favourite of my mom's, but not much beyond that. Sounds like something I'd enjoy. I think I know what I'll get the mater for her next birthday.

  2. A fine Sixties escapist show. Cosby and Culp were a dynamic duo!

  3. As a teenager in the '60s I thought Kelly Robinson & Alexander Scott were the coolest characters on TV.

  4. I think the locales in "I Spy" made for interesting settings. The episodes aren't always even. For example, "The Loser" is quite hard to watch while "Dragon's Teeth" is much more enjoyable. But Culp and Cosby made a good team and it was nice to read about their friendship. Thanks for a great post, Rick!

  5. The most amazing thing about the series was how cool they were...they epitomized cool.

  6. My favorite episode of "I Spy" scripted by Robert Culp is "Home to Judgment." Robinson & Scott hide out at the farm of Robinson's aunt & uncle (played by Una Merkel & Will Geer), then have to defend it against a group of bad guys looking to kill them.

  7. This is another series, like ROUTE 66, to which I came late, but has since become a firm favorite. That chemistry between Culp and Cosby you write of is indelible and effortless, and it's also similar to ROUTE 66 in its (unusual for the day) extensive use of exotic locations. A great series, though I'm afraid I won't be bothering with the new set, which reportedly use the same masters as the earlier, much cheaper Image season sets, but cuts out the very interesting and informative Robert Culp commentary tracks.