Spies, Cowboys & Columbo – Remembering Robert Culp (1930 – 2010)

Posted in Remember by - December 11, 2014
Spies, Cowboys & Columbo – Remembering Robert Culp (1930 – 2010)

With his lean frame and serious manner, handsome lead actor Robert Culp often played authority figures, both good and bad. He may not have made the big time, but he did have a run of interesting projects in the Seventies, and although he is best remembered for his television work, he did appear in some first-rate cult features.

Born in California on August 16th 1930, Culp made his screen debut in 1953 and after a clutch of television appearances he won the role of Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, in the CBS western series ‘Trackdown’, which ran for 2 seasons from 1957 until 1959. Culp’s movie debut came in 1963 when he played Jane Fonda’s ex in the romantic comedy ‘Sunday in New York’, and the western ‘The Raiders’, as ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok. Culp would become a household name in 1965 when he took the role of secret agent Kelly Robinson in the popular series ‘I Spy’, which ran until 1968.

The following year Culp had a lead role when he played Natalie Wood’s husband in Paul Mazursky’s infidelity comedy ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ (’69). A commercial hit it remains Robert’s best known performance. Another cult part came a couple of years later when he played bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price in the quirky Raquel Welch western ‘Hannie Caulder’ (’71). A violent and sometimes comical revenge flick, it contains perhaps my favourite Culp performance.

Robert is also remembered fondly for his appearances in three ‘Columbo’ mysteries from 1971, 72 & 73, each time playing the ‘special guest murderer’. He did appear in another episode in 1990, but this time he was the father of a murderer and not the culprit himself. In 1972 Culp directed himself in the rather bleak detective flick ‘Hickey & Boggs’. Playing a private eye in search of a missing girl, it saw him reunited with his ‘I Spy’ co-star Bill Cosby. After making the bizarre horror ‘A Name for Evil’ (’73) with Samantha Eggar, Culp co-starred with Eli Wallach in the excellent TV movie ‘A Cold Night’s Death’ (’73), an atmospheric chiller with a neat twist ending.

1976 was a good year for Robert, with appearances in some interesting and entertaining projects. There was the Lee Marvin sleeper ‘The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday’, Bob Clark’s interesting drama ‘Breaking Point’, with Bo Svenson, and the pretty good thriller ‘Sky Riders’, playing an industrialist whose wife (Susannah York) and children are kidnapped by terrorists, and it’s up to York’s ex-husband James Coburn to rescue them. A small role in another James Coburn film followed with Joseph Sargent’s entertaining science-fiction drama ‘Goldengirl’ (’79), which had Susan Anton as a hormone injected Olympic hopeful.

Robert fell out of fashion in the 1980’s and so concentrated largely on television work. From 1981 until 1983 he played FBI Agent Bill Maxwell in the series ‘The Greatest American Hero’, which had William Katt as a schoolteacher turned superhero. A return to movies came in 1987 when he co-starred with Angie Dickinson in the exploitation sequel ‘Big Bad Mama II’. A video rental favourite followed with the Michael Biehn sci-fi thriller ‘Timebomb’ (’91), a watchable actioner with a good supporting cast. Robert’s later jobs included much voice-over work including some for popular video games, although he did have a good recurring role in the TV hit ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. Culp’s final appearance came in the 2010 Adam Baldwin feature ‘The Assignment’, a decent coming-of-age drama with an air of mystery.

Married five times, Robert Culp died in California on March 24th 2010, aged 79. A reliable and very talented actor, he always took his roles seriously no matter how big or small the part. He lent gravitas to some lesser films and worked well in both comedy and drama. The mark of a true professional.

Favourite Movie: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Favourite Performance: Hannie Caulder

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