Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Classic and Cult Television presents: I Spy on March 19th

Robert Culp & Bill Cosby

Next month, Greenwich Library's Classic and Cult Television program will be presenting an episode (in color) of one of the coolest TV shows I ever watched from the 1960s: I Spy , starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby . The show ran from 1965 to 1968 on NBC and was notable for a number of things, which authors Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa explain in greater detail than I could in their 2007 book on the show, I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series . (Yes, Greenwich Library does carry it.)

Here's the "Staff Picks" review of the book I did a while back:

I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series (791.4572 CUSHM): Authors Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa chart the production history of the popular 1965-68 NBC television series “I Spy” which starred Robert Culp and then-newcomer-to-dramatic-acting Bill Cosby as undercover American agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott in a fascinating way. Beginning with showing how the show originated (both Culp, also a writer, and producer Sheldon Leonard came up with a similar idea to do a series with a globetrotting hero filmed in actual foreign locations), the authors cover such items as the selection of Cosby, then best known for his comedy monologues on TV and record albums, the back-end deals Leonard made with the network and foreign governments to fund the series, creative conflicts between the stars and the producers (both Culp & Cosby liked to depart from the script during filming, especially when they didn’t care for the writing), Culp’s rocky personal life, his feud with Leonard, & his struggles to write for the series, and the never-before-revealed reason why “I Spy” was cancelled after three successful seasons. There are also amusing stories about working with guest stars like Martin Landau, Jim Brown, Boris Karloff, Nancy Wilson, Greg Morris, Godfrey Cambridge and Peter Lawford, on-set pranks, a hilarious tracking of the number of times the leads were always held in locked rooms in certain episodes, and the experiences of working in foreign lands & how unpredictable things could be. (While filming in Greece in April, 1967 for example, Culp, Cosby, Leonard & the production crew wound up in the middle of the Greek military’s infamous overthrow of that country’s government. For awhile, it seemed as though the stars might never be allowed to leave the country.) Actual locations where the show was filmed included Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Spain, Greece (just barely), and in the USA, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

But aside from being a belated, albeit well-written (with several rare photos and production stills), & researched history of the series with critical reviews of the show’s individual episodes (of which Culp wrote seven, as well as directing one of them) included, the authors also point out the social and political significance of “I Spy”. It was the first hour-long dramatic series with an African-American actor as one of the leads. Cosby’s Scott is an equal (and sometimes superior to) Culp’s Robinson, with the two often acting more like brothers than partners. (None of that “opposites attract”-type stuff, where the leads childishly bicker with each other to Show They Really Care, made famous by the “Lethal Weapon” films, that’s still a lazy storytelling device used to derive cheap laughs in movies & TV today, appears in “I Spy”.) Both men are depicted equally as quick-witted, resourceful and, most importantly, steadfastly loyal to each other, even under overwhelming odds. This was especially notable in the mid-60s when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to make great strides for African-Americans and other minorities, and where the idea of equality for all, regardless of race, could be achieved . (In fact, several NBC stations, fearing backlash from bigoted viewers, actually refused to air the program in their markets.) Even more importantly, Bill Cosby, thanks to his genuine talent, professionalism & overall charisma, was able to become one of the biggest stars television helped develop, as well as helping provide opportunities for other minority performers in the medium. That might not have been possible had Sheldon Leonard and Robert Culp hadn’t stood up for Cosby. (NBC was originally very skittish about airing the series, even going so far as pushing for Cosby’s dismissal after the first episode was filmed, but thanks to Leonard & Culp’s tenaciousness and Cosby’s subsequent rising popularity, backed down.)

As both a chronicle of a still-fondly remembered television series and as a document of the social & political period “I Spy” was created and produced in (yes, there’s also good show-biz gossip) , Cushman and LaRosa’s I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series (with a foreword by Culp) is essential reading.

I'll have more to say about the show in an upcoming post. -Ed

Related links: Cinema Retro ; Spy Wise

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