Of course looking at it today, it doesn’t seem like such a
momentous event, but nearly 50 years ago in September 1965 on NBC, the debut of
I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill
Cosby was a big deal… No, let’s make that a HUGE deal.
First of all, forget that awful 2002 I Spy movie remake with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson; but then again, you don’t have to. It was
pretty forgettable anyway, even while you were watching it.
But the TV series was something else altogether. It premiered
at a time of great traumatic political and social upheaval in the country, and
a lot people felt that a new era was dawning. Though there had been a few TV comedies
headlining black performers such as Amos
and Andy and Beulah, I Spy was
the first drama with a black co-star.
And even better, he wasn’t some subservient tag-along just
following orders, he was his white partner’s equal and they were true friends Cosby was everything that black folks so longed to see on TV. He was cool, suave, funny, good looking, heroic, and most importantly, intelligent.
Practically every black household with a TV (and if you didn’t have
one, you borrowed one or went to your neighbor’s house with the big Zenith color
console in the living room) had to see I Spy every week, just to see Cosby being all cool, brave and
smart. In its small modest way, it was radical and offered something of a promise of what
could be possible.
During its heyday, it was
one of the most popular and talked about TV shows until the end of its run, in
the late spring of 1968; and for Cosby, who
had been an up-and-coming stand-up comedian, led him on the path to becoming one of
the biggest and most influential TV stars in the history of the medium.
The show was a spy thriller about two CIA agents who globe-trotted around the world on dangerous assignments, with Culp using the cover of a tennis player, Kelly Robinson, while Cosby was his Rhodes Scholar educated trainer
and manager Alexander Scott. But the show was striking also because of the easy-going, comic repartee between the two leads, which was, most of time, improvised by
the two, giving headaches to the writers and directors. Another unique aspect was that it was the first American TV show in
which at least half of the episodes each season were shot on actual locations in Europe and
Asia, instead of on some phony studio backlot.
In reality, the original premise of the show was going to
be something quite different. Former actor and, by then, mega TV producer Sheldon
Leonard, originally had the idea of pairing Culp’s character with an older more experienced
agent who would have acted as his father figure and mentor. But when Leonard saw
Cosby doing one of his comedy acts one day, he realized it was a much better and brilliant
idea to pair him and Culp instead, as two buddies yukking it up, while fighting and
shooting their way through danger.
And besides, he knew that pairing a black and white guy together
would garner a ton of attention as well as viewers, provided he could find a TV network
willing to go along with it; and he eventually did with NBC.
For Cosby himself, the show was of great importance, not only because it made his career, but also for a very important lesson
he learned which eventually paid off big time for him.
You see, Culp (who passed away 2010), by the time I Spy came on the air, was already a very well established TV and film actor and not only co-created the series (though uncredited), but also owned a percentage of the show. This
meant that he was still making a lot of money from the show long after it ended its network run, from syndication and foreign sales and reruns; something practically no actors had done then, and very few are in a position to do even today. It’s something that Cosby was very fortunate
enough to learn very early on in his career, and, no doubt, negotiated for himself, for all the other TV shows he did after I Spy, in the following years.
So to get to my point, all this was just background
for me to tell you that the entire series will be released all shiny and remastered, on DVD, from Shout Factory /Timeless
Media Group, in a box-set titled I Spy: The Complete Series, on June
24th – all 82 episodes
in an 18-disc box set.
If you’ve never seen it, take a look at this episode, written
by Culp, who wrote several episodes. It’s titled The Loser and was directed by Mark Rydell, who went on to have a distinguished
career in film directing: On Golden Pond,
The Rose, and one of the best westerns made during the 1970s, The Cowboys. The episode guest-starred Eartha Kitt as a drug-addicted jazz
singer who gets entangled up with the guys, and some evil drug smugglers in Hong Kong.