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CBS Spies a Reunion : CULP AND COSBY PAIR UP AGAIN

January 30, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Culp may grimace at the mention of "Sammy, the Way Out Seal," but a smile comes to his face when he talks about "I Spy."

Culp, along with a very young Billy Mumy and a slippery seal, was a star of the Walt Disney-produced comedy "Sammy," which aired more than 30 years ago on Uncle Walt's NBC series "The Wonderful World of Color." A lot of baby boomers probably got their first glimpse of the actor in "Sammy." But Culp, now 63, doesn't see it as his finest hour.

"Starting in 1958, I had a growing family," the actor explains, relaxing in the living room of his agent's spacious Beverly Hills home. "That family was four children in 10 years. When you have a growing family ... you don't really argue a whole lot. You take what (jobs) you get."

Culp's best known for his role as secret agent Kelly Robinson on "I Spy." The Emmy Award-winning series, which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1968, was the first regular dramatic show on American TV to feature a black (Bill Cosby) in a starring role. "Everybody's forgotten that," Culp says. "It was a long time ago. After all, it was 29 years ago that we started the show."

Culp and Cosby, who won three Emmys for his work on the original lighthearted action-espionage series, have reunited for "I Spy Returns," which was shot last summer in Vienna.

In the '60s series, Robinson was a former Princeton law student who played tennis on two Davis Cup teams. Working for the government, his guise was that of a top-seeded tennis player traveling the world to play tournaments. Cosby's spy Alexander Scott masqueraded as his trainer and traveling companion. He also was a graduate of Temple University and a Rhodes scholar.

In the reunion movie, Scott has long retired from the spy business, but his daughter (Salli Richardson) is following in her father's footsteps. She's been recruited for intelligence work by Robinson. Scott follows his daughter to Vienna after he learns Robinson has teamed her with his son (George Newbern), also a novice in the spy business.

Culp and Cosby have been wanting to do to an "I Spy" movie for years. They tried to get one made as a feature film and, when that deal fell apart, as a syndicated TV movie. "While it was sitting in limbo," Culp says, "(CBS President) Jeff Sagansky heard about it. He latched onto this like a bulldog. He said, 'I want to do it. We will have it at CBS.' It's been a long, tortuous process."

Before filming began, Culp and Cosby reminisced about old times over dinner in New York.

"We talk all the time on the phone, but I hadn't seen him in a couple of years. We dined in this restaurant where all the really rich people in New York go to have din-din. I was watching them and I realized they were watching us. We caused quite a stir. We cause quite a stir wherever we go now. People who remember--or they think they remember what something was--have a very strong response to 'I Spy.' "

Thirty years ago, Culp recalls, he heard that some NBC affiliates refused to air "I Spy" because of Cosby. "Bill and I lived a very strange, insular life," Culp says. "We worked 'above it all.' If there was hate mail, we never saw it. It was filtered out before it got to us. If there were problems with the network, they were filtered out. If there were problems with regard to any part of the production, most of it, except the really personal stuff, was kept away from us. We just skated along doing one-third of all the shows overseas, which no one had ever tried to do before and has never been done since."

And, he says, no other actors could have played Robinson and Scott. "No other black man and no other white man would have made it work," Culp says. "We just got lucky. We met and decided that we liked each other at first sight. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other. It was like Burns and Allen."

Besides directing several episodes of the series, Culp also wrote seven, including the pilot.

"I have been a serious, dedicated writer since I was 17," says Culp, who directed the 1972 feature "Hickey & Boggs."

"The writing has sustained me, changed my life, changed my career, all the way through the years. By the time I got to New York, I had this sudden spate of luck (as an actor) and then nothing. The writing sustained me. I became a successful actor almost by mistake. It was something I shouldn't have done. I am a much better writer than I am an actor. And I am a better director than a writer."

"I Spy Returns" airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBS; repeats of "I Spy" air weekdays at 10 on KDOC.

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