Robert Culp, dead at 79, was a great American hero himself

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Sadly, Robert Culp died yesterday at the age of 79 from a fall outside his home. Culp made a mark as a dynamic screenwriter, director and actor whose career spanned more than 50 years on television and in movies, including several notable sci-fi roles.

Younger fans may not remember him: Mention the name Bill Cosby and even the youngest of us know who you're talking about. Mention the name Robert Culp, and it's another story. He might be remembered best as Debra's dad on Everybody Loves Raymond.

But Bill Cosby and Robert Culp are indelibly linked by a hit series called I Spy, which ran from 1965 to 1968 and broke race barriers. It was about a white tennis player named Kelly Robinson (Culp) and his black trainer, named Alexander Scott (Cosby). The two traveled around the world but were actually spies.

While I Spy boosted Culp's already healthy career, it made Cosby a star at a time when black actors just weren't given those kind of rich, vibrant roles. The fact that the men had great chemistry, and that the show was filled with action and humor, helped make the series a hit. The fact that one man was white and the other was black, and that they were virtually equals on the show, made that series special. I Spy was also a critical success, with both Culp and Cosby being nominated for best-acting Emmys three years straight. And Cosby beat Culp every time.

Of course, for sci-fi fans, Culp's important accomplishment was as Bill Maxwell in 1981's The Greatest American Hero, the tough handler of Ralph Hinkley (William Katt), the schoolteacher who finds a superhero outfit and becomes a reluctant hero.

Though he could easily have fallen into playing only cowboys and cops, Culp starred in more than 163 roles, according to the Internet Movie Database, beginning in 1953. Culp's career included such sci-fi and genre shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., three episodes of The Outer Limits (including the critically acclaimed "Demon With a Glass Hand" by Harlan Ellison), Get Smart, Houston, We've Got a Problem, Lois & Clark and The Dead Zone.

Beyond his television and film acting, Culp was a well-known and respected screenwriter, writing several I Spy episodes, including the pilot episode. He also wrote scripts for The Rifleman and The Greatest American Hero. In addition, he directed episodes of Spy and Hero, along with the feature film Hickey & Boggs, which starred both Culp and Cosby. He also lent his voice to the 2004 computer game Half-Life 2 as the prime antagonist, Doctor Breen, and in 2007 in Robot Chicken Culp voiced his Hero character, Bill Maxwell.

Check out these vintage video clips of Culp discussing his work.

Culp chats about the creation of I Spy

Culp discusses working with Bill Cosby

Culp talks about his character Bill Maxwell in Greatest American Hero