Robert Culp and Bill Cosby knew they were taking a risk in the mid-1960s when the actors teamed up as globe-trotting spies in “I Spy.” The NBC series was the first drama in American television to feature an African American actor in a lead role.
But making history ultimately was secondary to their impact on each other, according to Cosby, who spoke warmly about his former costar who died unexpectedly this week after taking a fall near his Hollywood Hills home. The men developed a personal bond that extended far beyond their on-screen partnership, and their two-member secret society puzzled, even exasperated, their wives.
“Even to this day, [Cosby’s wife] Camille would just walk away when Bob and I got together,” Cosby recalled with a laugh during an interview Wednesday. “We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything.”
“To our wives,” continued Cosby, “it was some kind of code. Sometimes we would start to laugh, seemingly at nothing. Our wives hated the two of us together. It must have been horrible for them. They became friends and just looked at the two of us like we were nuts.”
They worked together from 1965 to 1968 in the groundbreaking, lighthearted drama in which Culp played Kelly Robinson, a government agent posing as a top tennis player traveling the world, while Cosby portrayed spy Alexander Scott, Robinson’s trainer and traveling companion.
“The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them,” Cosby said. “Bob was the answer to my dreams.”
In a 1994 interview, Culp addressed the significance of the show: “No other black man and no other white man would have made it work. We just got lucky. We met and decided that we liked each other. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other.”
When the series launched, Culp had a full résumé of film and TV roles, but Cosby was still an unproven dramatic actor -- even though he could point to a booming stand-up career and wildly popular comedy albums. Despite Cosby’s mainstream success, some affiliates, angered by the black actor’s prominence, refused to air the show.
The two overcame other potential land mines as well. During the three-year run of “I Spy” they competed head-to-head three years in a row for an Emmy in the lead dramatic actor category. Cosby won the award each time.
“Bob was the actor and I was the entertainer,” Cosby recalled. “The day after each of those awards, I went to work with a feeling of guilt and darn near embarrassment. As soon as Bob appeared at work, he would come and say, ‘How you feeling?’ I said, ‘OK.’ The next thing I knew, I had forgotten all about the Emmy.”
They gave each other nicknames. Culp was “Hoby,” a character he played on “Zane Grey Theater.” Cosby was “Dobbsie,” after the Humphrey Bogart character in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” -- a movie both men loved. “Whenever one of us would make a mistake, we would start to dance like the old man in the movie who finds gold,” Cosby said.
One of the funniest on-set moments came during a long scene in which the two agents were interrogating a suspect. Cosby muffed his lines a couple of times, and the shooting had to start over. The tension was building -- no one wanted to do the scene over, remembered Cosby.
“Finally we get to the last page, where Bob’s last line is, ‘Where did Manny take the stolen body?’ and we’re there, and Bob gets this look and says, ‘Where did Manny sober?’ and he just stood there with this look like he had said the line right. And I just went. . . . Everybody lost it. We could not stop laughing.”
After “I Spy” ended in 1968, the two worked together again in 1972’s hard-edged detective thriller, “Hickey & Boggs,” and later in 1994’s “I Spy” TV movie. Though they lived on different coasts, they remained close.
“I attribute our friendship to Bob and his honesty,” Cosby said. “More than anyone else I’ve ever worked with, he was the first person to sense or smell what I was about, from ground zero. No matter how many mistakes I made, he never stopped teaching and protecting me. He was the big brother that all of us always wished for.”