I Spy’s Robert Culp dies

Two 1960s spy icon die the same month. Robert Culp, who starred with Bill Cosby on I Spy, died at the age of 79 after collapsing outside his Hollywood home, according to an Associated Press story on the Web site of The New York Times.

His death comes just 10 days after the death of Peter Graves, the star of Mission: Impossible.

Culp provided edgy, unpredictable performances for decades. In I Spy, he played Kelly Robinson, a U.S. agent who had a cover as a “tennis bum,” which enabled him to travel the world. Culp’s Robinson was a man whose world was shades of gray, not black and white. He often had plenty of reasons to question the value and ethics (or lack thereof) in his work. Of all the 1960s spy shows, I Spy perhaps came the closest to dealing with real-world Cold War themes.

Culp also scripted some of the best episodes of the series, including the first broadcast on NBC, So Long, Patrick Henry. (Note: Hulu lists it as the pilot episode but it isn’t; NBC selected the episode to air because network executives believed it was a stronger show than the pilot, which didn’t air until about mid-season.)

If you’d prefer watching the episode on YouTube, you can do it right here:

If you’re not up to watching an entire episode, here are the main titles from another episode featuring Culp, Cosby and a great theme by Earle Hagen:

While we’re at it, here’s a memorable Culp cameo in an episode of Get Smart:

UPDATE: The New York Times now has its own staff-prepared obituary on its Web site.

Salute to Peter Graves

Peter Graves wasn’t the first star of Mission: Impossible. Steven Hill was. But Graves was the actor most identified with the show, the longest-running (seven seasons) of the 1960s TV spy series that got their start because of the James Bond movies.

Here’s a typical opening to an M:I episode:

It’s from an early second-season episode (Graves’s first on the series) where Jim Phelps’s Impossible Missions Force fakes an earthquake in San Francisco.

In 1988, ABC comissioned a new M:I series. In part, the network’s decision stemmed from a writer’s strike that halted production of new shows in Hollywood. But that didn’t stop remakes of existing scripts. So, the new M:I debuted with a remake of a show from the original series. In this version, the IMF team leader is killed by an assassin. But his mentor was Jim Phelps. As a result, the audience sees a lonely figure observing the funeral…

Somehow, you just *know* that Jim Phelps isn’t going to leave things as they are…

Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves dies

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Peter Graves, star of the both the original Mission: Impossible series and its 1980s revival, was found dead at his California home, apparently from natural causes.

Graves, the brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, was brought into M:I starting with the show’s second season. The show never explained why Graves’s Jim Phelps replaced Steven Hill’s Dan Briggs as the leader of the Impossible Missions Force. In any case, for the next six years, Graves (as well as Greg Morris) would be a constant in a show that went through a lot of turmoil and cast changes, with the likes of Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Leonard Nimoy, Lesley Warren, Sam Elliott and Peter Lupus (who was replaced for a time before returning) coming in and out as regulars.

Obituaries for Graves will also prominently mention his work on Airplane! but because this is a spy entertainment-focused blog, we had to include this montage on YouTube of opening titles from the original show. It keeps repeating the theme to get in more clips of episodes than the typical opening of an M:I installment:

And here’s a titles sequence from the 1988-90 revival to show Jim Phelps lighting the fuse.

UPDATE: The New York Times has now published a longer obituary. You can view it by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.

1968: Time analyzes Mission: Impossible’s appeal

Few people remember Bruce Geller today. He created Mission: Impossible, developed Mannix and was viewed in his heyday as a brilliant television producer. His series were known for very stylized title sequences. In fact, it’s his hand who strikes the match that lights the fuse in the M:I title sequence of the original TV series. He died in a aircraft crash in 1978 but was very much on the mind of Time magazine a decade earlier when it described his most successful TV product:

The program is TV’s hottest suspense series, and its fans find in it the same inspired implausibility that characterized The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in its prime. Bruce Geller, 37-year-old film, TV and off-Broadway writer who conceived the whole enterprise, concedes that his original script was basically a paste-up of Topkapi and several other favorite movies. When Hollywood wouldn’t buy it, he turned to Desilu. When Desilu proposed a series, he turned nervous, fearing he would run out of ideas—his own or other people’s. But he tried, and made it. M:l won four Emmys last year, and now in its second season it ranks as a solid favorite in the Sunday evening slot formerly occupied by Candid Camera and What’s My Line? Needless to say, Lucille Ball is disavowing nothing.

In many ways, Time described M:I at its peak. In the third season, a quarrel between Geller and his best writers, William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, would lead to the departure of the latter duo. Also, during the second season, Paramount acquired Desilu from Lucille Ball. That led to a new studio regime that emphasized cost cutting — which, in turn, led to the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

To read the entire, story, just CLICK HERE.