The actor Robert Culp, who unexpectedly died a couple weeks ago at the age of 79, has long struck me as an example of an increasingly rare type of American male. Like Peter Graves, who also recently passed away, Culp always seemed to project an air of confident masculinity. Or masculine confidence, if you'd prefer. Either way, he was a good old-fashioned "man's man." Not macho, with all the arrogance, cruelty, and phoniness often implied by that term, and not misogynistic, either, but simply a man who had no hang-ups about being a man. It was a trait of his generation, I think, something as instinctive for them as breathing. And they were the last generation for whom carrying the Y chromosome would come so easily.
Now, I've got nothing against feminism per se -- I think the women's movement of the '60s and '70s was both necessary and generally resulted in positive change -- but it did make being a man considerably more complicated for those males who grew up in the aftermath, especially those of us who looked to pop culture for guidance. What the hell were we supposed to be like, anyway? The sensitive Alan Alda/Phil Donohue intellectual types that were lauded in the '70s as "the new man," or the reactionary, bodybuilding action heroes who took over the big screen in the '80s? How can we be kind and noble without being self-loathing and tortured, strong without being hypermasculinized caricatures? I'm 40 years old and I'm still trying to find the proper balance between those extremes, to figure out just what being a man is all about.
But guys like Robert Culp, Peter Graves, Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood -- God, yes, Clint! -- they just seemed to come into the world already knowing. No, that's not quite right... they wouldn't have even wondered how to be a man. They simply were. And that I think is the secret of their enduring appeal, the reason why we still think they're cool even now, years after the prime of their careers and even, in many cases, their deaths. I admire men like this, and I envy them. And I'm really starting to miss them now that there are so few of them left.
The standard obituary for Robert Culp inevitably seemed to focus on his role in the 1960s television series I Spy, in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby as a secret agent disguised as a globetrotting tennis player (Cosby's character was also an agent, whose cover was as Culp's trainer.) This is appropriate, I suppose, since I Spy was both successful and groundbreaking. It was the first time an African-American had held a lead role in a dramatic series, although the series commendably did not make an issue of it; Culp and Cosby's characters were equals and friends who never mentioned their respective races, thus "making a statement by not making a statement," to paraphrase Culp himself. Honestly, though, I'm not too familiar with that one. I remember seeing a few syndicated reruns of the show way back in my high school days, and I recall liking what I saw, but somehow I Spy failed to make it into my personal canon.
No, when I think of Robert Culp, I think of two roles that weren't nearly as groundbreaking but were, for me, far more indelible.
The first was in an episode of the original Outer Limits sci-fi anthology series called "Demon with a Glass Hand." Culp plays a man who is pursued through time by sinister aliens who want to kill him because, apparently, he holds the key to the survival of the human race somewhere up ahead in the future. The only thing is, he has no memory of his identity and no idea why these guys are after him. (That plot may sound somewhat familiar. It sounded very familiar to the episode's writer, the famously confrontational Harlan Ellison, who sued James Cameron for ripping off "Demon" and another Ellison-penned Outer Limits segment called "Soldier" when Cameron made The Terminator. Personally, I've always thought "Soldier" was the more Terminator-esque of the two. And I also think Ellison is a loud-mouthed ass with a persecution complex. Regardless, though, every home video release of The Terminator has born an extra credit: "Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison.")
As Trent, the titular character who relies on the transparent computer device he wears in place of his left hand, Culp shows a remarkable emotional range: frightened, brutal, compassionate, loving, resigned, lonely, and ultimately, very, very human. I saw every episode of The Outer Limits multiple times when I was a kid, but this one has stayed with me the most strongly, and that's largely due to Culp's excellent work.
Then there was FBI agent Bill Maxwell in the comedy-adventure The Greatest American Hero, which ran for three seasons on ABC in the early '80s. I think all of my readers probably know this one, but if you somehow missed it, the series followed the adventures of a mild-mannered school teacher named Ralph Hinkley (briefly -- and ridiculously -- renamed Hanley after the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley) who is given a superhero costume by some mysterious extra-terrestrials. The costume grants Hinkley actual super-powers, but because he lost the instruction manual, he doesn't know how to control them. Much of the show's humor derives from Ralph's clumsy attempts to learn how the suit works; one recurring gag is him trying to fly like Superman, only he flails his arms around in a blind panic before he finally crashes into a building or a dumpster or something. Culp's character, Bill Maxwell, is thrown together with Ralph purely by chance -- they both happen to be out in the desert when the UFO comes calling -- and the two form an uneasy partnership, with Bill calling on Ralph to help him fight crime. (That's Culp as Bill and William Katt as Ralph in the photo above.)
Thinking back on the show now, it occurs to me that the leads were deliberately designed to represent opposing political and philosophical extremes. (I don't think I really got that as a kid; at the time these originally aired, I just thought they were a variant on The Odd Couple, one grouchy guy and one nice guy.) Bill is defined as a Reagan-style conservative: tough-talking, no sympathy for criminals, no tolerance for anything he sees as "deviant." Ralph, meanwhile, was an almost archetypal California liberal, very touchy-feely, concerned with respecting everyone and not abusing his abilities in any way. That's actually an interesting dynamic for a series in which "real" people are granted superpowers. Which world-view is going to guide your hand? Do you force people to do the right thing and punish those who don't (an admittedly simplistic generalization of the conservative view of justice)? Or do you attempt to help people and guide them to better behavior through example?
The timing of a series with that dichotomy framed against that scenario is interesting, too, coming right at the beginning of the Reagan Administration when conservatism was making a comeback after the apparent failure of liberalism under Jimmy Carter, and the culture wars of a decade earlier still simmering. It's been years since I actually saw an episode of Greatest American Hero, so I may be reading too much into vaguely remembered storylines -- this lightweight series probably was not hosting a terribly deep dialogue on the respective values of our nation's political extremes -- but from what I recall, the show did convey a sociopolitical message: although there was always friction between Ralph and Bill, they were friends, and they ultimately needed each other -- and each other's different approaches to problems -- in order to accomplish the mission at hand. So apparently the racial non-statement of I Spy wasn't the only note of tolerance Culp sounded in his long career.
Robert Culp died on March 24, having suffered a heart attack while walking near his home. My first thought was that it was an ignominious death, but upon reflection, it doesn't seem that bad... a swift departure at an advanced age while doing something you enjoy.