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I Spy (1965 TV series): Wikis


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I Spy
Format Espionage
Developed by David Friedkin & Morton Fine
Starring Robert Culp
Bill Cosby
Theme music composer Earle Hagen
Country of origin  United States
No. of seasons 3
No. of episodes 82
Executive producer(s) Sheldon Leonard
Original channel NBC
Original run September 15, 1965 – April 15, 1968

I Spy is an American television secret-agent adventure series. It ran for three seasons on NBC from 1965 to 1968 and teamed Robert Culp as international tennis player Kelly Robinson with Bill Cosby as his trainer, Alexander Scott. The characters' travels as ostensible "tennis bums", Robinson playing talented tennis as an amateur with the wealthy in return for food and lodging, and Scott tagging along, provided a cover story concealing their roles as top agents for the Pentagon. Their real work usually kept them busy chasing villains, spies, and beautiful women.

The creative forces behind the show were writers David Friedkin, Morton Fine, and cinematographer Fouad Said. Together they formed Three F Productions under the aegis of Desilu Studios where the show was produced. Fine and Friedkin (who previously wrote scripts for radio's Broadway Is My Beat and Crime Classics under producer/director Elliott Lewis) were co-producers and head writers, and wrote the scripts for 16 episodes, one of which Friedkin directed. Friedkin also dabbled in acting and appeared in two episodes in the first season.

Actor-producer Sheldon Leonard, best known for playing gangster roles in the 1940s and '50s, was the executive producer (receiving top billing before the title in the series' opening title sequence). He also played a gangster-villain role in two episodes and appeared in a third show as himself in a humorous cameo. In addition, he directed one episode and served as occasional second-unit director throughout the series.




Characters and settings

I Spy broke new ground in that it was the first American television drama to feature an African-American actor (Cosby) in a lead role. Originally an older actor was slated to play a fatherly mentor to Culp's "Kelly Robinson." But after seeing Cosby performing stand-up comedy on a talk-show, Sheldon Leonard decided to take a chance on hiring him to play opposite Culp. The concept was changed from a mentor-protege relationship to same-age partners who were equals. It was also notable that Cosby's race was never an issue in any of the stories.[1] (Except that all the women with whom Scott was romantically involved were of African descent.) Nor was his character in any way subservient to Culp's, with the exception that Culp's "Kelly Robinson" was a more experienced agent. (Culp revealed in his audio commentary on the DVD release that he and Cosby agreed early on that "Our statement is a non-statement" regarding race, and the subject was never discussed again.) As a straight-laced Rhodes scholar fluent in many languages, Cosby's "Scotty" was really the brains of the team. His partner (Culp) was the athlete and playboy who lived by his wits.

Another way in which I Spy was a trail-blazer was in its use of exotic international locations in an attempt to emulate the James Bond film series. This was unique for a television show, especially since the series actually filmed its lead actors at locations ranging from Spain to Japan, rather than relying on photography and stock footage. (Compare with the recent series, Alias, which also utilized worldwide settings but rarely filmed outside the Los Angeles region.) Each season the producers would select four or five scenic locations around the world and create stories that took advantage of the local attractions. Episodes were filmed in Athens, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Venice, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Acapulco, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Morocco.

The success of the show is attributed to the chemistry between Culp and Cosby. Fans tuned in more for their hip banter than for the espionage stories, making I Spy a leader in the buddy genre. The two actors quickly developed a close friendship that mirrored their on-screen characters. The show also coined unique phrases that, briefly, became catch phrases, such as "wonderfulness"; Wonderfulness was used as the title of one of Cosby's albums of stand-up comedy released concurrently with the series. Cosby also occasionally slipped in bits of his comic routines during his improvised badinage with Culp. (In one episode Scott, being interrogated under the influence of drugs, says his name is Fat Albert.) Many details of Cosby's life were also written into his character. Scott does not drink, smoke, or womanize—while Kelly Robinson does all three. There are frequent references to Scott's childhood in Philadelphia and attending Temple University (Cosby is sometimes seen wearing his own Temple sweatshirt), and in the "Cops and Robbers" episode, Scotty returns home to Philadelphia to re-visit his old neighborhood.

Comedy and drama

I Spy was a main fixture in the wildly popular secret-agent genre of the 1960s—a trend that followed hot on the heels of the hugely successful James Bond films. After the blockbuster earnings of Goldfinger in 1964 and Thunderball in 1965 (which confirmed the spy craze was more than a passing fad), the "gold rush" was on at every studio to produce their own brand of secret agent TV shows, films, and spin-off merchandise. What set I Spy apart from contemporary programs such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and The Wild Wild West was its emphasis on realism. There were no fanciful 007-style gadgets, outlandish villains or campy, tongue-in-cheek humor. Although Culp and Cosby frequently exchanged breezy, lighthearted dialog, the stories invariably focused on the gritty, ugly side of the espionage business. (Culp was a guest star on the fourth episode aired of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1964, and reportedly had been considered for the lead role in that series.[citation needed])

Occasionally the series produced purely comedic episodes such as "Chrysanthemum," inspired by The Pink Panther, and "Mainly on the Plains" with Boris Karloff as an eccentric scientist who thinks he's Don Quixote. However, most episodes dealt with more serious subjects (e.g., heroin addiction in "The Loser") and didn't shy away from ending on a somber note. This is perhaps the only television drama in the Sixties to set an episode in the then-taboo region of Vietnam ("The Tiger," written by Robert Culp). While filming this episode in 1966, a romance ensued between Culp and Vietnamese guest star France Nuyen. The two were married the following year, and Nuyen went on to appear in several more episodes.

Another unique feature of the series was a running gag involving a locked-room scenario. Time and again the two spies would be captured and left in a locked room, cellar, or warehouse. After much humorous repartee they would improvise an ingenious escape using whatever materials were at hand. For example, in "A Cup of Kindness" they create an explosive out of chemical fertilizer and dry ice.

Culp as writer

The series was additionally notable in that co-star Culp wrote the scripts for seven episodes (one of which he also directed), including the show's first broadcast episode, "So Long, Patrick Henry." In the Sixties it was exceedingly rare for an actor in a dramatic series to write scripts, much less direct, for his/her own show. Prior to joining I Spy Culp wrote a pilot script for a proposed series in which he'd play an American James Bond-like character. He took the script to his friend Carl Reiner, who recommended he meet with Sheldon Leonard, who was in the midst of creating I Spy. This script was eventually rewritten by Culp and produced as the episode "The Tiger." In the DVD audio commentary for the "Home to Judgment" episode, Culp reveals that his seven episodes were the only ones filmed exactly as written. He wrote them to establish a specific dramatic tone and level of quality for the other writers to follow. Nevertheless, Culp and Cosby were dissatisfied with the often frivolous and formulaic scripts they received and rewrote most of their dialog and improvised a great deal during filming.

Awards and nominations

  • First-time actor Bill Cosby won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Robert Culp was also nominated in the same category for all three seasons of I Spy.
  • Eartha Kitt, who played a drug-addicted cabaret singer in "The Loser" (written by Culp), was nominated in 1966 for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Drama.
  • In 1967 Culp was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in a Drama for his third-season script "Home to Judgment."
  • Earle Hagen composed an original musical score for each episode of the series, often flavored with the ethnic music of the Far East, Mexico or the Caribbean. Hagen received Emmy nominations for all three seasons of the show and won for the "Laya" episode in 1968.

Reunions and remakes

Four years after the series ended its three-year run in 1968, Culp asked Cosby to co-star with him in the film Hickey & Boggs (1972), a downbeat and violent detective story written by Walter Hill. Culp was also the director, but the film did not show any of the warmth and camaraderie characteristic of I Spy.

Culp made a guest appearance on The Cosby Show on April 9, 1987, in an episode titled "Bald and Beautiful" in which he plays an old friend of Dr. Huxtable's named "Scott Kelly," which was a play of words on both of their I Spy characters, Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson.

In I Spy Returns (1994), a nostalgic television movie, Culp and Cosby reprised their roles as Robinson and Scott for the first time since 1968. The original opening title animation is faithfully recreated, other than adding "Returns" to the title itself, and giving Cosby—by this time a much bigger star than Culp—top billing. Cosby was also the executive producer. Here the aging agents have to leap into action once again to rescue their children, Bennett Robinson (George Newbern) and Nicole Scott (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) who are now operatives for their fathers' agency. This was shown as a "CBS Movie Special" on February 3, 1994.

Culp again reprised the role of Kelly Robinson during a dream sequence in a 1999 episode of Bill Cosby's series, Cosby, entitled "My Spy." Cosby's character falls asleep while watching I Spy on television and dreams he's caught up in an espionage adventure. With Cosby's name replaced with that of his character here, Hilton Lucas, the old title sequence was again faithfully recreated.

The duo also reunited once more for an appearance at a TV special marking the 75th anniversary of the NBC television network in 2002. Cosby was actually on stage with his Cosby Show co-stars at the time in reference to that sitcom. However, he called on Culp (who was in the audience) to join him as well and both men received a round of applause and cheers when they donned their sunglasses and tossed off a few wisecracks in a nod to their secret agent characters.

A movie remake I Spy followed in 2002 with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. Like most remakes, it diverged from its source material. This included reversing the character names so that Alexander Scott (Wilson) was now the white agent and Kelly Robinson (Murphy) the black athlete, possibly an allusion to Murphy's popular "Mr. Robinson" sketches (a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood parody) on Saturday Night Live. The film was a commercial and critical flop. In his 2009 Movie Guide, film critic Leonard Maltin describes the film as an "In-name-only reincarnation of the smart 1960s TV show.... An object lesson in bad screenwriting, with an incoherent story, and characters that make no sense."

The original television series and the 1994 reunion movie are both available on DVD. Episodes 1-25 of the first season of the television series are also available on Joost and all 82 episodes are available on Hulu and Videosurf, from the DMGI Classics channel.

Popular culture parodies

  • Mad magazine published a satirical comic of the series in 1967 called "Why Spy?" featuring characters named "Killy" and "Scoot".
  • Get Smart, the spy-spoof television series, did a parody of the show in the 1968 episode titled "Die Spy". In this, agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) pretends to be an international table-tennis champion. The episode faithfully recreates the theme music, montage graphics, and back-and-forth banter between Robinson and Scott—with actor/comedian Stu Gilliam imitating Cosby. Robert Culp makes an uncredited cameo appearance as an inebriated Turkish waiter.


Original novels and comic books

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp appear on the cover of this 1960s paperback based upon the series.

A number of original novels based upon the series were published, most written in the mid-to-late 1960s by Walter Wager under the pseudonym "John Tiger." Wager, under his own name, authored numerous thrillers, three of which were adapted into films: Telefon, Viper Three (Twilight's Last Gleaming) and 58 Minutes (Die Hard 2). The I Spy novels were published by Popular Library:

  • I Spy (1965, no book series number on cover)
  • I SPY #2: Masterstroke (1966)
  • I SPY #3: Superkill (1967)
  • I SPY #4: Wipeout (1967)
  • I SPY #5: Countertrap (1967)
  • I SPY #6: Doomdate (1967)
  • I SPY #7: Death-Twist (1968)

The following tie-ins, not by Wager, were also published.

  • Message From Moscow (1966) by Brandon Keith. This was a hardcover novel published for young readers by Whitman.
  • I Spy (2002) by Max Allan Collins - novelization of the motion picture remake

Gold Key Comics also published six issues of an I Spy comic book between 1966 and 1968.

I Spy: A History And Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series, published by McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, in January 2007, examines I Spy's contribution to American television and society by being the first series to star a black and a white actor together, and also being the first weekly production to film around the world, developing the technology to make this possible. This "biography of a television series" was written by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa, with a foreword by Robert Culp. I SPY: A History to the Groundbreaking Television Series

Syndication and home video

The underlying rights to the original series is now owned by independent film company Peter Rodgers Organization, Ltd. (PRO), but original production company Three F Productions remains the copyright holder.

Selected episodes of the series were made available on VHS in North America in the early 1990s.

Image Entertainment released the complete series on DVD in Region 1, initially in a series of single-disc volumes (each with four episodes), which were later compiled into three box sets. The episodes were not presented in any particular order. In addition, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the 1994 reunion made-for-TV film on DVD in Region 1 on October 8, 2002.

In April 2008, Image/PRO reissued the series, this time organized in order of original broadcast, in three box sets, one for each season. This includes Robert Culp's bonus audio commentary on four episodes that he wrote (originally issued in 2002 on a single DVD called The Robert Culp Collection).

DVD Name Ep # Release Date
I Spy- Box Set#1 28 October 8, 2002
I Spy- Box Set#2 28 October 8, 2002
I Spy- Box Set#3 26 October 8, 2002
I Spy Returns 1 October 8, 2002
I Spy Season 1 28 April 29, 2008
I Spy Season 2 28 April 29, 2008
I Spy Season 3 26 April 29, 2008


In 2008 FamilyNet Television began airing I Spy in two hour blocks each afternoon, beginning at 1 ET. I Spy is on occasion a part of the Retro Television Network programming.

See also

Other uses

I Spy was also the title of a short-lived thriller series starring Raymond Massey that aired in 1956.


  1. ^ The November 9th, 2007 Episode of The O'Reilly Factor featured an interview with Culp. It also showed a clip of one early episode titled "Danny was a Million Laughs" in which Cosby's character was the brunt of a Shoeshine racial remark. Culp said he and Cosby went to the producers after that episode and insisted it never happen again

External links


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