A versatile actor, Robert Culp moved back and forth between television and film, lead and supporting roles, heroes and villains.
Ranger Hoby Gilman in the series Trackdown (1957-1959), Culp was the earnest and sincere Texas Ranger who became entrenched in drama across the great state of Texas. Culp was one of a generation of actors like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and James Garner who started on television but who found big screen success in the 1960’s.
Television Westerns proved to be a launching pad for greater success. In the late 1950’s McQueen, Garner, Culp, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Chuck Connors, James Arness, Clint Walker, Gene Barry and others had weekly series. Television in these days employed some of the most talented writers and directors, the result of which were mini plays that were character-driven tales, that explored the depths and peaks of humanity, often where the law is what each person stands up for. Little wonder why 60 years later these programs still run on cable television.
Culp worked on other television series, Spy (1965–1968) and The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983), but mainly worked in episodic television and film. Culp and Robert Vaughn are sometimes confused for each other, they bare a slight resemblance but often played similar parts, steely, serious and often authoritarian or villainous characters. Sometimes both.
Culp has his greatest film success in the 1960’s and early 1970’s including PT 109, Sunday in New York, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Hannie Caulder, but never broke through as a lead actor. He was tall, handsome and a fine actor, but he lacked star power, which is unusual because he could own the screen. His adaptability for television roles may have been his curse. He made a lot of television appearances in the 1960’s as he was in demand for both series and guest star roles.
I Spy may have been his best television role, it certainly gave him a broad acting canvass, and he wrote and directed several of the episodes. Although he made some films over the next decade, he was back to working mostly on television.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) was a risque film comedy about partner swapping and open marriage. While the film may seem dated today, in 1969 it embraced the sexual mores of the time. It was a high grossing film, gained positive reviews and nominated for several Academy Awards. Funny, it aired recently on Turner Classic Movies and one person posted a note that the film is trash and pornographic. While it may not be high art, it definitely is not trash.
Hannie Caulder (1971) was a revenge Western starring Raquel Welch and Culp, who played her gunslinging teacher and eventual lover. It is a very good role for Culp who doesn’t have to carry the film but is really the dramatic spine of the film as the bounty hunter who gets Hannie ready to do battle with the killers of her husband. Culp brings a masterful, businesslike approach to bounty hunting.
Hickie & Boggs is a film starring Culp and Bill Cosby, and directed by Culp, who also put together the financing for the film. A buddy picture, two private investigators are hired to find a missing girl. The film was written by Walter Hill (48 Hours, Red Heat, The Getaway) but rewritten by Culp. It is reported that Cosby insisted that Culp be the director.
Culp would contribute scripts and director a couple of episodes of The Greatest American Hero, but he would essentially be an actor for the rest of his career.
Culp starred in three of the best episodes of Columbo (and co-starred in a fourth), and with Jack Cassidy and Patrick McGoohan, are the three best Columbo villains.
“Death Lends a Hand” (1971) Culp’s first Columbo episode. He played Paul Brimmer, a former police officer who has built a large and successful private investigation firm. He also uses his firm to blackmail those who can help him, and he tries to do that with the wife of a client. This unfortunately backfires and he accidentally kills her, then is brought onto the case as an advisor, and attempts to sidetrack Columbo’s investigation. Brimmer is the angriest of Culp’s Columbo characters and it is this anger that leads to murder.
The final scene of the episode is among the best minutes of all Columbo episodes. This scene involves the Culp character who does show remorse when caught, Ray Milland’s character, the murder victim’s husband, and Columbo.
“The Most Crucial Game” (1972) Culp is pro football team general manager Paul Hanlon, who arranges the killing of the team’s young, playboy owner. Hanlon is cool, power hungry, egotistical and adept at manipulation.
“Double Exposure” (1973)” Culp is Dr. Bart Kepple, a motivational researcher who has a sideline in blackmail. This episode is famous for using the device of subliminal advertising as the trigger to get Kepple’s victim to where he can kill him. Kepple is cold-blooded and methodical, and Culp plays him perfectly.
Culp as a Columbo villain was always a cool cat, intelligent, powerful and held his power close, could dish out anger when needed, and seemingly thought he was above everyone else.
Culp’s easy ability to play these egocentric people may have helped typecast him. His characters often were detached and unfeeling, and he could bring an edge to his voice that conveyed an irritation with people.
If you watch his Hoby Gilman character, you see Culp draw on his broadest range of emotions. His ranger character is sometimes scared, confused, angry, determined, loyal and weary. Culp was an effective actor and he had a fine career. A few more Hoby-type characters would have shown more of Culp’s talent.