While NBC chose to ignore its groundbreaking series I Spy in their 90th Anniversary special, they ignored not only the work of Bill Cosby but also heroes such as Sheldon Leonard, Robert Culp, David Friedkin, Morton Fine, Mark Rydell and NBC who risked their lives and reputations to fight to place this show on television. They faced racism from both television stations and viewers. They received hate letters and death threats. Yet they persevered. It took courage.
The show made an impact as a television show and on social history. It can’t be denied, despite the revisionists based on subjective emotions against Cosby.
Here is a I Spy 101 from Wiki that looked at the series and its impact in their article.
For 3 years and 82 episodes that began on September 15, 1965 and ended April 15, 1968, I Spy was an American television secret-agent buddy adventure series. It ran for three seasons on NBC and teamed US intelligence agents Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander “Scotty” Scott (Bill Cosby), traveling under cover as international “tennis bums”. Robinson poses as an amateur with Scott as his trainer, playing against wealthy opponents in return for food and lodging. Their work involved chasing villains, spies, and beautiful women.
The creative forces behind the show were writers David Friedkin and Morton Fine and cinematographer Fouad Said. Together they formed Triple F Productions under the aegis of Desilu Productions 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, known for playing gangster roles in the 1940s and 1950s, 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.
I Spy broke ground in that it was the first American television drama to feature a black actor (Cosby) in a lead role. Originally an older actor was slated to play a fatherly mentor to Culp’s character. 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-protégé 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. 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 strait-laced Rhodes Scholar fluent in many languages, Cosby’s “Scotty” was really the brains of the team. His partner was the athlete and playboy who lived by his wits.
I Spy was a trailblazer 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 stock footage. (Compare with the recent series, Alias, which also utilized worldwide settings but rarely filmed outside the Los Angeles region, and I Spy’s contemporaries Mission: Impossible & The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Also on NBC), which were completely filmed on the Desilu and MGM back lots.) 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, a friendship that would last until Culp’s death in 2010. The show also coined unique phrases that, briefly, became catchphrases, 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 or smoke—while Kelly Robinson does both. 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 revisit his old neighborhood.
I Spy was a fixture in the popular secret agent genre of the 1960s—a trend that began with the James Bond films. By 1965, virtually every studio was producing 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.
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 did not 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)[original research?]. While filming this episode in 1966, a romance ensued between Culp and Vietnamese–French guest star France Nguyen. The two were married the following year, and Nguyen went on to appear in several more episodes.Of course looking at it today, it doesn’t seem like such a momentous event, but nearly 50 years ago in September 1965 on NBC, Cosby was a big deal… No, let’s make that a HUGE deal.
First of all, forget that awful 2002 I Spy movie remake with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson; but then again, you don’t have to. It was pretty forgettable anyway, even while you were watching it.
But the TV series was something else altogether. It premiered at a time of great traumatic political and social upheaval in the country, and a lot people felt that a new era was dawning. Though there had been a few TV comedies headlining black performers such as Amos and Andy and Beulah, I Spy was the first drama with a black co-star. And even better, he wasn’t some subservient tag-along just following orders, he was his white partner’s equal and they were true friends Cosby was everything that black folks so longed to see on TV. He was cool, suave, funny, good looking, heroic, and most importantly, intelligent.
Practically every black household with a TV (and if you didn’t have one, you borrowed one or went to your neighbor’s house with the big Zenith color console in the living room) had to see I Spy every week, just to see Cosby being all cool, brave and smart. In its small modest way, it was radical and offered something of a promise of what could be possible.
During its heyday, it was one of the most popular and talked about TV shows until the end of its run, in the late spring of 1968; and for Cosby, who had been an up-and-coming stand-up comedian, led him on the path to becoming one of the biggest and most influential TV stars in the history of the medium.
The show was a spy thriller about two CIA agents who globe-trotted around the world on dangerous assignments, with Culp using the cover of a tennis player, Kelly Robinson, while Cosby was his Rhodes Scholar educated trainer and manager Alexander Scott. But the show was striking also because of the easy-going, comic repartee between the two leads, which was, most of time, improvised by the two, giving headaches to the writers and directors. Another unique aspect was that it was the first American TV show in which at least half of the episodes each season were shot on actual locations in Europe and Asia, instead of on some phony studio backlot. In reality, the original premise of the show was going to be something quite different. Former actor and, by then, mega TV producer Sheldon
Leonard, originally had the idea of pairing Culp’s character with an older more experienced agent who would have acted as his father figure and mentor. But when Leonard saw
Cosby doing one of his comedy acts one day, he realized it was a much better and brilliant idea to pair him and Culp instead, as two buddies yukking it up, while fighting and shooting their way through danger.
And besides, he knew that pairing a black and white guy together would garner a ton of attention as well as viewers, provided he could find a TV network willing to go along with it; and he eventually did with NBC.
For Cosby himself, the show was of great importance, not only because it made his career, but also for a very important lesson he learned which eventually paid off big time for him.
You see, Culp (who passed away 2010), by the time I Spy came on the air, was already a very well established TV and film actor and not only co-created the series (though uncredited), but also owned a percentage of the show. This meant that he was still making a lot of money from the show long after it ended its network run, from syndication and foreign sales and reruns; something practically no actors had done then, and very few are in a position to do even today. It’s something that Cosby was very fortunate enough to learn very early on in his career, and, no doubt, negotiated for himself, for all the other TV shows he did after I Spy, in the following years.
Robert Culp was also deeply involved and wrote several episodes. The show had great directors including the wonderful Mark Rydell.
Overall, it was an impressive undertaking that made an impact on both television and social history.