Robert Martin Culp was an American actor, born in Oakland, California, on August 16, 1930. He decided to become an actor at an early age, appearing onstage while still in his teens. The tall, well-spoken and extremely good-looking Culp was soon spotted by talent agents, making his television debut in 1953. Role after role soon followed, and in 1957, Culp appeared on the television program Zane Grey Theatre, playing the character of a 19th-century Texas Ranger named Hoby Gilman.
This appearance led to a starring role in the series Trackdown, in which Culp reprised the role of Hoby Gilman, lawman and de facto sheriff of the town of Porter, Texas. The series ran from 1957 to 1959, with a staggering (to modern minds) number of episodes: 70.
Culp then guest-starred on almost every TV western of the 1960sHis roles varied widely, from a hard-drinking veterinarian (The Virginian) to a man dubbed a coward (The Rifleman) to a Civil War veteran who has become a morphine addict (Rawhide). Other television appearances during the 1960s included a hard-bitten sea captain in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a mysterious lodger in an adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables, and the memory-affect character of Trent in “Demon with a Glass Hand”, perhaps the most famous and popular episode of the popular series The Outer Limits.
In 1965, Culp starred in the racially groundbreaking series I Spy. He played Kelly Robinson, a secret agent who travels the world as a tennis pro. Comedian Bill Cosby played his partner, Alexander Scott, ostensibly his trainer. This was the first time on American television that a black man was given equal status to a white man, and certain areas of the Southern United States didn’t broadcast the show. Offscreen, Culp also took part in civil-rights marches with Cosby. The series ran for three years.
In 1969, Culp played one of the title roles in the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice¸ about a married couple who, after taking part in a weekend retreat, decide to have a sexually open marriage, and encourage their best friends to do the same. At this point, Culp had a number of opportunities available, and was later to regret that he didn’t take advantage of them. He made Hannie Caulder, a Raquel Welch vehicle, and Hickey and Boggs, the only film he ever directed, teaming him once again with good friend Bill Cosby. The theatrical film A Name for Evil was meant to be a horror film, yet takes a sharp left turn into the bizarre with a scene at a party-turned-orgy; Culp appears completely naked in one memorable scene.
A string of projects followed, including the well-crafted TV film A Cold Night’s Death, co-starring Eli Wallach; Flood, another 1970s disaster movie; and Spectre, co-starring Gig Young and John Hurt, in which Culp and Young play a team investigating supernatural occurrences.
In 1981, Culp agreed to star in The Greatest American Hero, his third starring series for television. As hard-nosed, dedicated FBI agent Bill Maxwell, he finds himself paired with a liberal high-school teacher who has been given a suit with magical powers by extraterrestrials. The show still has many loyal followers, though it was canceled after only 44 episodes.
On March 24, 2010, while taking a walk outside his home, Culp suffered a severe heart attack and collapsed. He was found by a passerby, who called 911. Culp was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died. He was 79.