Saturday, April 3, 2010

Robert Culp and John Forsythe

The last couple of weeks have brought sad news to those of us who grew up watching TV in the fifties and sixties.

Last week, Robert Culp died. I first remember him from “Trackdown,” in which he played Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. I don’t remember any of the episodes. I’m not sure I even watched any; I was quite young. But Culp’s sullen presence made an impression on me.

In the early sixties he was an occasional visitor to my family’s TV screen, kind of like a cousin who drops by while he’s just passing through town, guest-starring on what was available.

Then there came “I Spy,” and who can forget those images of him in the opening montage: first, that horizontal split screen during the show’s opening, in which his eyes, at top, reacted to the scenes below, and then that shot of him looking at the camera, then throwing a bomb at it? And his easy camaraderie with Bill Cosby, the type of relationship you can’t force. I sometimes wondered whether they were, to some extent, improvising. Were they? Then again, did it really matter?

After “I Spy,” more guest shots, most notably on “Columbo.” Not only did Culp play three murderers in the original series (one of them wearing a moustache; I suppose this was to prevent the lieutenant from saying, “Oh, just one more thing: Haven’t I arrested you before?”), but in the ABC revival of the show years later he played the father of two murderous college students.

Culp was such a perfect “Columbo” villain (perhaps in a dead heat with Jack Cassidy) that when Mad magazine published its satire of the show, called “Clodumbo,” the murder looked remarkably like Culp and, of course, was named “Robert Culpable.”

Perhaps his best role in more recent years was that of FBI agent Bill Maxwell in "The Greatest American Hero," where he was over the top (and perhaps a little sideways) in a part that called for exactly that kind of approach.

Would I have wanted to know him in real life? I dunno. I remember seeing him on an episode of “The $10,000 Pyramid,” where, as I recall, he got way too intense; at one point, after one of the rounds, they even had to bleep his reaction to the news that his team hadn’t done as well as he wanted. I also have a pretty good idea that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. But I’ve also heard that he was a great guy, one you definitely wanted to have on your side, and I’d prefer to think of him that way….

John Forsythe, who died this week, was one of those guys who probably would have never really made it as a big-screen star but who was more at home on the little screen – and we viewers were always comfortable with him there, too.

I never watched “Dynasty” – shows like that and “Dallas” rarely interested me, even if I appreciated the talent that went into making them. I mostly remember Forsythe from his “Bachelor Father” series of the fifties and sixties, in which he played carefree Bentley Gregg, who winds up taking care of a niece.

It was a pleasant enough, forgettable show. Some years ago a cable station showed reruns of it. I watched maybe a couple all the way through, and parts of other episodes. Not exactly must-see TV; it was more the type of thing Universal/Revue churned out. And as a kid I remember hearing that Sammee Tong, who played Gregg’s servant, had killed himself. And I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to Noreen Corcoran, who played the niece, and whether she was related to Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran of the Walt Disney TV show.

Anyway. John Forsythe was a classy guy who, by all accounts, never blew his own horn but seemed content to sit on the roadside of superstardom -- one of those lucky people who not only march to the beat of a different drummer but come up with the arrangements as well.

“Bachelor Father” was part of an era of TV history in which the stars often thanked the viewers “for inviting me into your home.”

Given Mr. Forsythe’s professionalism and self-deprecatory charm, we should have been thanking him.

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