I Spy broke 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-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. As a strait-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 trailblazer 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, 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 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 its 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.
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). 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.
Before the series, Culp had written a pilot script in which he would play a James Bond-type American spy. He showed the script to Carl Reiner who then recommended him to Sheldon Leonard. The script was eventually produced as the episode "The Tiger".
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