NOVEMBER 16, 2014
AT FIRST, the sound they made was jazz. Two hipsters, effortlessly tuned into each other, familiar with each other’s rhythms, elisions, phrasing, each so confident he didn’t feel the need to outdo his partner. And they were partners. When the white guy was offered the gig he made it clear he wouldn’t take it if the black guy was only going to be a sideman. Partners. That’s how it was going to be. Each distinct enough to be a soloist and both secure enough to duet. Like put-on artists, they talked to each other as only two men committed to playfulness could talk, finding a way to say what was important without saying it. Keeping their cool, keeping their style no matter what tempo changes got thrown at them was as much a matter of pride as being turned out in the coolest threads. And there was never any of that talk about, Is the white guy hip enough to play with the black guy? The question always was, were we hip enough to hear them?
Nearly 50 years after it premiered on NBC in September 1965, I Spy remains television’s oasis of cool. There have been smarter shows, deeper shows, more daring shows, shows that played with the medium. But there’s been nothing like the effortless cool embodied by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby playing two spies traveling the world in the guise of a tennis pro and his trainer. I Spy was famous for being shot in exotic locales, but the glimpses of those lands couldn’t disguise the cardboard studio-set quality of the exposition scenes. And unlike another spy show that was a hit at the same time, the British-import The Avengers, I Spy didn’t have particularly clever plots or the sci-fi comic-book weirdness of the adventures in which John Steed and Emma Peel found themselves each week. Steed and Emma epitomized British reserve and dry wit retrofitted for 1960s mod. Cosby’s Alexander Scott (“Scotty”) and Culp’s Kelly Robinson were American smartasses who dug jazz, European tailoring, and the luxe surroundings you might see in one of those “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?” ads. They also never broke a sweat.
Culp had worked on the New York stage and as the lead in a Western series called Trackdown. Early on he showed an interest in writing and directing. By the time I Spy went off the air after three seasons, he’d written seven episodes. Cosby had come up through nightclubs and began releasing comedy LPs, all of them best sellers. In 1964, though, he was less a stand-up comic than a humorist. There were jokes in his act, but mostly you heard stories, long stories about family life or being a kid growing up in a city neighborhood, with characters that were both strange and instantly believable. Listening to Cosby, you could start to imagine that the oddballs who populated the banks of Twain’s Mississippi had spawned descendants in inner-city Philadelphia. (Pudd’nhead Wilson meet Old Weird Harold. You two have a lot to talk about.) It was after seeing Cosby at a nightclub gig that the actor-turned-producer Sheldon Leonard, veteran of a dozen tough-guy movie roles, abandoned the idea of making Scotty an older mentor to Kelly and instead cast Cosby, who had never before acted. Culp later said of the partnership, “We met and decided that we liked each other. Everything else for me and Bill took second position to that. Both of us had total trust in each other.”
That trust seems to be where their rapport came from. Culp later claimed that the seven episodes he wrote over the show’s three-year run were the only scripts filmed as written. Watch almost any scene between him and Cosby and you can believe that’s not just a scenarist’s boast. “We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” said Cosby after Culp’s death in 2010. It would be next to impossible to write for two actors who’ve achieved that. Their scenes raised adlibbing to the level of telepathy. The dialogue was sometimes so softly spoken that you had to lean in to hear what they said. And the lead-ins were never predictable. In one episode, imprisoned and watched over by a Spanish guard who has a guitar along with his rifle, Kelly initiates a gambit to break out. Slouched against the wall of the cell, seemingly engaged in looking at something on the floor of the cell, he says to Scotty just what you might expect of someone in that situation: “Listen,” Kelly begins, “You, uh … dig flamenco?”
“Yeah,” answers Scotty earnestly, fiddling with his hat, as if there were nothing weird about this sudden inquiry, as if nothing could be more important at that moment than conveying his respect for the artistry of the Spanish guitar.
“Yeah, great … ’s beautiful,” Kelly says, almost to himself. And then, bright and clear and direct, “Go tell him.”
“What?” asks Scotty, just a tad befuddled.
“Go tell him,” says Kelly, drawing out the words, warming to the idea hatching in his brain, “that you love his work … G’head.” He slouches back against the wall, enjoying his smoke.
Did I mention that Boris Karloff is standing by while all this unfolds?
It ends, of course, with Scotty, who Kelly has convinced the guard is a student of Segovia, using the guitar to bash their captor over the head. But think how a scene like this is usually written and played (“Listen, I’ve got an idea. If you can make him believe you’re a student of flamenco …”). The oddball hipness of what Culp and Cosby do, their determination to avoid the straight course because the zigzag is more fun, seems much more the point of the scene than advancing the plot. Style is paramount. As is trusting that no matter what wiggy course your partner charts for you, he’s going to land you just where you need to be.
What we see in Culp and Cosby’s partnership isn’t an attitude or a put-on, but an ethics of professionalism and respect — a belief that how you carry yourself and how you present yourself says everything about your capability and competence. Everything you needed to know about the show’s loose-limbed elegance could be seen in the white dress shirts Culp wore during the first season: their three-button barrel cuffs (at a time when two buttons was thought to be fashion forward) and a masterpiece of a collar, recalling the soft roll-necked Mr. B Shirts, only with the added touch of button-down tabs. The shirts mixed the precision of Ivy League tailoring with the casual cool of swinger chic. Those shirts seemed like the summation of the loopy professionalism with which Kelly and Scotty approached their job, and Culp and Cosby their roles.
The chemistry between Culp and Cosby was the reason the show was so popular. The equal footing between a white man and a black man was also the reason the show was not shown on some Southern NBC affiliates.
It’s become common to cite race as the show’s enduring significance, which is an ironic legacy for a show that made the decision not to talk about race. “Our statement was a nonstatement,” Culp said. The obvious — Cosby was the first black actor hired for a leading role on an American TV series who wasn’t expected to do the old stooped-shuffling, eye-rolling, “yassuh!” routine — didn’t need to be said. When Culp was offered the show, he made it clear that he was not interested in having Cosby be his sidekick. They were equals or nothing. So the real subject of the show became two actors who trusted each other playing two characters who trusted each other. I Spy and its stars were content to let that trust speak for itself.
It may be foolhardy to look for significance in coincidence. But sometimes chance provides its own kind of melancholy music, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that I Spy premiered six months after the Memphis-to-Montgomery march, the pinnacle of the Civil Rights movement, and aired its last episode a little over a week after Martin Luther King was murdered. In other words, this story of a partnership conducted with an ease that was proving so hard to achieve in real life came just at the time when the heady victories of the previous nine years — the Montogomery bus boycott; the 1964 Civil Rights bill; the 1965 Voting Rights bill; the Memphis-to-Montgomery march — gave way to an America that would retreat from the desire to rectify its sins. “It’s not just Negroes,” President Lyndon Johnson had said in his March 1965 address to Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act, “but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
The years that followed the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement saw the splintering of the alliances that the movement had fostered across races and the ascendant separatism of the Black Power movement. Even before Dr. King’s murder there was a growing, often flip dismissal of his insistence on nonviolence as utopian or, worse, Tomming. The methods of the Black Panthers and other groups, turning the brutality of White Power into a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushed authorities to confrontations the authorities were bound to win. This was summed up by the title of Huey P. Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide. The new reality of the time was a world that seemed to say to people, “You’re on your own.”
That’s the world of the bitter private-eye movie Hickey & Boggs, in which Culp and Cosby reunited four years after I Spy went off the air. The movie’s dour silences, its disappointments, are haunted by the memory of the prankish music that Culp and Cosby made together on I Spy. Culp, directing the only theatrical movie he ever got the chance to make, wanted to work with his old partner, and he must have hoped the pairing would bring in the audiences who remembered I Spy with pleasure. But the few moviegoers who did show up must have wondered just what the hell they were watching. The movie seemed to come out of nowhere and soon returned there.
It’s not just the memory of the chemistry the two stars had in I Spy that haunts Hickey & Boggs. It’s also the dream-vacation locales, the elegant clothes, the sports cars, the whole hip attitude to danger that made risking your life look like a gas. And while there was never any doubt Kelly and Scotty were heroes, Hickey & Boggs doesn’t even provide that assurance. In Walter Hill’s script (written three years before his 1975 directing debut, Hard Times) Hickey and Boggs are two down-and-out Los Angeles P.I.s hired by a mob associate (a gaudy homosexual caricature who’s an implied child molester — one of the movie’s real missteps) to locate the courier who’s absconded with the loot she’d been dispatched to deliver to a money launderer. Their employer claims the woman is a missing girlfriend, but he doesn’t really expect the detectives to believe him and doesn’t care if they do. He knows these two are the type of low-renters who won’t ask many questions. The sting of the movie is that Hickey and Boggs know that about themselves. They understand that this kind of job is how low they’ve sunk, errand boys for the mob but too far in the hole to be able to turn down any business. On some level, they believe that this is the sort of low-rent assignment they deserve.
Hickey & Boggs is determinedly drab. Every wall looks like it needs a paint job, every window is streaked with grime. There are shots of cigarette butts on dirty, buckled linoleum floors. Some indistinguishable swath of the Los Angeles freeway rushes by Al Hickey’s front yard. Inside, swatches of wallpaper have been ripped away from the walls, there’s barely enough light to see, and every conversation, no matter how painful (Hickey is separated from his wife who is living in the house) is conducted to the ever-present sound of traffic.
Frank Boggs, played by Culp, has a house but we never see it. He floats between the office he shares with Hickey, where the phone has been turned off for nonpayment and he sometimes entertains a whore (we see her arm reaching for the 20 as he lays atop her ratty fur), and the dark interior of the rundown bar where he regularly gets soused while watching the fights or the football game on the black-and-white set that sits next to a sign telling patrons that beer is available for take out.
In Hickey & Boggs, Los Angeles looks like it’s on its last legs, the kind of decaying city where the Greyhound station would be the brightest spot in town. It’s a street-level view of the city, what you see driving or walking, not the view from the high-rises springing up round town. The partners’ office is round the back of an ancient brick building next to the rear door of a shoe store that doesn’t look as if anyone ever goes in. But no one ever seems to be anywhere in this Los Angeles. This is a noir that takes place mostly in daylight and yet, from scene to scene, it feels almost as empty as any shadowy street at night. All the locations are in rundown, nearly deserted parts of the city, an elephant’s graveyard of urban life. By the time the movie climaxes on a deserted stretch of beach, you barely notice the Pacific rolling in, and the sun shining through what looks like the only clean air in the movie. You feel as beat out as Hickey, dropping to his knees in the sand. He and Boggs seem so stunned they made it to the end of the case that they can barely take notice of the bodies all around them. They can only mutter that “nobody came … nobody cares.”
Culp carries the thriller plot to its conclusion but, apart from a few crisply directed ambush scenes, it has no urgency. That, I think, is a deliberate move on Culp’s part — and a smart one. Even if Hickey and Boggs manage to retrieve the money and claim the reward that the hoods are offering for its return, money that could get them free and clear of their debts, nothing much is going to change for them. It’s a bitter joke that they survive the final gun battle. They’re not even crucial to the plot, not even heroes in their own movie. “The only thing you can do is goddamn try to even it up,” Boggs says to Hickey during the lowest point of their investigation. But even that hardnosed view is too romantic for Hickey who, at one point, tells his partner, “There’s nothing left to this profession, it’s all over. It’s not about anything.” Hickey knows in his gut that neither he nor Boggs are, like Philip Marlowe, the man who must go down the city’s mean streets or, like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, someone who sets out to restore what decency he can after intolerable secrets have come to the surface.
So instead of a making a thriller, Culp makes Hickey & Boggs a movie about the stasis — financial, professional, spiritual — of these two deeply unhappy, disconnected men. There are few clues to their past. At one point Boggs asks Hickey, “You ever kill anybody … in the U.S.?” and we can guess that somewhere along the way, maybe in the Army, these two met, bonded over shared experience, turned to private-eye work — and to each other’s company — as a way to make a living without having to explain themselves to anyone else. Hickey & Boggs is about the moment when that kind of camaraderie is no longer enough. The interplay that began on I Spy is as much an intuitive marvel as ever. But this time the banter is less about the trust of this partnership than the irritability that comes from knowing your partner too well. “I’m going in the tank tonight, I think,” Boggs, who’s a drunk, says in an early scene, heading back inside the bar they’ve just exited. “Yeah,” says Hickey, not even looking at his partner, having seen him set off on too many nights like this. These two have had it with each other, with having to drive crummy cars and wear uncomfortable “professional” clothes and scrimp to pay for their rathole of an office and eat their lunch at shabby chili-dog stands. They’ve also had it with themselves, but know it’s safer to be annoyed with the other guy than to give in to the self-disgust they feel. There was a moment in the debut episode of I Spy where someone challenged Cosby by asking him who he thought he was. “He knows who he is,” Culp said, and it seemed the highest compliment he could give his partner. Both Hickey and Boggs know who they are, and they don’t like what they know.
Actors’ past roles are part of the history they bring to the screen. It’s why it can be a shock when an actor departs from the persona they’ve established — when Henry Fonda turns into a stone killer in Once Upon a Time in the West or Steve Martin into a song-and-dance man in Pennies from Heaven. I Spy emanated from the good intentions that the civil rights movement had been able to transform into concrete gains for 10 amazing years. Hickey & Boggs is part of a moment when those good intentions had retreated, when the very idea of a unifying spirit or movement was foreign to the fabric of American life. And so while Culp and Cosby play off each other as beautifully as ever (to express bitterness rather than delight), we are watching two men who are essentially alone.
Culp does a very difficult thing for a star-director to do, let alone a first-timer: he doesn’t protect himself from looking weak. When Boggs takes slugs from the fifth of Dewar’s he keeps in the office filing cabinet, Culp makes it look like the bottle is swallowing bits of him. Boggs is the closest the movie comes to a romantic P.I. with a code. He believes in seeing the case through, and he has chivalrous impulses — when his ex-wife leaves her rich boyfriend, he prevails on a club owner to give her old job back as a stripper. But Culp shows just how brittle a shell even that sliver of romanticism is. In his best scene, he sits drunk in a strip club waiting for his wife to come on. She comes out and does her show right in front of him, not even disguising the fact that she’s taunting him for what he can never have, telling him “Eat your heart out.” Culp is more naked than she is. In the midst of the scene, he gives himself a close up that is one of the moments when an actor appears totally exposed before us, but still in control. You see the suggestion of tears forming in his eyes and, in contrast, a sick smile on his face as if, despite the humiliation he’s enduring, he has to show this woman he’s proud of her. It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to turn away except that that would be a disservice to the bravery of the actor in front of you.
Cosby has a scene that’s even better, amazing really, though even as you’re watching it you’re aware that it’s built on a perversity: a natural-born talker made to convey everything through silence. Finally convincing his wife to come back to him for a night, Hickey arranges to meet her at his apartment only to arrive and find that the mob has murdered her. After the funeral, Boggs catches up with him at the bar, where Hickey is occupying his usual stool. The scene that unfolds over four-and-a-half minutes, an eternity in screen time, is an act of generosity on the part of Culp as director and actor. Even though he has every line in the scene, everything he does is to focus attention on Cosby. Boggs is trying to convince Hickey that the time has come for them to act. But with every tack he takes — it’s time to close the case; it’s time to avenge Hickey’s wife; it’s time Hickey put his wife’s death behind him and got on with things — he makes himself more ineffectual. He starts by asking Hickey “You alright?” and when there’s no response, he says “Good,” and that one word tells you that though Hickey is silent, it’s Boggs who isn’t listening — or trying to ignore what’s so plain. Paying no attention to Hickey’s shellshock, Boggs goes on laying out the details of the case, trying to talk Hickey off that bar stool. It’s incredibly callous. Boggs wants the reward money, he’s got to have it, and he needs his partner’s help. Boggs tries everything, even saying to Hickey, “Just because you can’t get this dumb, stupid, pitiful bitch out of your guts.” It’s horrendous, and yet you feel him trying to reach Hickey, and trying in the only way he knows how, by talking to him, by not allowing Hickey to seal himself in. When, in disgust, Boggs makes to leave, he can’t get through the door. Like one of Beckett’s tramps, he’s drawn back to the barstool.
Amazing as Culp is, Cosby surpasses it. It’s the type of acting that would only be possible with the intimacy of the camera and yet I know of no other screen moment like it. Cosby makes Hickey’s silence a reproach. He simply sits there, unmoving, looking down at the bar, distant and yet so present you can tell that every imprecation from Boggs is like a paper cut across his fingers. He isn’t visibly reacting but immersed in a febrile stillness that lets you know he’s hearing every word. The payoff is Hickey getting up and leaving the bar so abruptly that Boggs has to rush to keep up with him. And yet it’s silence and stillness that remains.
That silence and stillness stand for the defeat at the heart of the movie, the simplest and most extreme expression of being immersed in a moment when you realize that nothing is going to get any better, that all of the excuses for why you should go on just sound like so much talk, when there’s been too much lost and too many deaths and you’d just rather not try anymore. It would be a daring scene for an experienced director to pull off. That it’s so superbly executed and so wounding makes it sadder that Culp never got a chance to direct another movie.
Of course, Culp wouldn’t have attempted it at all if he didn’t believe that Cosby could have pulled it off. And so we arrive back at the mystery of trust and rapport. The final irony of Hickey & Boggs is that this movie about isolation and displacement is an affirmation of a real-life partnership. And one that now seems very rich, managing as it did, over the course of a tongue-in-cheek adventure series and a hard-edged downbeat private-eye picture, to capture the mood of the country on the issue that we are forever being told it’s time to have a conversation about. The partnership between Culp and Cosby did that by deciding not to have that conversation which, we know, would have involved the inevitable platitudes and the smug self-satisfaction that comes with the pretense of having faced the tough issues and plastered them over with the facile smiley face of brotherhood. Which isn’t to say that change didn’t come, but that it has never stopped coming. If we measure race by the possibility of change, then it says something about what’s different in American life that now we have to remind ourselves that, in this partnership, the white guy wasn’t just a sideman either.