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The Illustrated Guide to I Spy
History of "I Spy"

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

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The wonderfulness which came through across the television screen was a fine mixture of creative talent, not only before and behind the camera, but at the desk as well.  Select any of the links above for more information.

“I Spy” was the brainchild of SHELDON LEONARD.  With his background on the big screen, he had long envisioned a possibility for series television to break out of its studio constraints, and take to the high road.  Early TV had all been a matter of very small screens (necessitating largely close-up images), bulky equipment and conservative thinking.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

Sheldon Leonard had been toying with the idea of an hour-length dramatic series which would have a close kinship  with the travelogue.  The advent of James Bond, and the subsequent trend he spawned, gave Leonard a genre to give substance to his concept.  To exotic locations and espionage, he added  the elements of sport, wit and the inevitable pair of contrasting lead characters.

His métier had been situation comedy, and that's what NBC had in mind when they approached him to put together a new show for them.  Still, they bought the proposal immediately, and even without a pilot, though he had never had experience with an hour-length format before.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

His selection of ROBERT CULP  was not only a natural, but a fortuitous one.  Culp's ability to create an instant role is just what a series requires.  His athletic background was another important factor.  (Though there was a definite irony involved here indeed:  he had never played tennis!)  Actually,  Robert Culp had approached Sheldon Leonard shortly before NBC did with an idea of his own for a series, not a million miles away from the producer's.  An action adventure series, which also contained comedy, touching relationships, intelligent dialogue and exotic locations.

It was for a half-hour drama (with Robert Culp as star), featuring a former spy who comes out of retirement for special assignments.  You can get a feeling for the material by viewing the “I Spy” episode “The Tiger,” which was loosely based on that original pilot.

Sheldon Leonard and Bob Culp were certainly in agreement on one thing.  The series they were talking about  should not rely on technical gadgetry, and should be reality based. Leonard felt that the former destroyed any possibility of the latter, and that gimmicks, in wrecking realism, also precluded the possibility for genuine comedy.  There was a tentative agreement between the pair, that should  Leonard be able to get his concept off the ground, Culp would play a part.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

With NBC's go-ahead, Leonard brought in the team of DAVID FRIEDKIN AND MORT FINE.  The three put flesh on the project, and - along with composer EARLE HAGEN - began scouting the world for locations.  In the end, they settled on Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico, the latter being a special favorite of Leonard's for the wealth of unique, attractive locations not yet familiar to the television public.

One major TV breakthrough down, another to go - a matter of casting the second lead.  They were looking for someone who would be both athletic, and a contrast to Culp.  This was starting to prove difficult.  Carl Reiner, who was actually the one who had put Robert Culp in touch with Sheldon Leonard, came up with the answer.  He pointed out someone who'd been delighting late-night talk show audiences with his humor, the stand-up comic, BILL COSBY.  The rest is …  Well, not quite.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

They made a quasi-pilot (technically a  test film) “Affair in Tsien Cha.”  And Bill Cosby was, unfortunately, rather stiff.   The whole charm of his talent had been that loose quality which had so appealed to Leonard from the start.  Moreover, as a stand-up comedian - a one-man show, he was not used to working before a motion-picture camera (with all its constraints), much less acting, much less  Ensemble work.  Add to this the fact the company was having trouble with equipment, unfamiliarity with one another, weather, etc.  Under the circumstances he wasn't so bad at all.  But the show was certainly not the ideal opening episode, and ended up first being shown during Christmas week.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

While NBC's Robert Kintner had initially reacted neutrally about the casting of a black actor in one of the starring roles, perhaps others  had different feelings, or rather, after thinking it over, they started to consider the large portion of their network in what might loosely be termed the Greater South.  It was then easy, after viewing the “pilot,” to say that the black man's acting was not up to scratch.  That was reason enough to have him replaced.  But Sheldon Leonard (supported by Robert Culp) reacted with “no Cosby - no show,” and this time, he won.  Everyone won.

But Cosby really did need to improve his acting.  There was a remedy for the problem in the form of “acting coach” Robert Culp.  He guided the young comedian in the arts of film acting, and it was a job well done.  Bill Cosby has three drama Emmies to prove it.

Robert Culp

In addition to the difficulties any neophyte would have when thrown in at the deep end of acting, Cosby had a special one.  It was his speech pattern, which made it difficult to execute a scripted line with naturalness.  He just felt more comfortable putting his own sculptured style of speech into the dialogue.

So the team bended to this quirk.  In fact, they turned it into an asset.  Very much of what people remember of the series is the style of dialogue.   It unquestionably appealed to co-star Robert Culp for one, and he joined right in and started using Cosbyspeak as his regular dialect.

Such was the conception and tentative first steps of “I Spy.”  But we must return to the making of that “test film” in November 1964 to find what really set its heart beating.  The background is showbiz legend.  An enormous typhoon which closed Hong Kong down for nearly a week.  It was there in the famed Marco Polo Suite of the Peninsula Hotel that the “I Spy” we've come to know emerged.  “Cooped up” in the mini palace with its majestic view of Hong Kong Harbor in torment, the team, now including Culp and Cosby, talked and talked and talked.  Nothing else to do.  They teased out ideas, developed their friendship, explored the possibilities for the characters.  What might have been just another spy-genre series became a vehicle which has lasted the test of time.

And Robert Culp delivered the scripts which breathed life into Leonard's idea.  He captured the essence of the characters, their sensitivity to one another, their brightness and ethic.  While Robert Culp had been turning out scripts for some years, it was "I Spy" which offered the world its first real glance  at his wondrous talent as a writer.

He composed four screenplays for the first season, all done unbeknownst to the producers who were working on stories of their own.  Completed between December and March, before the company made their first jaunt to the Orient,  “The Loser,” “So Long Patrick Henry,” “The Tiger” and “Court of the Lion” represented some of the finest material seen on the series.  And the first two provided the perfect frame for Bill Cosby's budding acting talents to flower.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

Initial filming began in April 1965.  The season was broken down into three groups of nine episodes, Each of these consisting of six weeks shooting on location, followed by 12 weeks doing the dramatic sequences on a sound stage in Hollywood.  It was all part of Sheldon Leonard's unique strategy which meant that the network had to give summary approval to the entire group of scripts for a locale.  That was, by the way, unique in TV history, but just one of many “I Spy” firsts.

So, on a given day in Hong Kong, for instance, scenes could be shot which would fit into any number of episodes.  After this smorgasbord from the nine shows, they would return to California, and  systematically complete individual episodes.

That was just one more thing about “I Spy” which made its production complex, daring and very challenging.  They even had two directors of photography - the indomitable and ingenious Fouad Said on location, with the calm and serene Fleet Southcott for sound stage work.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

They traveled with an entourage of 50-plus individuals (often including wives).  In many locations they depended heavily on the cooperation of the local NBC News Bureau.  The Location Manager was the versatile LEON CHOOLUCK who did everything he could to keep them within their budget.  This was around $200,000 per episode, but they never remained within this figure which Sheldon Leonard received from NBC.    He covered many of the company's unexpected expenses (like the cost incurred when a coup took place in Greece just before they were to start filming there!) out of his own pocket.

In all, 82 episodes of “I Spy” were shot.   After the first season, they moved on to France, England (neither of which were actually named as locations in the episodes) Italy, Spain, Morocco and Greece.  The latter country provided some of the most exquisite locations for the series, and in fact, “I Spy” was the first film company to extensively cover the Greek islands.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

Sheldon Leonard hoped to take the spy genre into a higher form, going beyond the Good American-Bad Russian scenario.  With the ingenuity of Robert Culp and a number of other writers, he succeeded in tackling other issues.  We can also thank NBC's Grant Tinker for the freedom he gave them.  Some stories were mediocre, but enough were as brilliant as any action series has produced.

And “I Spy” had its influences everywhere.  There was even an episode of “Get Smart,” where Maxwell Smart and his partner become traveling ping pong players, using the sport as a cover for espionage.  Robert Culp even played a cameo in the episode as a waiter.

Bill Cosby & Robert Culp

As the third season of “I Spy” unfolded, perceptible changes were taking place in the series.  There were more and more adlibs by the stars, fewer expensive locations, a general malaise and fatigue in many concerned with the show which began to manifest itself in more and more lacklustre episodes.  Producers David Friedkin and Mort Fine had decided to move on.  Their duties in a fourth season were to be taken over by film editor Art Seid and writer Ernest Frankel.  Nine scripts were in place,  and the team were preparing to take off for location shooting in Australia.

And then, so suddenly, “I Spy” was no more.

The show was popular.  Why did it last only three years?  In its third season, it traded timeslots with “Run For Your Life” which had been running on Mondays at 10 pm.  This move was very unsuitable for “I Spy,” and it fell heavily in the ratings.  There was a bit of gamesmanship at NBC, and Sheldon Leonard was forced to make an economic choice between having "I Spy" go on into profitable syndication or let it limp on another year or two, eventually having no rerun value.  He had enjoyed his hands-on work with “I Spy.”  Now it was time to recoup some of his losses.

It seems a cruel, cruel thing when there could have been so much more.  But Sheldon Leonard was a canny man.  He foresaw that “I Spy” could last in syndication by his action.  That's why people who were born  25 years after it went off the air are still discovering the series and learning to love it.   And in 2001 IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT released the entire series on DVD, for an enthusiastic fan base which spans those who were adults in the sixties to teens who discovered it in 1980s reruns.

Without doubt, “I Spy” will always be remembered for being the first TV series having an Afrrican American in a leading role.  That is its importance in television history.  The second breakthrough was its mobility, but those who know “I Spy” will remember other things , most notably, the style, the best scripts and most of all, the magnificent portrayal  of friendship.

Get all episodes from
I Spy Season 1

I Spy Season 2

I Spy Season 3

Read the I Spy Book

Film Score Monthly has released an album  of five “I Spy” scores
by Earle Hagen on CD.

Direct from the soundtracks of "So Long, Patrick Henry" -  "A Time of the Knife" - "Turkish Delight," - "The Warlord" -  "Mainly on the Plains" along with a 24-page booklet of liner notes and photos and foreword by Robert Culp It'

Buyt it through Amazon

Earle Hagen, composer of the music from “I Spy”  has now published his autobiography
"Memoirs of a Famous Composer -  Nobody Ever Heard Of"

Read the inside story on I Spy!
scouting locations with Sheldon Leonard - life on the I Spy set
and the rest of Earle Hagen's  fascinating career in big bands, movies & TV

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