Spy, which ran on NBC from 1965 to 1968, was a Sheldon Leonard
Production which chronicled the exploits of fictional characters
Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp)and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby). Robinson
and Scott, who posed as a professional tennis player and his personal
trainer, were in reality spies for the United States. I Spy
was a whimsical adventure show with a hip wit characteristic of
the espionage genre in the 1960s. But rather than being drawn in
the cartoonish James Bondian style, Robinson and Scott were fully
realized characters who displayed a range of feelings and concerns
uncharacteristic of spy television heroes. They bled, got headaches,
and often doubted themselves and their role in global affairs.
Cold War has often been considered a generative force for the television
espionage programs. The genre of spy fiction, which arguably began
its 1960s cinematic version with Dr. No, made its way to
television in 1964 with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Many imitators
followed, but I Spy was a departure from the style established
in earlier shows. In this series, Robinson and Scott did not battle
against shadowy organizations of global evil, such as THRUSH from
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or SPECTRE from James Bond films.
Rather, the show recognized political tensions of the day. I
Spy unashamedly acknowledged the role of the United States in
the arena of world espionage.
the entire first season was filmed on location in Hong Kong and
other Asian locales. Leonard, as well as producers David Friedkin
and Morton Fine, had no qualms about spending money to avoid a "backlot"
look to the show. Associate producer Ron Jacobs and location manager
Fuad Said worked with both their own "Cinemobile" and film crews
from NBC News Asian bureaus to get much of the location footage
used in that first season. The second season was filmed almost exclusively
in Greece, Spain, and other Mediterranean locations, using similar
the series did not depend exclusively on exotic location and "realism"
for its narratives. It also looked at the personal side of espionage
and the toll it could take on those who practiced it. The characters
would often admit and lament the fact that they had to fight the
forces of evil on their level. Unlike many shows of the genre,
I Spy dealt with agents dying cruel deaths, burning out on the
spy game, and often even doubting the nature of orders from superiors.
This questioning of authority was more at home in programming based
on the "counterculture" pitched toward the youth of the times. Yet
Cosby and Culp more often than not straddled the fence between rebellion
and allegiance despite the fact that after the premiere of I
Spy, New York Times Television critic Jack Gould called it a
show "looking for a style and attitude."
Spy was one of the first dramatic shows to feature an African-American
male as a leading character. Producer Leonard was certain of Cosby's
talents but the network had grave doubts about casting an untested
stand-up comedian in a dramatic lead. The network's concerns were
quickly dispelled by Cosby's deft and multifaceted talent--a talent
which garnered him three consecutive Emmys as Best Male Actor in
a Dramatic Television series between 1965 and 1968. Originally,
the role of Alexander Scott was to have been that of a bodyguard
for Kelly Robinson. Both Cosby and Culp conferred with the three
producers (Leonard, Friedkin, and Fine) and the decision was made
to have Robinson and Scott as equals. Cosby also stated that racial
issues would not be dealt with on I Spy. This "color blind"
approach freed the show from having to impart a message each week
and instead allowed it to succeed by emulating the conventions of
the genre of espionage adventure. I Spy also showcased the
talents of other African-American actors of the time including Godfrey
Cambridge, Ivan Dixon, and Eartha Kitt. As a result of its ostensible
neutrality on race relations, African-Americans could be heroes
or villains with a minimum of political overtones.
never a Top Twenty show, I Spy enjoyed three successful years
on NBC. Bill Cosby in particular enjoyed very high Q ratings (audience
appreciation ratings) for the run of the show. In 1994, an I
Spy reunion movie was broadcast. But more than a quarter century
had passed since Robinson and Scott last toiled to preserve world
security and the viewing audience was not as welcoming as it had
Robinson....................................... Robert Culp
Alexander Scott........................................ Bill
Sheldon Leonard, David Friedkin, Mort Fine
September 1965-September 1967 Wednesday 10:00-11:00 September 1967-September
1968 Monday 10:00-11:00
Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press,
Sheldon. And The Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures.
New York: Limelight Editions, 1995.
J. Fred. Blacks And White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since
1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983.
also Cosby, Bill;