Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Robert Culp 1930-2010

With yesterday's post being dedicated to The Outer Limits, I can say without hesitation or exaggeration that Robert Culp was in my thoughts last night, as there was no other actor who embodied the series and its shining moments as did he; what Burgess Meredith was to The Twilight Zone, Culp was to TOL. And now from Hollywood comes the sorrowful news that the actor passed away this morning at the age of 79 after striking his head upon the ground while taking a walk. Pardon my in-artful choice of words, but that demise is far too pedestrian for someone who stood in the crux of possible human annihilation three times in the series' 49 episode history. In "Corpus Earthling," a metal plate in Culp's head allowed him to overhear the insidious plans of aliens able to camouflage as common rocks of obsidian. "The Architects of Fear" struck right at the heart of US-Soviet tensions, imagining that those Cold War hostilities would take a back seat if Earth learned it was primed for invasion, and Culp played a scientist so determined to avert warfare that he was willing to transform himself into a hideous creature, manufacturing proof that the extraterrestrials were at our doorstep. But Culp's finest achievement was in the watershed second season installment, "Demon With a Glass Hand." As Trent, a man bereft of memory and bearer of the titular appendage, he must piece his identity together as he pieces together the fingers of the computer that offers him clues, all while being hunted by humanoids in a human-less world. The concept by screenwriter Harlan Ellison was positively surreal, but Culp grounded it with humanity that ultimately proves ironic. Of all the work that Ellison has seen adapted for the screen - and believe me, there's a lot of it - he frequently remarked that the finest performance ever in an Ellison teleplay belonged to Culp. He would play dashing heroes and loveable rascals in series like I Spy and The Greatest American Hero, but for me, Culp on The Outer Limits was the veritable embodiment of anxiety: as an actor with Kennedy-esque good looks, he knew the power he held when, for a jittery post-assassination country, he provided an outlet for our nerves. Much of Culp's filmography is safe material, but he was always looking to provide it with an edge, something to make us wonder if this good looking man - who by all rights shouldn't be breaking a sweat - would get out of the predicament he was in. After November of 1963, we all felt a little less safe. In The Outer Limits, Culp reminded us that it was OK to be nervous. He shared our fears, and sacrificed mightily to banish them.

For the second evening in a row, I'll be thinking of Robert Culp...and offering thanks.


Jay Watson said...

What a wonderfully fitting tribute post to a great American actor! Well done Steven. Robert Culp will be missed, but his memory will live on thanks to DVDs and the inter-net.
- - rogue evolent

senski said...

Thank you, r.e. - he was masterful.