Friday, March 26, 2010

My Robert Culp Story

Given the passing of actor Robert Culp, I thought this would be an appropriate time to share a personal anecdote about the actor that actually connects to comics....

One night several years back, I came home to find a voice message from someone who said he had gotten my number from comics fan and mutual friend Shel Dorf. The quality of the message wasn't very good, but the caller in the message said he was developing a film adaptation of Milton Caniff's adventure strip, Terry and the Pirates, and was looking for an artist to do a comic-book tie-in with the movie. Shel had told the caller that I was one of the best Caniff-inspired artists around and passed along my phone number. He said his name was Robert Culp.

I didn't think anything of it (remember, the quality of the machine message wasn't very good) and the next day returned his call. When he got on the line and said, "This is Robert Culp," I paused—there was no mistaking that voice. I can't recall if I asked him right away, but at some point during our conversation, I blurted out, "Excuse me, but are you Robert Culp the actor?" He quickly and matter-of-factly said yes, then went on to talk about the project.

He told me he was going to be going to Asia to begin shooting a Terry and the Pirates film he had scripted and needed an artist to do a comic-book adaptation tie in. (I can't recall now if he said he was directing it as well.) It turns out Culp was a huge Terry fan.

In addition to spending a little time reminiscing about the strip, I ended up giving Culp a little overview of how the comics publishing and distribution business worked. I recall thinking that a better way to go would be to simply license the adaptation to an established publisher (like Dark Horse) and let them do all the work rather than expend his own time, effort and resources to write and publish the comic-book. But at the time I kept this to myself, partly because he seemed determined to do the book himself and because, frankly, I decided it best to hold a bit back thinking this might be a way at some point to become involved in the project by helping him to shepherd the project.

In terms of doing the art, however, I didn't feel I had the time to commit to such a project—but I told him I would send him samples of my work. (I recall a slightly deflated Culp saying, "Randy, don't break my heart.") I ended up referring him to a fellow artist who I thought would be a good fit for the job. I spoke with him afterwards. Although he said they had an interesting conversation, my friend wasn't sure yet if he would do it—he was concerned about the tight timeline and that Culp wanted a straight Caniff impersonation which wouldn't allow much room for personal expression—but he said if he did take the job, he'd need help and wondered if I would be interested. I, of course, said "yes," and had hoped I would have a chance to contribute somewhat to the project if my buddy did it.

Knowing how Hollywood works, I did immediately wonder how solid the film really was, especially since I hadn't heard about it. As time passed, of course, nothing came of it—but as I said, that's how Hollywood works. A year or two later I passed him at a signing at the San Diego Comic-Con, but decided not to introduce myself, not being sure if he'd remember our telephone conversation. (I think I have a photo from that time, but couldn't find it in time for this post.)

In doing some research for this piece, I did find a few Culp and Terry references. An article about the recent complete IDW compilation of the strip from 2007 mentions that Culp "had written several screenplays for a Terry film, but to date, nothing has come from it." The Wikipedia article on Terry and the Pirates also mentions that "Robert Culp admitted that the comic strip Terry and the Pirates was his inspiration for the 'tone' and 'spirit' and 'noir heightened realism' of the 1965 NBC TV Series, I Spy."

Though "I Spy" was before my time (though it was available in reruns when I was growing up) and I wasn't a big fan of "Greatest American Hero," I nevertheless was very familiar with Culp and enjoyed his affable, easy-going manner.

In any case, the news of Culp's passing gave me an opportunity to remember this brief personal encounter with the actor, connecting on a common interest we shared.


Postmaster said...

So, did you do any treatments for the project?

benton jew said...

Randy, you would have been an excellent choice to redo Terry and the Pirates! I remember a while back, the Hildebrandt brothers took a crack at redoing Terry. However, though it was well drawn, it didn't really capture the feel of Terry. I think your work does!

I have a Robert Culp phone story as well. though not nearly as dramatic. I was just starting at ILM and the art department was so small, we didn't even have a coordinator to answer the phones, so we all answered the phones! A voice came on the phone and introduced himself as Robert Culp, and was developing a remake of I-Spy....I promptly handed the phone to my boss.

Randy Reynaldo said...

Aside from that phone call and getting a report back from the buddy I had referred Culp to, I never heard anything back or did any work (and I don't think my friend had). I didn't get any response to the samples I sent as well. I suspect that when the film didn't happen, the comics project simply became a non-issue.

This was way before Culp's time, but apparently Jules Feiffer had done a script for Terry that generated some interest, perhaps as far back in the '80s. I've always wanted to see if I could track that script down.

benton jew said...

Jules Feiffer will be speaking 7:30pm on Monday, April 12 at Temple Emmanuel
in Beverly Hills. So you may be able to ask him about it.

benton jew said...


So I went to the Jules Feiffer thing last night and asked Jules about the Terry script. He said he was asked some time ago to write a script for Terry to be directed by Ridley Scott!
Unfortunately, the project just seemed to disappear ( as happens more often than not in Hollywood ).

He also hinted about a book he was working on called "Invisible Pictures" that I assume collects works of his that never were never produced. Perhaps the Terry script will be included--who knows?

MarkD said...

A few years back, I dedicated one of my Outlanders novel to Mr. Culp and his character of Chuang Tzu from his immortal I Spy episode, The Warlord--which was his homage to Terry and the Pirates.

I sent a copy of the book to Mr. Culp and shortly thereafter he sent me an autographed copy of the Warlord script--with a nice note--and an autographed photo of himself from that episode.

We stayed in touch sporadically...this past October I dropped him an email, asking if he would be inclined to write a short blurb of an upcoming novel of mine which I described to him as a cross between Jurassic Park and Terry and the Pirates.

He responded quickly: "That would mean I'd have to read it, so no. Sorry."

I was not offended.

Randy Reynaldo said...

Sorry I missed everyone's comments when they first posted, esp. Benton's!

I know I've told this story, but years ago when I saw Feiffer at an appearance, at my request he gave me a "Will Eisner" autograph, based on the fact that he used to put Eisner's signature on the Spirit stories.

I think Fantagraphics is doing that collection--it sure would be cool if it ended up there. Ridley Scott, wow!