Friday, March 26, 2010
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.