Something special happened in 1965. This something special had nothing to do with The Beatles, or James Brown, the space race or politics but it still changed the future for the better in a very significant way. That year, a well-known young comedian jumped from telling his observational and introspective jokes on stage and became a bonafide actor whose presence and vision would change the television landscape.
When Bill Cosby first graced American televisions screens as Alexander Scott on I SPY as an American secret agent traveling undercover overseas and posing as a professional tennis coach to his ‘playboy athlete’ and fellow spy Kelly Robinson played by Robert Culp (The Greatest American Hero; Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), audiences stood up and took notice. A bit wry and sarcastic, Cosby played Scott as a smooth but serious man…but not too serious. The series had an intentional humorous note as both Cos and Culp, who remained lifelong friends, exchanged clever banter (sometimes improvised) while fighting to save the world. And Scotty was no servant or second banana to Kelly – they did so as equals.
Despite first-time actor Cosby winning the Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Drama Series each year of the show, after three seasons I, SPY ended. Cosby went on to co-create and star in two relatively funny but ultimately unsuccessful shows, The Bill Cosby Show and The New Bill Cosby Show, until finding success with the Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids animated series. Based on the childhood antics of he and his friends, the series always had a moral lesson to be learned at the end, with an un-animated Cosby cementing plot points in between commercial breaks. Fat Albert stayed on from the mid-seventies until the mid-1980’s, all around the world in various series and specials, and along with his Jell-O pudding television and print endorsement deals, as well as various films including his highly successful three-movie team up with Sidney Poitier, Cosby achieved even more stardom than the I SPY swinging 60’s days. As the 1980’s rolled in, that stardom reached an unmeasurable status with The Cosby Show (also on Hulu Plus for some time now), his family sitcom that literally saved both NBC as a television network and the sitcom itself from dying. The Cosby Show also celebrates the 30th anniversary of its premiere this week. Yet, to this day Bill Cosby does not get the credit he deserves for making that happen.
There are a number of standout episodes, but there are three in particular that will give you a great sense of how the show works. The pilot episode establishes the tone of the show very quickly, even though Cosby’s Alexander Scott character is more serious in it than he is in future episodes. The pilot, “So Long, Patrick Henry,” deals with Cold War politics, racial dynamics, and spoiled star athletes in an interesting fashion that even contemporary shows would find hard to match.
Actor/director Ivan Dixon stars as Elroy Browne, a Black American Olympian expatriate who has defected to China. The United States seems to think that he wants to come back so they send Scott and Robinson into Hong Kong to retrieve him. However, not only is the temperamental Browne antagonistic toward the spies, he is also well guarded by the Chinese government. Scott in particular has had past dealings with Browne and finds him abrasive and seemingly lost, especially in his non-idealistic views on American life. He especially detests Browne for mockingly calling him Patrick Henry after the Revolutionary War politician known for his powerful oratory statements.
Aside from Dixon’s uncharacteristically mean and very watchable performance, so unlike his work in classic films like Nothing But a Man, what makes the pilot extra-special is a very young Cicely Tyson playing his African princess girlfriend Amara. While not given too much to work with, she still stands out as a capable woman, dark and beautiful on the small screen. Check out episode 1 for yourself on Hulu Plus.
Eartha Kitt appears in Season 1, Episode 6 as a drug-addicted lounge singer who ends up helping Scotty to escape the clutches of his kidnappers, albeit for her own selfish reasons. Entitled “The Loser,” Cosby was the spotlight of this episode, which is sadly very significant for 1965, even though the show never made an effort to highlight Scotty’s ‘blackness’ – it was apparent enough. Still with a somewhat sluggish pacing that would work itself out later in the first season, “The Loser” is still a must-watch.
The fellas entertained the ladies a lot too, with lovely actress Judy Pace (Cotton Comes to Harlem) appearing as Scotty’s love interest, albeit too briefly, in Season 2, Episode 10’s “One of Our Bombs is Missing.” For me, this episode brilliantly epitomizes the series. Scotty and Kelly are looking to relax from their constant running around but are called into duty when a nuclear bomb goes missing in the Italian countryside. The search for the bomb takes on a humor-filled yet still action packed romp that made I SPY very successful. Taped entirely in location, recent shows that tried to follow a similar tread, like Alias (2001-2006), never committed to such remote settings.
You can catch all three seasons of I SPY on Hulu Plus.