I 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.
The 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.
Virtually 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 techniques.
But 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."
I 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.
Though 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 been.
Kelly Robinson....................................... Robert Culp
Alexander Scott........................................ Bill Cosby
Sheldon Leonard, David Friedkin, Mort Fine
September 1965-September 1967 Wednesday 10:00-11:00
September 1967-September 1968 Monday 10:00-11:00
Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Leonard, Sheldon. And The Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures. New York: Limelight Editions, 1995.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks And White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983.