Debuts to Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

I Spy, a television espionage drama, was controversial because it featured Bill Cosby, a black actor, in a starring role. It was the first program in mainstream television history to depict a nonstereotypical African American male.

Summary of Event

The early 1960’s was a tense time in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and the intensified Cold War produced a spate of books and articles that made the American public aware that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was carrying on a secret war against foreign countries and rulers. This awareness was in sharp contrast to the American public’s traditional view of the United States as the open and honest “good guy” of world affairs, but world conditions convinced most Americans that the CIA’s covert actions were necessary. I Spy (television program) African Americans;performers Television;dramas Television;African Americans [kw]I Spy Debuts to Controversy (Sept. 15, 1965) [kw]Controversy, I Spy Debuts to (Sept. 15, 1965) I Spy (television program) African Americans;performers Television;dramas Television;African Americans [g]North America;Sept. 15, 1965: I Spy Debuts to Controversy[08530] [g]United States;Sept. 15, 1965: I Spy Debuts to Controversy[08530] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 15, 1965: I Spy Debuts to Controversy[08530] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 15, 1965: I Spy Debuts to Controversy[08530] Cosby, Bill Culp, Robert Leonard, Sheldon

Television responded to this public interest by introducing spy programs, which fed on the mood of a public that believed that the United States was under a secret attack and should respond in kind. Many of these shows were jingoistic and were unrealistic in the schemes they plotted for their characters. The National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;dramas (NBC) broke out of this mold by developing I Spy, an hour-long weekly show to be filmed on location around the world. I Spy followed the exploits of two American agents, Kelly Robinson, played by Robert Culp, and Alexander Scott, played by Bill Cosby. Robinson was a world-class tennis player, and Scott was his trainer; their travels on the international tennis circuit provided the cover the pair needed to perform secret missions for the United States government. The cool, sophisticated nature of the acting, plots, and settings made the show a popular favorite during its three-year run.

The producer of the show, Sheldon Leonard, came to television after having achieved success as an actor in 1940’s and 1950’s films. His television record was impressive; he had produced and co-owned such hits as Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show. Leonard had already contracted with NBC to produce I Spy and was looking for actors. The role of Alexander Scott was not written specifically for an African American, and Leonard actually had Dane Clark, a white actor, in mind for the role. Leonard, however, saw Cosby perform on late-night television and decided that he would be perfect for the part. Leonard was especially attracted by Cosby’s athletic agility and his sense of humor.

At the time, however, no black performer had had a starring role in a U.S. television series. Reflecting on Leonard’s decision to cast him, Cosby later remarked that “no other producer would have had the guts to cast a Negro as Alexander Scott.” Indeed, it took guts. Civil rights was a divisive issue in the United States at the time; large-scale demonstrations were the order of the day, and massive civil rights legislation was moving through Congress. In the midst of this, Bill Cosby was about to become the first black star of an integrated program on national television. As Cosby said, “This is the first time a Negro will play a spy instead of a problem.”

The script for the show called for the characters played by Culp and Cosby to live, eat, and work together as complete equals. Culp summed up the attitude of the actors and the point of view of the show when he said, “We are two guys who don’t know the difference between a colored man and a white man.” The deliberate determination not to make an overt racial statement with the show was followed. In its three-year run, I Spy made only a handful of racial references. People were simply people, so far as the show’s scripts were concerned.

That decision did not guarantee a dramatic hit. The first episode of the show was set in Hong Kong. Following the broadcast, a critic for The New York Times noted that “the setting was the real star. The actors wavered between strained suspense and a flirtation with James Bond. The show is searching for an attitude and the style to go with it.”

Part of this initial problem was that Cosby was not yet a good actor. He had not made the transition from performing as a comic working alone to being a member of a team. Cosby recognized his lack of finesse and remarked that Culp “could have made mincemeat of me in front of the camera, but he has been a tremendous help instead.” The genuine friendship between the two men became the show’s greatest asset and helped Cosby develop quickly as an actor.

A good working relationship among the cast did not mean the show was free of racial problems. Early on, Cosby raised complaints about the fact that his character did not date, while Culp’s character was depicted as a playboy. The disparity was soon eliminated, and Cosby was shown romancing many of the leading black actresses of the day.

Significance

I Spy, the first weekly network television drama to present an African American as a star, came on the air at the height of the civil rights struggle. The show was accepted for broadcast by more than 180 NBC stations; the only network affiliates to refuse to broadcast the program were in Savannah, Georgia; Albany, Georgia; Daytona Beach, Florida; and Alexandria, Louisiana. Stations in every Southern state carried the show, and its engaging presentation of integration as a fact of life was a powerful argument against segregation.

If a search had been made for the perfect black actor for such a role in such a situation, Cosby would still likely have been the choice. He grew up in the all-black Richard Allen housing project in Philadelphia. His father was a U.S. Navy mess steward—the only Navy job open to black men at the time. Although bright, Cosby was not a dedicated student. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and joined the Navy. Following his term of service, Cosby entered Temple University in 1961 on an athletic scholarship. During his sophomore year, Cosby began working part-time as a bartender and comic at a Philadelphia club. During this time, too, he met his future wife, Camille Hanks, on a blind date.

Cosby was so successful as a comic that he left Temple to perform full time. His manager, Ron Silver, advised Cosby to eschew purely racial material and simply to develop his comic genius. Cosby followed Silver’s advice in an effort to “reach all the people.” It was this attitude that made Cosby the perfect costar for I Spy.

Cosby felt that I Spy was great fun; he commented that he had not had so much fun since he was in college. He worked hard, though, to make sure the show avoided the portrayal of black stereotypes. On the other hand, he did not want praise simply because the show took a liberal approach to race relations, noting that he wanted I Spy “to be judged on its entertainment value.”

Culp, Cosby’s costar, agreed. Culp felt that the plots for the episodes would prove to be secondary to the relationship between the people on the screen, and he remarked that “it is pretty obvious on screen as well as off that Bill and I have a great regard for each other.” This regard brought the two together again to make Hickey and Boggs Hickey and Boggs (Culp) (1972), a detective film directed by Culp. Culp also appeared as a guest on Cosby’s television shows at various times.

I Spy also helped change the public image of blacks in entertainment. When first offered the role of Alexander Scott, the trainer to a white tennis player, Cosby was hesitant; he feared that the role would prove to be merely another sidekick part. He was assured by Leonard, though, that he would play a character with special skills, would have equal prominence, and would be allowed to develop romantic interests. Once Cosby settled into the role, his performances were virtuoso, and his part became one of the most significant in television history. Cosby himself said of his character that Alexander Scott was “a Negro champion working for goodness and the law; a multi-lingual, highly educated man who is not the Negro stereotype.” The old stereotype would never again be believable.

I Spy’s success was largely the product of the charming on-screen interplay of its stars, who ad-libbed much of their dialogue. Together, Culp and Cosby brought a light touch to the show, even as the plots revolved around shootouts and superpower confrontation. Cosby’s blackness made the series groundbreaking, but it was his skill as an actor that helped make the show a success. Having broken television’s color line, Cosby opened the door for other serious black performers; moreover, the fact that a black actor had helped propel a show to ratings success helped ensure that television would never go back to offensive and demeaning portrayals of African Americans.

I Spy had an enormous impact on Cosby’s career. For each season the show was on the air, 1965-1966, 1966-1967, and 1967-1968, Cosby won an Emmy Award Emmy Awards for “outstanding continuous performance by an actor in a leading role in a dramatic series.” Of course, such success brought other roles his way and boosted his earnings. He began to command $25,000 a week as a nightclub comic, and sales of record albums containing his comedy routines tripled. The experience on I Spy also turned Cosby into an accomplished actor. Before the series began, one television critic commented that seeing Cosby tied to a structured script and working with other actors would be like seeing Thelonious Monk play piano for Lawrence Welk. By the end of I Spy’s first season, no one doubted that Cosby could both improvise and work with a group. I Spy (television program) African Americans;performers Television;dramas Television;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Gives the show’s broadcast history, cast, and a brief summary. Useful for placing I Spy in a larger television context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“I Spy.” Ebony 20 (September, 1965): 65-66. A profusely illustrated magazine spread from the eve of the show’s premiere. Text of the article, from one of America’s leading black magazines, focuses on Cosby and his breaking of television’s color line.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kackman, Michael. Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Compares I Spy to other Cold War espionage shows, from I Led Three Lives to Get Smart to Mission: Impossible. Argues that the depiction of spies in these shows was related to American self-image and discusses the implications of African American and female spy characters in that context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. “Bill Cosby: Variety Is the Life of Spies.” Saturday Evening Post 238 (September 25, 1965): 86-88. Another magazine article from the time of I Spy’s debut, also centered on Cosby and the groundbreaking nature of his role. Its appearance in one of the institutions of Middle American publishing allows for an interesting comparison of perspectives with the Ebony piece cited above.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, Carl, ed. Television and American Culture. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1981. A collection of articles, addresses, and excerpts from books discussing television as a social force in American society. Helpful in understanding the broader implications of the I Spy controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Ronald L. Cosby. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A readable, though somewhat adulatory, popular biography of Bill Cosby, written after he attained megastar status with The Cosby Show. Chapters 7 and 8 cover I Spy, its creation, and its reception.

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