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Spies on Television & Radio ~
Uncovering I Spy – An Interview with Marc Cushman, Author of the First Full-Length History of a Classic Series

By Wesley Britton


Cover – I Spy

Long before the advent of the internet and the growth of fan-based websites, those nostalgic for the classic TV spy shows of the 1960s had many reminders of the series that brought the James Bond phenomena into our living rooms.

During the 1980s, in particular, we got fanzines, magazine episode guides, reunion TV movies, and many books that gave us behind the scenes histories of the creation and development of the hits of the Baby Boom generation. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Saint, Mission: Impossible, and The Wild Wild West each got one in-depth look into the background of these landmark shows. Get Smart got two. The Avengers and The Prisoner each have been discussed in a parade of books that have analyzed and shared insights into the production, casting, and evolution of the series that helped shape a genre.

When I began research for my Spy Television (Praeger Publishers, 2004), I had all these resources to draw from for my chapters on these shows. There was one exception – I Spy.

It seemed a strange omission. When Robert Culp and Bill Cosby brought Sheldon Leonard’s creation to life on NBC in 1965, they were part of one of the most important series in TV history. I devoted considerable space to this breakthrough show and pointed to the fact it was the most neglected subject in published accounts of the 1960s. Of course, I wasn’t alone feeling this way.

In January of 2007, this neglect was corrected in I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa, both insiders in TV scriptwriting and production. For all spy buffs, this long overdue arrival should be something special, so I decided to ask Marc Cushman how his project came about and what readers should expect.

Here are his answers ~




Q – What is your background in writing TV scripts? Did this influence you in writing your I Spy book?

My background did influence my approach to researching and writing this book. I know TV production. I have many more credits than IMDb.com shows. I’ve made a good living at writing and directing for over 15 years now, and have sold over 100 scripts, and have directed over 100 movies or TV shows, as well, under an assortment of different names. So I know what goes into making a TV show, and what can go wrong, and how special it is when something goes right.

I’ve been writing since the 1970s. I sold numerous scripts, starting in the late ‘70s and through the late ‘80s, to cable – in the day when cable was just getting started. I sold scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation,Diagnosis: Murder, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, and any other show with a colon in the title. Did some small movies, too. Midnight Confessions and Teresa’s Tattoo come to mind. I co-wrote and co-directed the latest version of The Story of O for a French company that owned the rights (and owned the original movie from the mid 1970s), and so on.


Q – Why did you decide to do a book on I Spy?

I loved the show and I wanted to read a book about it – but no one had written one. I always wondered what went into making that show, with that crazy design Sheldon Leonard had for shooting one-third of each episode overseas and two-thirds in Hollywood (to allow for “big TV Guest Stars”). How the hell did he do it? And why did the show go off the air after only three seasons? It was a huge hit. I remember that.

There were so many unanswered questions for me. Plus I knew it was an important show, being that it was the first series to put a Black and a White together, and travel the world, and it was the first instance of “the buddy genre” that I knew of. So why no book?

Then I heard Robert Culp say the same thing in an interview. He and Bill would often talk and wonder why no one had written a book about I Spy. Light bulb. I decided that if no one else was going to do it, I would. This was a tough decision, because it meant putting my script writing and directing work on hold for more than a year. But I was determined . . . or, maybe “obsessed” is a better word.


Q – Back in the 1980s, nearly every other classic spy series was covered in at least one book-length overview. Why not I Spy?

I think the reason I Spy was passed over, and somewhat forgotten, is there were not enough episodes for it to have a longer life in syndication. And it was too real for many people’s taste – meaning, despite the hit status it had when it first appeared, it was too complex for people who wanted to escape into their TV's and not be challenged. You didn’t know what you were going to get from I Spy. One episode would be funny, another terribly dark, another pro-American, another seeming to be criticizing U.S. policies.

I believe the average I Spy fan to be very intelligent and worldly – and that doesn’t necessarily describe the masses who would rather tune in a Dukes of Hazard rerun. So the show disappeared. And people don’t put their lives on hold to write books about things that disappear – unless they’re crazy like me and my partner, Linda LaRosa. But this show is TV history – and very important history. We had to do it.


Q – I gather you met with a number of participants – which were most helpful and interesting?

Robert Culp is number one on the list of who was most helpful. He gave us twenty plus hours of interviews, stacks of pictures, and connected us to Bill Cosby. And Robert really opened up, too. He shared parts of himself and relived things from his life, and from the life of I Spy, that he probably didn’t really want to. But he felt it important to give 100%. His ethics are amazing. Again, read the book and see what he did for I Spy and for Bill Cosby and for you and me, because what he did, and what he sacrificed to do, helped to change TV and the world. He never takes the easy way out.

Ronald Jacobs, one of the series producers, was an immense help, too. He is the one who stored all the files from the show, containing scripts, ratings reports, censorship reports, fan letters, Western Union cables from every hell hole on earth, and so much more.

Bill got us in with Calvin Brown, who was his stuntman – and, more so, the first Black stuntman on TV. His stories were quite eye-opening, too. The families of I Spy producers Mort Fine and David Friedkin were of great help, as was Sheldon Leonard’s daughter, Andrea, as were many of the show’s directors and writers, and technicians.

People like Mark Rydell and Richard Sarafian, Ernest Frankel, Michael Zagor, Steven Kandel, Barry Orringer, Michael Preece, and so many others. Ruth Englehardt and Norman Brokaw of the William Morris Agency were instrumental, as well. They were the ones who helped us to get the rights to use all the pictures, and we have over 200.


Q – Any thoughts on the TV reunion movie or the Owen Wilson comedy?

Many thoughts. And Cosby and Culp have many thoughts too. Both were sad endings to an otherwise great story, although they make for very dramatic copy in our book. There was supposed to be an I Spy feature film for Warner Brothers before the TV reunion movie. Culp wrote the script. But the deal collapsed as the budget escalated.

A few years later, Culp put together the deal for the TV movie, and again wrote a script. It was brilliant. But it was never produced. I’ll make you read the book to find out why. As for the Owen Wilson “comedy,” see what the true I Spy people have to say about that in the book. I”ll just tell you now, it was not Culp or Cosby’s idea that it be made the way that it was . . . or even made at all.


Q – What surprises should readers expect in your book?

I’ve already shared a few with you. The biggest surprises for me . . . that NBC wanted Sheldon Leonard to fire Bill Cosby, due to pressure from the Southern affiliates; that the show almost didn’t get on the air; the stories about the immense problems they encountered while shooting in foreign lands; that they (Culp, Cosby, the crew, the guest stars) almost gave their lives for this show, and that someone did indeed die while shooting the series.

But the biggest surprise: why the series left the air. It was still in the Top 10 of the ratings (for ages 16 through 39). We have the reports that prove this. NBC wanted at least two more years. But then something happened. Even Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were stunned by what we found out, and were able to document, over 35 years after the fact.


Q – Why did you work with a collaborator – can you describe what she brought to the project?

I had never attempted a work project like this before. My background was in scripts, and scripts and books are apples and oranges. But, mostly, I wanted to have fun. I wasn’t getting paid to do this, so why not at least enjoy the process and have a writing buddy to share the experiences with – experiences like the fun of discovering files thought to be long lost, and solving the mysteries that surrounded this series. It just wouldn’t be as good if I couldn’t call my partner and say, “I’m in a dingy storage locker somewhere in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, and you’ll never guess what I just found.”

So I talked to a couple different writers I knew about joining me on this, but the fit wasn’t right. Or they were too stupid to get how important this book could be. So I started it alone. And then, a couple weeks later, my phone rang.

It was Linda. She is a two-time published author (both novels). She was working at NBC, where many of the I Spy “secret” files were stored. She is very strong when it comes to research and interviewing. She has a great literary voice. And she was calling to invite me to join her on a book she was writing. I said that I couldn’t, that I had a pet project of my own I had just broken ground on. I asked if she remembered a TV show called I Spy. She said, “Are you kidding? I loved that show!” And that’s all it took.


Q – How did you choose your publisher? Of course, McFarland is known for many TV books – do you like any of their other titles?

We had a couple offers. And McFarland didn’t bring the best money offer to the table. But they have a reputation for doing quality books and keeping them in print forever. Plus I have a couple books on my shelf by McFarland, and I was very impressed by them. They have a 600-page book on Gunsmoke, and James Arness even did his autobiography through McFarland. Now how can you not follow the lead of Marshall Matt Dillon?

As far as other books to recommend – there really isn’t anything out there on I Spy. You have a chapter about it in your book, which I enjoyed very much. I have a copy (so I guess you’ll have to buy a copy of our book, as pay back).

[Editor’s Note – Marc is referring to my Spy Television, as noted above.]

Sheldon Leonard’s autobiography, which is now out of print, had a couple chapters devoted to I Spy. Earle Hagen talks about it in his book. But the show deserved more than that. Now there’ll be more.


Q – I can’t resist – what did you write for Star Trek NG?

I did a couple things. I wrote the first draft of a third season episode called “Sarek.” It was really the turning point of the series, or so I’m told. It was the first episode to tie the new series with the original. I had to apologize to D.C. Fontana later for stealing her character (Sarek is Spock’s father and was introduced into the original series in an episode written by Dorothy).

But I was frustrated that, during the first year of ST: NG, they were steering away from connecting the two series. I had the ear of Gene Roddenberry, so I gave it a pitch. Roddenberry liked the idea, so he had me write a script. But then he said my script read too much like the first Star Trek and not his new and “improved” Star Trek.

So my idea, and script, sat around for a couple of years until Season Three, and then Peter Beagle rewrote it. His approach was very different than mine – but the idea was still there – that Sarek is struggling with senility, and, in the case of a Vulcan, this can be a very serious problem for any non-Vulcan who happens to be nearby. The only other thing I did: there was a story element (and a character) they bought from me to plug into a script they were having trouble with. It didn’t turn out too well, so I don’t talk about it.


Q – Were you interested in I Spy only or are you a fan of other espionage TV shows or films?

As a kid I watched them all . . . U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, Get Smart, The Avengers, The Wild West, Secret Agent. They were all great. It’s hard to pick a favorite. What a fabulous period for television. Juvenile, perhaps. But great fun. I had a crush on Emma Peel. Didn’t you?




Here’s what the publisher has to say about I Spy – A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series.

Description – One of the most popular and award-winning television series of the Sixties, I Spy was the first weekly broadcast to star both a white and a black actor. In 1964, producer Sheldon Leonard had, with heavy risk, financed the show himself, and his idea for a racially incorporated cast had earned his show the moniker “Sheldon’s Folly.” Pairing established white actor Robert Culp with Bill Cosby, a black comedian with barely an acting credit to his name, certainly turned some heads at NBC, and many wondered whether affiliates in the South would ever air the show. Only two years later, Cosby accepted the Emmy for leading actor – and I Spy cemented its role in history.

This is a complete history of I Spy and the profound change it evoked in broadcasting, social ideals and racial equality. Rich with interviews and photographs, it discusses I Spy’s unique approach to race, co-starring interracial actors as equals. It also describes how the show became the template for popular “buddy genre” shows and films that followed, covers the show’s significance as the first series to shoot episodes around the world, and puts I Spy in context with other works within the spy genre at a time when spy books, shows and films exploded in popularity. A complete episode guide includes writers, directors, cast, crew, plot synopsis and commentary.

About the Authors – Marc Cushman is a Los Angeles-based writer of television and films with TV credits including Diagnosis Murder, Beyond Belief, Fact or Fiction and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Linda J. LaRosa divides her time between New York and California. She is the author of Winter of the Heart, which was filmed as an award-winning mini-series in Italy and France.




An excerpt from the book, “The I Spy Movie That Never Was”, can be found on this website in the Spies on Television & Radio section of this website.

Another discussion of the book is posted on the I Spy Forum.

For an annotated bibliography of TV spy books, see “The TV Spies Bookshelf”, posted at this website in the Spies on Television & Radio section.

You may have noticed Marc wrote for Diagnosis: Murder. For another DM and I Spy connection, see “Behind the Scenes of ‘Discards’ – How Diagnosis: Murder Brought Back U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, and Mission: Impossible, also posted in the Spies on Television & Radio section.

For another interview with a McFarland author, see “‘The Saint’ in Fact and Fiction – An Interview with Historian and Novelist Burl Bayer”, posted in the Spies in History & Literature section of this website.




I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series, by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa, is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants ~

McFarland & Company, Inc.
Amazon U.S.
Amazon Canada
Amazon U.K.
Powell’s Books