Spies on Television & Radio ~
The I Spy Movie
That Never Was
By Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa
Introductory Notes by Wesley Britton ~
In November 2002, absolutely no one was pleased with a feature
film called I Spy, yet another Hollywood attempt to capitalize
on the name of a venerable TV series with minimal connections to the
inspiration. No one involved with the 1965-1968 hit show had any input
into this turkey, and trade reports claimed producer Betty Thomas just
didn’t want to be bothered with any dealings with stars Robert
Culp and Bill Cosby.
In 1994, things had been different.
That year, producer Sheldon Leonard finally got a TV movie
bankrolled, hoping to see his favorite project come back as a new
series. Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby)
starred anew in I Spy Returns, but they weren’t
interested in launching a new franchise. In fact, they collaborated on
an ending to the story quite different from the script making certain
this wouldn’t happen, much to the distress of Leonard.
In between these productions, one of many “might have
been” projects percolated in the Hollywood pipeline. In 1989,
Culp and Cosby tried to make a feature film of I Spy on
their own terms – but it didn’t happen.
Below is the story of this never-produced film as described in Marc
Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa’s 2007 I Spy: A History
and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.). This excerpt is published with
the permission of Marc. (For more about this book, check out
“Uncovering I Spy
– An Interview with Marc Cushman, Author of the First
Full-length History of a Classic Series” posted in the
Spies on Television & Radio
section of this website.)
[By 1989] Warner Brothers had acquired the rights for
I Spy from Sheldon Leonard, who was now shut out by
an industry he once dominated. Leonard relented and accepted an
option offer on the title and concept of the series he had brought into
the world. Warner Brothers wanted to bring it back as a feature film,
but they didn’t want him. It was all about Cosby. The studio
was certain that their idea for a Cosby feature film would far surpass
the other two studios' projects. And Cosby was interested, with one
“If Warner Brothers want Culp and Cosby, they can have
Culp and Cosby, but only if Culp directs and edits.”
That was the response Cosby gave, the words Culp vividly
remembers reading in a trade magazine by Hollywood columnist Army
Archerd. It was the first he had heard of it.
Culp: “They didn’t want Culp, they
wanted Cosby. But, when he made that statement to the press, he
put my name first.”
Cosby made sure Warner Brothers understood, when it came to
I Spy, it wasn’t just about Cosby. It was Culp and
Cosby, in that order, just as it had always been.
By stating that Culp would also edit, Cosby was telling Warner
Brothers that Culp was going to have final cut, a commodity studios
are very reluctant to give away to any director, especially a director
not on their “A” list.
The idea of having Bill Cosby in 1989, at the peak of his television
comeback, in a big screen version of the series that started it all for
him, was too tempting for Warner Brothers to resist. They agreed to
Cosby’s terms. Robert Culp would costar in the movie with
Cosby. He would direct and he would also write the screenplay.
Culp: “I dealt with two guys, Mark Canton and
a guy who worked for him, Bill Gerber. Gerber was smart as hell.
We never had a dispute, not on material, not on anything. I sold them
my pitch on what to do with I Spy. To keep Cosby,
Canton’s job was to smile as white as he could and say
‘Yeah.’ And he did.”
So Culp went to work. His script, simply titled “I Spy”
involved the reactivation of former agent Alexander Scott. Kelly is
in trouble. He appears to be involved in covert operations for the
other side. An order to terminate him may be put out if Scott
isn’t able to make contact and clear his former
Scott, now a college professor, has been away from the spy
game for 20 years. Moreover, he hasn’t had contact with
Kelly for nearly as long. The two men, who once appeared
inseparable, did separate, but not under good terms. Kelly
didn’t appreciate Scott’s desire to leave the
service and end their partnership. And, as we all know, Kelly does
not take rejection well. Scott, not able to turn his back on his friend,
resumes his espionage duties, finding his former partner and traveling
with him to India in search of the answers that will expose the true
Along the way, we meet one other familiar face, Jimmy, their
helpful, double-dealing supplier from Hong Kong. Jimmy, who was
played by Japanese actor Mako, was first seen in the Culp written
episode, “The Loser.” Friedkin and Fine placed
Jimmy in a second episode, “No Exchange on Damaged
The antagonist in the story, the man behind the attempt to frame
Kelly, is Cochran, a former company man who oversaw the training
of Kelly and Scott.
While not as strong as some of Culp’s other works for
I Spy, the script is nonetheless an effective reteaming
of Kelly and Scott, and would have pleased many fans from the
But it did not please Warner Brothers.
Culp admits that he struggled with the script.
Culp: “I was trying to write this thing the same
way I had written the best of my I Spys, by the seat of
my pants. Well, this is not a one-hour episode, where, if
you’ve got one good scene, you got it. This is a feature
film. The rules are different.”
As Culp was attempting to find his way through the script, the
time allotted for writing the first draft had ended.
A deadline is a word with an appropriate name and meaning. Miss
it, and your career may very well be dead.
Culp turned in his first draft.
Culp: “I handed in something that wasn’t
Believing it would take the studio time to tear apart the script, Culp
flew to India to hook up with his son, Josh, who had been scouting
Culp: “No sooner do I arrive there and Gerber
calls to say, ‘We’ve read the material and probably
the best thing to do is to get on a plane and come home.’ I
asked him if he was ordering me to come back. He said ‘no,
it wasn’t an order,’ then he repeated that ‘it
would just be best’ for me to do as he suggested.”
Culp knew what this meant. As a writer, he had failed to please
Warner Brothers. The tone of Gerber’s voice on the
phone made that very clear. He was being called in on the carpet,
and it would be a long journey home.
Culp: “So I got on a plane and came home. God,
it was awful.
“It took me forever to finally solve the problem with the
script. And, during all this, along comes the longest writers strike in
the history of the business – eight months! It was a horrible
hardship on everybody.”
The Warner heads who had given the project a green light were
now having second thoughts.
Leonard Part 6, the first movie to put Bill Cosby in a
lead in nearly 20 years, had been released, and it was not being well
received by the critics, or the public, or even by Cosby himself.
The story, like the intended I Spy movie, had Cosby
playing a former spy who comes out of retirement, this time to take on
a rogue group that is knocking off the government’s top-secret
agents. According to film critic Leonard Maltin, “Even Cosby,
who received story and producer credits with the film, warned
audiences to stay away from this megabomb.”
Tri-Star lost a bundle. Warner Brothers was worried.
When the writers strike finally ended, Culp was asked to bring in
another writer to help him with the script.
Culp: “They left it up to me. I interviewed other
writers, hired one, and then went to work on another version. The
other guy would fail, then another would be hired, and he would
fail. This went on for almost a year. It was all my fault. I couldn’t
solve the problems, and I couldn’t get anybody to tell me the
one thing I needed to know – to keep it cheap. If anybody
had said that, I would have said, ‘Oh, you mean like the TV
series.’ And I would have found a way to do it.
“I had a vision of enormous grandeur. I had a good enough
story; some good scenes, maybe not great, but good solid stuff. And
I had fascinating visuals. But I don’t think that anyone at
Warner Brothers ever read that final script. Everything was blocked.
Nothing was going to happen. And I realized that this picture
wasn’t going to get made.”
As the Warner Brothers deal unraveled, Culp was carrying a
great weight. It was his script, his budget, his vision, and it had
taken longer than originally expected. He had let his friend and
But Bill Cosby stepped in to share the blame.
Culp: “Bill said to me, after it was all over and
done with, ‘It wasn‘t you. It wasn‘t your
fault. It was my fault, because of those two pictures. They don’t
want to talk to either one of us anymore.”
The second picture Cosby referred to was Ghost Dad,
the movie he was shooting as Culp was laboring on the I
Culp: “Ghost Dad comes out and it
tanks in exactly the same manner [as] Leonard Part 6
did. Seriously tanks. Death, on the first weekend.”
That was Universal’s problem. Warner Brothers made
their decision. The I Spy movie was off.
Copyright © 2007 by Marc Cushman
An interview with Marc Cushman,
Spy”, can be found on this website in the
Spies on Television & Radio
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
McFarland & Company, Inc.