As we go through our lives new people enter and exit largely dependent on what we are doing at the time. In innumerable situations we enter as strangers and find our way among faces and voices that at the outset seem foreign and unknowable. Be it the first day in a new school or the cold hard yank away from our pasts that we undergo at boot camp or university we enter these new arenas with courage and not a little trepidation. Consequently when you raise a family you enter the worlds of your children and their succession of friends. Robert was the father of one of my eldest daughter's best friends at school and this relationship became the basis of being friends-by-proxy with Robert Culp.
Robert was very erudite and held thoughtful opinions on many subjects but was particularly well versed in the vernacular of film. His father had been an attorney in Oakland and Robert had been raised within the power and subtlety of the English language. In 1997 the film Lolita was made for a second time by Adrian Lyne. Many critics ravaged it and it did not immediately find an audience. As we were discussing this, Robert sprung to the defense of the film. From his perspective this film captured the longing of unrequited pure love and adult pain. In his eyes it was a film of pure poetry and spoke a truth about humanity. He was very persuasive.
On one occasion Robert and I were discussing William Goldman’s adage from “Adventures in the Screen Trade” wherein Goldman states that “nobody knows anything” in Hollywood. To illustrate the point Robert spun this self-effacing story.
At the beginning of his career Robert worked mainly as a television cowboy and as a result had run into the director, Sam Peckinpah as early as 1957. They became friends and often consulted one another on matters of life and their careers. One day in the late 1960’s Peckinpah asked Robert to read a script that he was sitting on the fence about and to give his opinion on whether or not Peckinpah should abandon Hollywood for the short term and go shoot this film in Mexico. Robert carefully read the script and informed Sam that there was “nothing on the page” and instead pressed Sam to focus on directing television westerns where he had forged himself an incredibly lucrative and successful career. Robert, thinking that Sam was making a terrible mistake tried to persuade him to remain where he was safe and could expect to have continued success. Peckinpah listened to what Robert had to say but ultimately decided to proceed ahead with his mad plan. The result was The Wild Bunch one of the pantheon of great western films and the pinnacle of Peckinpah’s directorial career. As he told me this story Robert laughed at himself and shook his head in a soft “no” gesture of recollection. Nobody knows anything.
After our daughters graduated high school and went out of town to different universities my chance meetings with Robert ended abruptly. The last time that I saw and spoke with Robert was some five or six years ago. He was having a Christmas party at his home in the area northeast of the Fairfax District and I had been invited (with my daughter) to attend. He had retired by this point and he seemed to be enjoying his life. He was surrounded by his friends at that time of year when not to be surrounded by your friends would be an exercise in melancholia. Fortunately Robert had many friends.
Although we did not keep up our relationship beyond our daughters high school years I always kept a warm spot in my heart for Robert and looked forward to seeing him in the future at a screening or someone’s wedding. Simply knowing that he was still walking this earth was a cause for comfort. When someone with whom you have shared time and experiences passes away one half of your shared story dies with them. When I received the news of Roberts passing I was on set surrounded by that circus of self-possessed eccentrics and lights and trucks that we call a film crew. It seemed right that I was surrounded by a film family much as Robert had been a great deal of his life. As he ran through my mind I stared blankly into the ongoing set up and the image of Robert rose behind my eyes. The two images fused and I could see Robert deep among the lights where he was so at home. That’s where we’ll find him now.