‘I Spy’ Was the First American TV Show Featuring a Black Actor in a Lead Role

It’s hard to separate Bill Cosby’s recent infamy from his importance to the television world. Still, for most of his career, Cosby was known as one of the most successful television actors and creators on the planet. However, his television career didn’t start with The Cosby Show or even Fat Albert. Cosby’s television debut, I Spy, was the first American show to feature a Black lead, and television would never be the same after that. 

(L-R) Robert Culp and Bill Cosby on 'The Tonight Show', in black and white
Robert Culp and Bill Cosby | Bettmann/Getty Images

What is I Spy?

I Spy was the creation of David Friedkin and Morton Fine. Bringing the spy genre that was so popular in the 1960s to a more diverse setting, the show was a massive success for the three years it ran. It focused on a pair of US intelligence agents posing as tennis bums as they try to catch villains across the world. The show was a massive undertaking.

Borrowing the James Bond series’ international motifs, Scott and Robinson, played by Cosby and Robert Culp, took down villains, explored the world, and met more than a few beautiful women during their time on-screen. While the show might have only been on the air for three seasons, it changed television forever. 

Cosby became a household name outside of comedy circles and eventually became the face of Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, and several other high-profile television jobs on top of his lucrative comedy career. The two stars reunited for both a television movie and a parody on Cosby’s CBS sitcom. It spawned novels, comic books, and vast amounts of criticism as a culturally significant moment in television history. 

In 2002, the show was remade as a movie starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson in the lead parts. Despite his massive downfall in the public eye, Cosby’s entire career on television owed thanks to I Spy, and neither he nor television was ever the same after. 

Birth of a career 

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Cosby was already a relatively well-known comedian thanks to appearances on The Tonight Show and several other national series. However, being a famous stand-up and being a renowned actor are two separate paths. I Spy was supposed to highlight the shifting racial tides in American pop culture, and Cosby’s place here is inarguably important. 

Cosby was nominated for three Emmy Awards during the series run and started his run as one of America’s most beloved comedians soon after. He was headlining television shows, providing a platform for other Black artists, and showing that a Black comedian could have just as much success as his white counterparts. 

While Cosby’s behemoth place in television history wouldn’t fully take form for another twenty years, I Spy was, for better and for worse, one of the most important jobs he ever took. A surprisingly dramatic turn compared to his other iconic work, Cosby’s talent was undeniable. However, as most people know, his image is forever tarnished, thanks to recent indictments. 

Cosby’s infamous downfall

As crucial as Cosby’s role in I Spy is, it also serves as a cautionary tale about who we look up to in show business. For much of his career, credible allegations of Cosby’s sexual misconduct were whispered about but ultimately swept under the rug. Cosby’s place in television history was inarguably important to representation in Hollywood. He also has become an ugly face for its not-so-hidden history of men using their fame, money, and power to take advantage of women. 

To this day, every series that features Black actors can thank I Spy for paving the way. His legacy is hard to balance with his behavior, but his place in entertainment history cannot be swept under the rug, either. It shows that while many people paved the way for where we are today, they also had some dirty secrets.