In 1965 when “I Spy” debuted, Bill Cosby became the first black man to play a leading role in a television series. The show has been released on DVD this week, along with Season 6 of “NYPD Blue” and Season 4 of “Mama’s Family.”
“I Spy: The Complete Series” (Timeless/DVD, 1965-68, 18 discs, 82 episodes; 20-page booklet/episode guide). The story goes that actor Robert Culp was developing a secret-agent series to cash in on the James Bond craze and the second lead was to be an older white actor. But when producer Sheldon Leonard saw Cosby’s stand-up act, he suggested the character be changed to accommodate him. Cosby was 27, this was his first acting job and over the course of the show he won three Emmys.
Culp and Cosby are equal partners here, undercover spies traveling the world as a tennis pro and his trainer, and some stations in the South refused to air the show. And save some dialogue in a couple of early episodes, there is no mention of Cosby’s race. It was a major step forward at the time.
The show is also notable for having the stars appear in exotic locales around the world at a time when most shows were filmed on studio back lots or in rural California locations dressed up to look like foreign lands. The plots are routine, but what gives this show a lift is the banter between Cosby and Culp (much of it ad-libbed). It’s obvious they have genuine chemistry, and they are charming and funny together.
Guests, a mix of old and new Hollywood (at the time), include Gene Hackman, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, Lloyd Nolan, Peter Lawford, Don Rickles, Cicely Tyson, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Julie London, James Shigeta, Ricardo Montalban, Vera Miles, Sally Kellerman, Leslie Uggams, Wally Cox, Carroll O’Connor and future “Star Trek” stars George Takei and Walter Koenig.
“NYPD Blue: Season 6” (Shout!/DVD, 1998-99, six discs, 22 episodes). This is the DVD debut of the sixth season of this critically acclaimed police procedural, which ran for 12 years and stars Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz, along with James McDaniel, Kim Delaney, Nicholas Turturro and Sharon Lawrence. Jimmy Smits as Bobby Simone is here for five episodes, then Rick Schroder comes aboard as Danny Sorenson, Sipowicz’s new partner, a role he played for three seasons.
“Classic Drama Collection” (Acorn/DVD, 1987-97, five discs, five movies). A decade of popular British TV movie period pieces: “Jane Eyre,” starring Samantha Morton; “Emma,” Kate Beckinsale; “The Woman in White,” Tara Fitzgerald; “The Death of the Heart,” Robert Hardy; “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” Kenneth Branagh.
“Mama’s Family: The Complete Fourth Season” (StarVista/DVD, four discs, 25 episodes, featurettes). Vicki Lawrence as the aging Mama, head of a rowdy blue-collar family, is the main draw here, very funny in old-age makeup as an aggressive busybody. Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman and Beverly Archer co-star. This is the season that Mama goes on “Jeopardy,” one of the funnier episodes, with Alex Trebek getting a surprise smooch.
“Duck Dynasty: Season 5” (A&E/Lionsgate/Blu-ray/DVD, 2014, two discs, 10 episodes, deleted scenes, featurettes). The Robertson clan on the Bayou continues to bicker and play practical jokes, even as Willie and Korie’s adopted daughter Rebecca comes home after a two-year fashion internship in Los Angeles.
“Jack Taylor: Set 2” (Acorn/DVD, 2013, three discs, three episodes, featurette, photo galleries). Iain Glen is solid as the surly title character, a burned-out-cop-turned-private-investigator in scenic Ireland, here taking on an apparent suicide that may be drug related and a grisly case involving a decapitated priest.
“Dora’s Magical Sleepover” (Nickelodeon/Paramount/DVD, 2014, three episodes). Episodes from “Dora the Explorer” include “Dora’s Museum Sleepover Adventure,” “Dora and Sparky’s Riding Adventure” and “Dora’s Super Soccer Showdown.”