The first thing audiences should know about “I Spy,” starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, is that it has little relation to the TV series of the same name, starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp.
Since the film has so little to do with the TV series, why keep the name?
“Here’s why: Sony forced me to do it,” laughs the film’s director, Betty Thomas, who some might remember from her regular role on “Hill St. Blues.”
“I think there are people that really love the series and I don’t want them to be disappointed when they come to this film and think, `Oh, I’m going to see Cosby and Culp on screen!’ because that’s not true at all.”
Wilson, who never watched the TV series, says it was another Cosby project that inspired him.
“Eddie and I never had a conversation about the TV series, but we did talk about `Uptown Saturday Night,’ that Bill Cosby movie with Sidney Poitier that they used to run on TV a lot when I was a kid. I knew that really well and Eddie loved that movie; that was more of an inspiration for us.”
Thomas says the film could be a prequel to the TV series, explaining how the tennis player (in the TV series, boxer in the film) and the coach (spy in the film) became partners in the first place, but even then she wasn’t sticking too close to the series.
“I went back and looked at the `I Spy’s’ from television and what I really responded to was Culp and Cosby together and what they were doing,” Thomas explains. “There seemed to be a thing with them. It was like a glove; I called it the `I Spy moment’ that we tried to incorporate.”
Specifically, the director, whose credits include “The Brady Bunch Movie” and “Dr. Dolittle,” was looking for moments where Murphy and Wilson would banter in a humorous way. This meant that the success of the film would depend on the comedic chemistry between the two actors, which made Thomas all the more nervous when they didn’t sound interested in meeting each other before shooting started.
“Who knew, I could have been very unlucky. Neither one of them wanted to meet each other before the movie. So then I made this fake rehearsal up because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have a rehearsal,’ because what if they don’t … I can’t fire anyone, I can’t fire these people. These are big people. I’ll just have to figure it out and that might be too hard,” Thomas explains. “So I pretended that there was a rehearsal and they both said, `No, we’re not going to rehearse. It’ll ruin it, don’t make us rehearse.’ I said, `All right.’ They didn’t meet until they got on the set in Budapest.”
But luckily, while shooting the film’s first comedic scene, she realized not only was their pairing good, it was great.
“I don’t know why it happened except that I think that they both appreciated each other’s work,” she says. “And then they both had this reference level to comic movies and comic actors that was so extensive. Nobody seems to realize how much Eddie really knows about that stuff; his reference level is higher than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
Murphy and Wilson especially fed off each other when it came to improvising.
“Eddie was really good at improvising and I like to improvise also, so it was kind of playing off each other. But the stuff would be in the script and would be a starting off point, and then we’d roll from there,” says Wilson. “And then we’d get a feel for each other and try to feed each other lines that could get us into a funny bit.”
For example, a scene where the two men are stuck in a sewer while evading bad guys and they start opening up was almost pure improv, according to the director.
“The idea of the sewer came from Owen originally. Not the sewer itself, not the way it was written, but Owen came up with the idea of a bonding moment. `Where’s our bonding moment? We need our bonding moment,'” she says, imitating Wilson’s voice as a high-pitched whine.
In fact, Wilson and Murphy came up with a number of ideas in the film. Wilson developed the idea of Carlos, a super spy he can never quite live up to.
“The character of Carlos, someone I could feel jealous of and a little threatened by, was an idea we had once I signed on,” explains Wilson. “That idea that there was this spy who did most of his work in Latin America and was more of a gigolo.”
Murphy changed his role from a basketball player to a boxer.
“It was a role that [Murphy] really wanted to play,” says Thomas. “He grew up with his father who was a boxer. They all boxed when they were young. That’s what they did, that was their exercise. He worked all by himself to put himself in the shape that he was in. That’s his body. He really got in good shape.”
Thomas, who directed Murphy in “Dr. Dolittle,” says the “Saturday Night Live” alum shows a little of his old self in the film.
“The first time I worked with Eddie he was a different guy than this time. This time he was kind of the old Eddie, he was joyous, he was warm. That’s who he is right now,” she says. “This is the Eddie that you glimpse in certain times and say, `This is the Eddie I knew originally.'”
And while neither Cosby nor Culp had any involvement in the movie, it appears that Cosby was there in spirit. Sort of.
“Eddie would do a Bill Cosby imitation of how that scene would be played with Bill Cosby,” laughs Wilson. “It was really dead on.”