Monday, September 26, 2005

“Would You Believe ...”

[[O B I T]] * It seems I’m having to say good-bye lately to a number of TV personalities who were significant to me as a child growing up in the late 1960s and early ’70s. James Doohan of Star Trek. Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island. And now Don Adams, who earned three Emmy Awards for his performance as bumbling Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, in the spy spoof Get Smart (1965-70). Adams died yesterday from a lung infection in Los Angeles, following a lengthy battle with lung lymphoma. He was 82 years old.

Born Donald James Yarmy in New York City on April 13, 1923, the actor said during a 1959 interview that he never cared much about being funny as a boy. “Sometimes I wonder how I got into comedy at all,” he remarked. “I did movie-star impressions as a kid in high school. Somehow they just got out of hand.” After dropping out of school in 1941 to join the Marines, he was sent into World War II’s Pacific theater and wound up at the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal, during which he contracted blackwater fever. He was soon sent back to the States to become a drill instructor. Later, he found work as a commercial artist, stand-up comic, and mimic. As the story goes, he adopted the stage name “Don Adams” after marrying singer Adelaide Adams, because he was tired of being called last in the alphabet during auditions. Early on, he guested on The Steve Allen Show and Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, and was later cast as sidekick Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show (1963-65), a sitcom spin-off of The Danny Thomas Show featuring the character of José Jiménez.

Although initially cool to the idea of starring in Get Smart, an NBC-TV satire capitalizing on the early popularity of the James Bond films, Adams took to the project after discovering that its pilot had been penned by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. In the show, he was partnered with female Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon, a curvaceous, dark-haired actress who was nine years his junior. Get Smart, with its catchy theme, debuted 40 years ago this month, in September 1965, and went on to become one of television’s most endearing classics. Smart was a good-hearted but terminally inept spy employed by a super-secret federal agency known as CONTROL (which, despite rumors to the contrary, was not an acronym). To foil the evil agents of KAOS, he relied on his “shoe phone” and the brainier 99 (whom he later married in the series), as well as a continually malfunctioning “Cone of Silence” and some brilliant comedic patter (99: “Max, you’ll be in extreme danger every minute!” Max: “ ... and loving it!”). Get Smart generated catchphrases that are familiar even four decades later (“Sorry about that, chief”; “Missed it by that much.”). However, the half-hour show, which won seven Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards, disappeared after only five years and a 1969 switch from NBC to CBS.

Adams came out of Smart a star. However, he never succeeded in capturing that same renown again. “It was a special show that became a cult classic of sorts, and I made a lot of money for it,” he said of Get Smart in 1995. “But it also hindered me career-wise because I was typed. The character was so strong, particularly because of that distinctive voice, that nobody could picture me in any other type of role.” The actor did subsequently become a regular in a couple of forgettable TV sitcoms, The Partners (1971-72) and the Canadian-produced Check It Out (1985-88), and he made numerable guest shots on other shows, including Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Love Boat. After the original Smart series started capturing new fans in syndication, Adams appeared in two Maxwell Smart films: a theatrical release, The Nude Bomb (1980), and a TV movie, Get Smart, Again! (1989). He even went along with FOX-TV’s bad idea in 1995 to revive the franchise, this time with Smart as chief of CONTROL, Agent 99 as a congresswoman, and Andy Dick playing their wacky spy son, Zach. (The new Get Smart survived through just seven episodes.) But many of Adams’ performances as an older man were off-camera, providing the voices for the popular animated TV series Inspector Gadget (1983-86) and its much later spin-off, Gadget Boy and Heather (1995).

Don Adams was married and divorced three times. He fathered seven children, including actress Cecily Adams (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), who died of lung cancer in 2004. Her husband, and Don Adams’ son-in-law, was Jim Beaver, who plays mine supervisor Whitney Ellsworth on the HBO-TV series Deadwood.

There’s no perfect way to bid adios to somebody as fondly remembered from one’s youth as Adams is from mine, so let me simply offer up one of my favorite bits of dialogue from the original Get Smart series. It finds Smart trying to dial out from his leather shoe phone:

Operator: “What number are you calling?”

Max: “I’m calling CONTROL, Operator ...”

Operator: “You have dialed incorrectly. Give me your name and address and your dime will be refunded.”

Max: “Operator, I’m calling from my shoe!”

Operator: “What is the number of your shoe?”

Max: “It’s an unlisted shoe, Operator!”
Cue the closing credits and, again, the theme music ...

READ MORE:Don Adams, Television's Maxwell Smart, Dies at 82,” by Douglas Martin (The New York Times); The Get Smart Page (; “Gilligan’s Dreams,” by Dana Stevens (Slate).


KeyLargo said...

I fondly remember this time also. I remember my mother bemoaning the fact that quality TV had passed? I shudder to think of what she would say of TV today!!
I am glad that most of the video from this time has been preserved. These programs were not so in your face as much of the humor was tounge in cheek and the actors more than just pretty faces. I am so humble to read the obituaries of the men from our past and find out how many put country before personal safety and served in the armed forces. Don Adams was a inspiration to me. he wasn't so good looking and he used his wits. You have to be pretty intelligent to be so funny. i honor his passing.

Anonymous said...

As the Douglas Martin article mentions, one can't forget Adams as the voice of penguin Tennesee Tuxedo ("Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail!") with his sidekick, Chumley the walrus. And don't forget about Smart's cool VW Karmann Ghia spy car!

Thanks, Don!

*jeanne* said...

James Doohan,
DeForest Kelly,
Don Adams...
like watching your youth disappear into the mists of yesterday.

How did we get so old?