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?”Cue the closing credits and, again, the theme music ...
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!”
READ MORE: “Don Adams, Television's Maxwell Smart, Dies at 82,” by Douglas Martin (The New York Times); The Get Smart Page (WouldYouBelieve.com); “Gilligan’s Dreams,” by Dana Stevens (Slate).