Don Adams: The Smart-est Secret Agent of the ’60s

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Agent 86 on his shoe phone

Movies about spies. TV series about spies. In the 1960s, the screens were filled with them. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The James Bond films. Mission: Impossible. The Pink PantherI Spy. Our Man Flint and In Like FlintThe Avengers. That only scratches the surface of memorable titles that featured (mostly) serious spy stories, often set in the Cold War era.

One in particular shines above all the rest: TV’s Get Smart, whose pedigree, snappy scripts and comedic timing from its star, Don Adams, made it a favorite series from that era.

When Adams was cast as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, he had a solid TV resume but, at 42, no starring roles. He had numerous TV appearances on series hosted by Steve Allen and Perry Como, and a regular–but supporting–role on his pal Bill Dana’s self-titled sitcom. At that point, his most regular work was as the voice of the title character in the animated series Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.

Get Smart‘s creators were the comedic geniuses Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, just 39 and 34-years-old, respectively, when the spy spoof bowed on NBC on September 18, 1965. The show’s female lead was Barbara Feldon as Agent 99–she was never named; “Max” would often call her just “99.” (When the characters wed in season four, she was also referred to as “Mrs. Smart.”) Overseeing the government agency, CONTROL, was Ed Platt aka “the Chief,” who seemed relatively ancient but was a mere 49 in the fall of 1965.

Get Smart is notable for many things including Max’s shoe phone–with its rotary dial–and the numerous catchphrases that its writers developed for the actor. Adams would use his “would you believe” line to explain to the Chief why a particular mission failed, recounting the number of worthy foes he faced in the line of duty–“eight armed men, would you believe it?” to which his boss would always call his bluff. Max kept reducing the number in the opposition until he confessed: “a nine-year-old with a pea shooter?” (There’s a great Get Smart fan site at wouldyoubelieve.com.)

In season one, episode two, Max encountered the devious Asian villain “The Claw,” but in the pre-PC days Smart misunderstood his foe’s accent and mistook his name as “The Craw.”

The long-suffering Chief put up with his bumbling agent, who would always thwart–usually by accident –the enemy agency, KAOS, by episode’s end. If there was a top secret conversation required in the Chief’s office, Max would insist they used the Cone of Silence. Not surprisingly, it never worked the way it was intended.

“Did you get all of that, Max?” “Not all of it, Chief.” “Well, which part didn’t you get?” “The part after: ‘Listen to this’.”

Among Get Smart‘s dozens of notable guest stars: Don Rickles, Bernie Koppell (as a senior operative in KAOS), Johnny Carson, Ted Knight, Carol Burnett, James Caan and Tom Bosley.

The series was never a huge hit in any of its five seasons that ran from 1965-1970 in a three-network environment. Its first season was its most successful, finishing #12 overall. Get Smart earned the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series twice; Adams took home the award three times for Best Actor in a Comedy Series.

The New York native was born on April 13, 1923. He died at 82 of lymphoma on September 25, 2005.

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