Of Don Adams, “Get Smart”, and More Else Than You Might Expect

The late Don Adams (Donald James Yarmy, 1923-2005) was born on this day. I have blogged about him before, very purposefully NOT writing much about his most famous vehicle on that occasion, instead preferring to shine some light on another interesting project he put together: Don Adams’ Screen Test.

There are times when we needn’t shed any tears about typecasting — Bob Denver springs to mind. Bob Denver was a downright lucky guy, fortunate to have gotten from life whatever it was that he got. Denver was never going to go on to conquer any new “acting challenges”. Don Adams, I think, is a much different case, however, and the fact that most people are unlikely to realize that is to me an indicator of an existential injustice. The fact was generally known at the time of his greatest triumph, Get Smart (1965-1970), for which he won three well justified Emmys, and also sometimes wrote, directed, and produced. But it seems almost like he poured TOO much of himself into the job, did such good work, that people decided he couldn’t do anything else. But of course he could have. He was an absolute encyclopedic master of schtick. I look at his takes and choices on Get Smart and I am just in awe. Always, ALWAYS he does the perfect thing, the comedy equivalent of the mot juste. Unfairly though, he’d expended all his comic capital, and his physical vocabulary became so familiar that no matter what he did afterward people couldn’t see past Maxwell Smart. At a certain point, he just went with the flow. The thing is, Adams was an impressionist! As a nightclub comic he did impressions! So it’s not like he had but a single voice and characterization on tap. Smart evolved out of Adams’ William Powell impression. He had much greater range than anyone assumed, or were willing to take a chance on.

Adams was originally from New York City — he went to high school with Larry Storch, who also gained his first fame as an impressionist. Another childhood friend was Bill Dana, who gave him some of his first breaks in show business. During WWII Adams served as a marine. He fought at Guadalcanal and was later a drill sergeant. As cockamamie as it sounds, it seems to me that this part of his past, the wartime service, informs Adams’ role on Get Smart. He’s more than plausible in the hand-to-hand combat scenes that frequently form the climax. These scenes are often played straight, and we are drawn into them as proper action sequences. Not everyone has the skills to pull that sort of thing off. He looked goofy but he was pretty much a bad-ass.

He worked in nightclubs as a comic after the war, and won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1954. Bill Dana wrote his act, and then got him close to a dozen spots on The Steve Allen Show starting in the late 1950s. Then came regular slots on The Perry Como Show (1961-63), and The Bill Dana Show (1963-65), and his stint voicing the title character in the popular cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963-66).

These were all prologue to his big moment of course. Get Smart was cooked up by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as a parody of all the spy franchises then in vogue: the James Bond films, and tv shows like I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers. (The Matt Helm and Our Man Flint films and others would soon follow as well). Like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, Maxwell Smart (Agent 86) was a klutz and an apparent dimwit who usually solved mysteries and other crises by being incredibly lucky. Barbara Feldon played his leggy love interest 99 (she too has been forever chained to her one Get Smart role). Also in the cast were Edward Platt (of Rebel Without a Cause and North by Northwest) as the Chief; Bernie Kopell as the memorable villain Siegfried; Dick Gautier as Hymie the Robot; William Schallert as The Admiral. Former boxer Robert Karvelas played Larabee, the Chief’s thick-headed assistant. And there were great running gangs like Dave Ketchum as Agent 13, who was always hiding in mailboxes and other uncomfortable places to hand information and assignments to Max; and gorgeous Angelique Pettyjohn, whose character, Agent 38 was supposedly a male spy who was so good at the art of disguise that he could transform himself into this stunning woman.

Best of all was the famous credit sequence, with exhilarating theme music by Irving Szathmary, and Smart walking down a long underground corridor past all manner of mechanical gates and barriers, climaxing with one last perfect moment of slapstick. As a five year old or however old I was when I first encountered the show in re-runs, this sequence grabbed me hook, line and sinker.

At any rate, as we said above the show was a smash — Adams won Emmys, and a half dozen catchphrases from the show were on everybody’s lips. They’re STILL on some people’s!

Now we get to forgotten territory. Immediately after Get Smart went off the air, Adams, still at the top of the world, stepped immediately into a new sitcom, The Partners (1971-72), in which he and African American actor Rupert Crosse (who’d been nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Reivers) played a pair of bumbling detectives. The show had originally co-starred Godfrey Cambridge, who called Adams (who also wrote and directed on this show) “Captain Queeg” and a variety of names TV Guide found unprintable, and left the show.

Also in the cast were Robert Karvelas from Get Smart, Dick Van Patten, and character actor John Doucette (familiar from many westerns) played their Captain. The show was well received but suffered from competition with All in the Family, which ran in the same time slot on another network. The Partners was cancelled after a single season.

Prior to The Partners, Adams was also developing other pilots, one, which would co-star Don Rickles, and another called Good Luck, Ben Gumm, which drew from his experiences as a marine (the comic part was that the main character had been lost in the Pacific jungle all this time and still has 1940s values in 1970s America). These shows never got a green light.

In 1975 came Don Adams’ Screen Test, which we wrote about here. Among that show’s interesting aspects was that we got to see the real Adams, who was not surprisingly a good deal smarter than his screen characters.

Almost entirely unknown is that Adams also starred in yet another sitcom, Check it Out! (1985-88) in which he played a supermarket manager. It was a Canadian show and did well enough that it ran three seasons, but never got any exposure in the States. He played a different sort of character on this show — a sort of finicky, fussy guy.

But really at a certain point, Adams saw the handwriting on the wall and began to give in to the demand, such as it was, for Maxwell Smart. In 1980, he starred in the Get Smart theatrical film The Nude Bomb, which did poorly at the box office. In 1989 there was the tv movie, Get Smart, Again! And in 1995, another attempt to reboot Get Smart (cancelled after 7 episodes). And at the same time, he did the voice for the animated character Inspector Gadget, which was so Maxwell Smart-like, it hardly seems worth calling it something different. He did this on the original run of Inspector Gadget (1983-85), in the special Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992), and Inspector Gadget’s Field Trip (1996-2004), and on the spin-offs Gadget Boy and Heather (1995-96), and Gadget Boys Adventures in History (1997-98).

Because this is the way Hollywood works, he was replaced by Mathew Broderick when an Inspector Gadget feature film was made in 1999, though he was given the consolation prize of supplying the voice of a dog. And in 2008 his most famous role was usurped by Steve Carell, ensuring that entire generations will forever associate somebody else with Adams’ greatest creation. Because, like I said, that is how Hollywood works.

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