Bumbling Agent 86 in 'Get Smart'
Wednesday 28 September 2005
Years spent as an impressionist and stand-up comedian on the cabaret and night-club circuit, where he perfected a clipped delivery and perfect diction that he himself hated, prepared Don Adams well for his best-known television role, as the bumbling Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, in the American spoof spy series Get Smart.
The character, who operated under cover as a greetings-card salesman, was conceived by its creators, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, as a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, and Get Smart (1965-70) as a satire on the 007 films and their small-screen counterparts such as The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Smart and his sidekick, Agent 99 (played by Barbara Feldon), worked for the Washington-based CONTROL, a secret US government spy agency housed in a music hall, and during 138 episodes battled against the evil agents of KAOS, which planned to take over the world.
In the hands of Adams, the stereotypes and wordplay made the sitcom popular around the globe. Parodies of the endless gadgets seen in screen spy dramas included a dial-phone in the sole of Smart's shoe, complete with loud bell, and the Cone of Silence under which the agent insisted on speaking when in his boss's office - two transparent plastic hemispheres lowered over them electronically that invariably malfunctioned.
The programme was also memorable for a string of catchphrases. "Sorry about that, Chief" became one of Smart's regular sayings, as were "Missed it by that much" and the more desperate "Would you believe . . . ?" when someone did not believe his prevarifications and he tried another. Once, for instance, Smart was cornered by KAOS's top agent and death looked certain to follow:
Smart: At the moment, seven Coast Guard cutters are converging on us. Would you believe it?
Mr Big: I find that hard to believe.
Smart: Hmmm . . . Would you believe six?
Mr Big: I don't think so.
Smart: How about two cops in a rowboat.
Such was the success of the sitcom and the star's portrayal of the central character that Get Smart won the Emmy Award as Best Comedy twice (1968, 1969) and Adams took the Best Comedy Actor honour three years running (1967-69).
Born Donald James Yarmy in New York City in 1923, he served in the Marine Corps during the Second World War and was the only member of his platoon to survive the Battle of Guadalcanal but nearly died of blackwater fever after contracting malaria. After the war, he worked as a commercial artist by day and comedian by night, adopting Adams as his stage name when he became fed up with being seen last in alphabetically listed auditions.
Winning Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (1954) on television, with jokes written by his boyhood friend Bill Dana, led Adams to become a regular on screen with his stand-up act, including a weekly spot on The Perry Como Show (1961-63). The comedian's talents extended to acting when he was cast as the dim detective Byron Glick in The Bill Dana Show (1963-65), a sitcom set in a New York hotel. Dana was responsible for Adams's distinctive delivery, honed during his years on the stand-up circuit. Adams recalled:
Right from the beginning, he said, "You should do all your routines in that voice." And I said, "But I can't stand that voice." And he said: "But it's funny. It makes people laugh." For whatever reason, the delivery or whatever it is, that voice makes any situation funnier.
Adams seemed a natural for the role of Maxwell Smart, which he reprised for the big screen in The Nude Bomb (1980) and in the television film Get Smart, Again (1989). However, an attempt to revive the television series in 1995, with Smart promoted to Chief of CONTROL, failed to capture viewers' imaginations, although Adams assumed the character once more in Canadian television commercials six years ago.
His other sitcom ventures included roles as Detective Lennie Crooke in the police parody The Partners (1971-72) and the bumbling supermarket manager Howard Bannister in Check It Out (1985-88). Throughout, Adams continued with his stage act and was heard worldwide as the voice of Inspector Gadget in both the television cartoon series of that title (1983-86) and Inspector Gadget's Field Trips (1996).
His brother, the actor Dick Yarmy, died in 1992 and his daughter Cecily Adams, an actress and casting director from Adams's first marriage, died last year. Another daughter, Stacey Adams, from his second marriage, is an actress turned casting director.
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