Don Adams, the wry-voiced comedian who starred as the fumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart in the 1960s TV spoof of James Bond movies, “Get Smart,” has died. He was 82.
Adams died of a lung infection late Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his friend and former agent Bruce Tufeld said Monday, adding that the actor broke his hip a year ago and had been in ill health since.
As the inept Agent 86 of the super-secret federal agency CONTROL, Adams captured TV viewers with his antics in combatting the evil agents of KAOS. When his explanations failed to convince the villains or his boss, he tried another tack:
“Would you believe ... ?”
It became a national catchphrase.
Smart was also prone to spilling things on the desk or person of his boss — the Chief (actor Edward Platt). Smart’s apologetic “Sorry about that, chief” also entered the American lexicon.
The spy gadgets, which aped those of the Bond movies, were a popular feature, especially the pre-cellphone telephone in a shoe.
Smart’s beautiful partner, Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon, was as brainy as he was dense, and a plot romance led to marriage and the birth of twins later in the series.
“He had this prodigious energy, so as an actor working with him it was like being plugged into an electric current,” Feldon said from New York. “He would start and a scene would just take off and you were there for the ride. It was great fun acting with him.”
Adams was very intelligent, she said, a quality that suited the satiric show that had comedy geniuses Mel Brooks and Buck Henry behind it.
“He wrote poetry, he had an interest in history ... He had that other side to him that does not come through Maxwell Smart,” she said. “Don in person was anything but bumbling.”
Adams had an “amazing memory” that allowed him to take an unusual approach to filming, Feldon said.
Instead of learning his lines ahead of time he would have a script assistant read his part to him just once or twice. He invariably got it right but that didn’t stop people from placing bets on it, she recounted.
Adams, who had been under contract to NBC, was lukewarm about doing a spy spoof. When he learned that Brooks and Henry had written the pilot script, he accepted immediately. “Get Smart” debuted on NBC in September 1965 and scored No. 12 among the season’s most-watched series and No. 22 in its second season.
“Get Smart” twice won the Emmy for best comedy series with three Emmys for Adams as comedy actor.
After four seasons on NBC, CBS picked up the show but the ratings fell off as the jokes became repetitive and it was canceled in 1970 after just one year. The show lived on in syndication and a cartoon series. In 1995 the Fox network revived the series with Smart as chief and 99 as a congresswoman. It lasted seven episodes.
Fought at Guadalcanal, voiced Inspector Gadget
Adams never had another showcase to display his comic talent.
“It was a special show that became a cult classic of sorts, and I made a lot of money for it,” he remarked of “Get Smart” in a 1995 interview. “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.”
He was born Donald James Yarmy in New York City on April 13, 1923, Tufeld said, although some sources say 1926 or ’27. The actor’s father was a Hungarian Jew who ran a few small restaurants in the Bronx.
In a 1959 interview Adams said he never cared about being funny as a kid: “Sometimes I wonder how I got into comedy at all. I did movie star impressions as a kid in high school. Somehow they just got out of hand.”
In 1941, he dropped out of school to join the Marines. In Guadalcanal he survived the deadly blackwater fever and was returned to the States to become a drill instructor, acquiring the clipped delivery that served him well as a comedian.
After the war he worked in New York as a commercial artist by day, doing standup comedy in clubs at night, taking the surname of his first wife, Adelaide Adams. His following grew, and soon he was appearing on the Ed Sullivan and late-night TV shows. Bill Dana, who had helped him develop comedy routines, cast him as his sidekick on Dana’s show. That led to the NBC contract and “Get Smart.”
Adams, who married and divorced three times and had seven children, served as the voice for the popular cartoon series, “Inspector Gadget” as well as the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo. In 1980, he appeared as Maxwell Smart in a feature film, “The Nude Bomb,” about a madman whose bomb destroyed people’s clothing.
Adams’ survivors include six of his children; a sister; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Tufeld said funeral arrangements were incomplete.