Giving Random Stupid Intelligence On TV’s Get Smart

Americans have been enduring Get Smart for half a century and loving it.

I love Get Smart. I’ve been watching it since I was two years old. Would you believe that I set my alarm to 3:25 a.m. every morning for two years to videotape every episode and pause the commercials when it ran in syndication? How about if I said I stayed up three days straight to tape it on a marathon? Would you believe I stuck a tape in a machine one night and got about three hours of mostly commercials?

Don’t tell me you’ve never seen the classic spy satire with the phone booth entrance to an underground enclave of wall-to-wall doors. If you’ve only seen the Steve Carell reboot, you can keep that to yourself as well.  

Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s Get Smart, is celebrating its 50th anniversary today and I found out that HBO is releasing the series digitally. I figure, if I plug it maybe they’ll send me something free, even if it is just two cops in a rowboat. That will be the second time I fell for that this month.

Get Smart was created on special assignment from producer Daniel Melnick. ABC wanted to cast Tom Poston as Maxwell Smart, but he missed it by that much. After ABC rejected Get Smart as “un-American,” it began its run on NBC on September 18, 1965 and ended on CBS on September 11, 1970. The series also spawned the spinoff theatrical film The Nude Bomb and the made-for-TV movie Get Smart, Again!

Headquartered in the heart of the free world, Washington, D.C., the counter-espionage agency CONTROL was founded sometime around 1930. Its first chief was Herbert, who may or not have been the same President Herbert Hoover who was in office in the Get Smart timeline, if we can believe anything Admiral Hargrade says. It’s all been redacted because no one could hear him over the cone of silence.

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CONTROL was created by executive order to fight an organization of shrewd determined men who had been trying to get control of the country for a number of years and we’re not talking Republicans. KAOS, the counter-clockwise espionage agency, was founded in 1904 in the heart of the not-so-free world, Bucharest. For tax purposes it was headquartered in Delaware. KAOS is run by Mr. Big, who was not related to the original head of the international organization of evil, Mr. Big, or his successor, Mr. Big.

CONTROL Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, was James Bond’s more successful American cousin. According to his cover story on Popular Espionage magazine, Smart won the Spy of the Year Award two straight years and was voted “one of the ten best dressed spies.” The guy who flunked Torture for three semesters in spy school went on to become the head of CONTROL. This explains the short-lived 90s TV series spinoff, a bamboo shoot under the fingernails, which I’m not so crazy about, of the franchise.

Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, had been in television since Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, where he wrote with Woody Allen and Neil Simon, and became lifelong friends with Carl Reiner. Buck Henry left Get Smart to co-write the script for 1967’s The Graduate. Brooks mixed equal parts James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, shook it into a Martini and made Don Adams shoot it through his nose in one of the greatest deadpan characters in TV comedy history. Adams, I remember from stories he told on talk shows when I was a kid, bled out at some awards show rather than break character.

Brother of comic actor Dick Yarmy from Kentucky Fried Movie, Don Adams was born Donald Yarmy in New York. He was a standup comedian who won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts before he got into acting. Adams died on September 25, 2005. To many people, Don is even more beloved as Tennessee Tuxedo, others pigeonhole him as Inspector Gadget, but he directed many episodes of Get Smart, including “The Treasure of C. Errol Madre,” and wrote two episodes, including “The King Lives?,” which he co-wrote with his sister Gloria Burton just so he could do Ronald Coleman. Adams also wrote poetry and painted.

Smart didn’t only go up against KAOS. In the 1965 episode “Diplomat’s Daughter,” the counter espionage agent encounters the villain The Claw, who some idiots mistake for the Craw. The Chinese villain is played by Leonard Strong, who specialized in playing Asian roles, but who we can’t blame for John Wayne’s turn as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror.

Did Get Smart play into the easy stereotypes of the day? Nein, nein, 99. Mel Brooks would have pushed any boundary if he knew it would get a laugh. This is the guy who, when talking about his memoirs in 2002, said he really enjoyed reading himself because he was very entertaining and couldn’t wait to read more of himself. He wasn’t lying. I read it. He is.

Brooks, who would later sweeten the Nazis in a half-baked gugelhupf gamble called Springtime for Hitler, let Buck Henry, who always looked gift horses in their mouths, give the villains the best lines, if only because it put Adams in further peril. What can I say, I always rooted for KAOS. They let you cheat. Except maybe when Agent 99 was on screen, she was a knockout. I hope I wasn’t out of line with that knockout crack. 

Before the series, Barbara Feldon was more than just a memorable hairdo and a guest on Flipper. Agent 99, whose number was chosen because it was sexier than Agent 100, although there are urban myths that say Adams and Feldman were originally supposed to play Agent 68 and Agent 69, was one of the first career women on television, and what a career. Though Feldon was primarily a theater actor, she climbed the espionage ladder through The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in the “The Never-Never Affair” episode, and reprised a version on the first season of the Mad About You. Feldon’s Diane “Spy Girl” Caldwell even slept with Paul Reiser’s cousin Ira.

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Feldon was two inches taller than Don Adams and was constantly scrunching down to be on the same level on camera. Feldon doesn’t act anymore, she writes. She published the book, Living Alone and Loving It, which I hope was a wink at Get Smart, in 2003.

Agents 86 and 99 were under The Chief, aka Harold Clark, aka Thaddeus, who was in the glee club at college, while Smart flunked out of Spy Music School. Edward Platt was from Staten Island. He studied opera at Julliard and sang before he lectured James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Platt reportedly died of a heart attack at age 58, but one of his sons confirmed that, after two failed attempts, Platt committed suicide in 1974. Sorry about that, Chief, and I mean that profoundly. Ed Platt played the most indulgent and patient authority figure on screen. Smart may have cost the Chief his hair in his first two weeks on assignment, but Platt’s inner smile was ever-present, enabling his agents to run, walk or drive amok.

The Chief issued Smart a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger Mark I with a standard Ford 260 V8 engine as a company car. The Chief isn’t merely indulgent of his iconoclastic agent. He is his friend. They play a nightly game of chess or pool at The Regency Club, where Max will at one point try and assassinate his boss because he’s under the hypnotic effects of gong, not the psychedelic prog group, but an eastern mind control tool, later mastered by the Chief’s assistant named Larrabee. That was the name of Platt’s character in North by Northwest in 1959. Robert Karvelas, who plays Larabee, was Don Adams’ cousin. Adams shilled for cigarettes at commercial breaks, but not Laramie cigarettes, the brand on The Simpsons.

Ludwig Von Siegfried and sometimes Konrad Siegfried is the Vice President of Public Relations and Terror for KAOS. He also runs the baseball team. Siegfried trades in his unseen cover wife in season 1 for his aide Shtarker, his comrade from World War II, they possibly deserted together. Siegfried was raised in Florida, which explains the accent. He never forgave his mom for not buying him a sled. His sister is the head of the KAOS Ladies Auxiliary until he turned her in to CONTROL. You might wonder how you could do business with someone who sells out his friends, but who else are you supposed to sell out? You can’t betray enemies. Bernie Kopell was obviously a master of dialect and timing. It’s a shame he is probably better known as the doctor on Love Boat.

All the characters were expertly cast. Hymie the Robot was so human he went psychotic under the understated Dick Gautier. Even the one off guest players were inspired. I saw Uncle Louie from Seinfeld torture Smart. Tony Lo Bianco from The French Connection was a KAOS agent. The Godfather’s Sonny, James Caan, played a swashbuckling Errol Flynn type in the episode “To Sire, with Love,” but would only do it if he could go under the credit Rupert of Rathskeller as himself. Mr. Big, in the pilot episode, was played by the short-stature actor Michael Dunn, who teamed with Captain Kirk in a Star Trek telepathy battle.

The renowned merchant of venom Don Rickles was told he had to pat his head and rub his stomach to get the role, but he was told that by Johnny Carson who phoned in cameos as a train conductor and a royal herald in the court of a foreign king.

Get Smart was a very prescient show.  The creators were able to foretell technology. A good example of that is that Maxwell Smart kept his phone in his shoe. A not good example of that is the Cone of Silence. The “Cone of Silence” was invented by Professor Cone. Decades before the Patriot Act let the NSA read America’s emails, the agents of CONTROL hid themselves in mailboxes, washing machines and foot lockers.

Get Smart saw Austin Powers coming and asked if only all that box office juice for niceness instead of evil, once again the forces of virtue would have triumphed over the forces of rottenness. If you don’t mind, 99, I’d like to figure this out myself.

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Happy Birthday, Get Smart.