I was five years old when Get Smart debuted on NBC in 1965. It was the first show I can remember loving and the rest of my family having little or no tolerance for—in other words, it was the first show that made me feel like I was hip to something they didn’t get; the first show that made me feel like I was s(S)marter than some of the older people around me; the show that introduced me to the excitement of liking something no one else did (maybe I would have been dismayed to fully understand that, in reality, the show was a huge popular hit from the start and twice won Emmys for best comedy series). It was also the show that introduced me to the name Mel Brooks. And, of course, it made Don Adams, as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, my very first favorite TV hero, one who I imagined it would be fun to emulate in real life. (Would you believe that later in life, I missed getting my International Super-spy degree from DeVry by thi-i-i-is much, getting booted for not taking things seriously enough, and an inability to effectively employ the various levels of footwear communications technology?)
Don Adams was 82 years of age when he died of a lung infection late Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Adams had broken a hip a year ago and had been ill ever since, according his close friend and former agent Bruce Tufeld. Adams had a long career in TV after the end of Get Smart’s run but was never able to escape the long shadow cast by his brilliantly bumbling comic creation. He was a frequent TV talk show guest and guest star on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and in 1980, he reunited with Barbara Feldon (Agent 99) for a Get Smart feature film, entitled The Nude Bomb, which performed up to its titular standard, both in critical circles and at the box office. Nevertheless, he headlined yet another Get Smart TV movie (Get Smart Again!) and a short-lived 1995 attempt to revive the character in another TV show called Get Smart, this time featuring Feldon as Agent 99, and Andy Dick as their equally bumbling son Zach.
Adams may have been occasionally frustrated by being linked so closely to Maxwell Smart, but it’s hard to imagine, from the staccato timing and gusto of his performances—shoe heel or not, he never phoned in an episode of Get Smart-- that he didn’t relish the knowledge that he was part of a genuine TV phenomenon, even before the days when Nick at Nite and TV Land would package nostalgia for the medium’s past and lacquer it with enough rose-colored sheen to make even the smelliest turd from the past look like a jewel. Get Smart never needed the nostalgia-fueled claims for greatness that such irony-laced treatment would eventually make for it and other shows of its time. A look back at it now makes clear that it was a fizzy, silly, witty kaleidoscope of comic insanity right from the start, and despite the pedigree of Brooks, Buck Henry and others who contributed to its success behind the scenes, it was Don Adams who made the show tick. In an age where every lousy TV show is available in boxed set after boxed set on DVD, here is a show, and a brilliantly sustained comic character, worthy of digital enshrinement. As we say good-bye to Don Adams, perhaps one day we’ll be able to say hello to a Get Smart collection that can stand as a testament to the show’s sharp writing as well the actor at its center, and the dazed and confused would-be master of espionage he created.
UPDATE 9/28 9:44 p.m.:
"I may never get to play with the Philharmonic, but on the other hand, is Leonard Bernstein licensed to kill?"
-- Maxwell Smart
In order to assure Blaaagh, and others who may have flushed it from their memories in self-defense, one quick click
here will take you to TV Guide, January 7, 1995, for all you'll ever need to know about Fox's ill-fated attempt to revive Get Smart. Oh, how I wish I could have forgotten about this one myself...