Article From: "Would You Believe Don Adams?" The Saturday Evening Post, June 4, 1966. page 32-3.
Millions watch him on TV as Maxwell Smart, the all-thumbs secret agent who milks his laughs out of espionage. And, believe it or not, Don Adams lives a private version of the same man.
By Gene Smith
Secret Agent Maxwell Smart and his beautiful assistant, Agent 99, are searching a ship for an enemy spy. Suddenly a huge wooden mast crashes down.
"Ninety-nine, this ship is a freighter, right?"
"And freighters run on fuel oil, right?"
"Right again, Max."
"And wooden masts belong on sailboats, correct?"
"And this is a wooden mast."
"Go on , Max."
"Ninety-nine. . . ."
"I forgot where I started."
To the television viewer who watches NBC's Get Smart each Saturday night, the following terms for its hero come to mind: Fool. Schlemiel. Dope. But the man who plays Maxwell Smart does not see him that way at all. Don Adams, a slight, sharp-featured, intense performer, who in the tradition of comedians is anything but funny outside of business hours, is particularly grim when he analyzes Smart.
"Maxwell," he says in a steady voice and with an unblinking eye, "is a fighter for the forces of good but is not a hero like the other agents, Bond, Bulldog Drummond, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Such a type in the popular image does not fumble, is superb with women, knows wines, dresses right. Maxwell is fumbling and bumbling. The average guy looks at Bond or the U.N.C.L.E. hero and they're suave, beautiful, perfect, and the guy knows he could never do it their way. Most people are not like that, not six-two, not handsome, not marvelous with women. Maxwell tries to be these things, but he misses. He's not superhuman. But he believes in what he is, and wants to do his best."
Don Adams drones on in his flat voice, so unlike the on-camera, high-pitched squeak that is his trademark, and as he talks he uses the words "Maxwell" and "I" interchangeably, and what he seems to say is that as Flaubert was Madame Bovary and Cervantes was Don Quixote, so Don Adams is Maxwell Smart. "Maxwell," he says, "is serious, dedicated, awkward, forgetful, pompous to a certain degree, sentimental."
And this is you?
His wife is the former Dorothy Bracken, an ex-dancer. "Definitely he's Maxwell," she says. "Look at the way he was with the garbage. Our old house was on a hill too steep for the garbage truck to go up. So every Wednesday we loaded the garbage in the car, and he was supposed to drop it off at the bottom of the hill before he went to the studio. But every Wednesday he drove to work with the back of the car loaded with garbage."
But even more than his forgetfulness and otherworldliness, Adams's hallmark is his extraordinary --almost peculiar-- seriousness.
"I think about things," he says. "I can't take things lightly. My wife plays tennis, but I can't play tennis. If I could just stand there and hit the ball back easily I would be all right, but I have to try to put it away. So I play golf."
He plays golf as he lives. His costar on Get Smart, Barbara Feldon, a former show girl who played the "tiger lady" in TV commercials and one $64,000 as a Shakespeare expert on the $64,000 Question, always thinks of him as she has seen him on golf-driving ranges---a slim, concentrated figure, head down, unaware that anyone else is there, slamming out bucket after bucket of balls and brooding to himself that to call yourself a golfer you have to shoot 79 at least twice.
Adams came from New York. His memories of youth--he is 39 now--are concentrated on two subjects: school and the movies. The former was agony for him. "School--that's where you mouth someone else's words, where you're a mimic, a brain-picker. They ask a question and you answer. Right. Wrong. They were wasting my time.
"Ma tried her best, but I was the great truant of my day. Mr. Hooky. I was left back in the sixth grade. It was a miracle I ever finished. Three times a week, maybe four, I'd head for school and never make it. I'd end up on Forty-Second Street. I saw movies all the time. It was half my youth, my time in the movies. I saw Rhett Butler a hundred times."
Finally he got out of grade school and went on to a high school in Manhattan, shepherded there by his father, a restaurant manager. He stayed one half a day, cutting out once the other students went to lunch. It was the fall of 1941. "I had the fundamentals--divide, subtract," he says now. "That's enough. Geometry, trigonometry--that's all nonsense. You want to be an engineer, go study the stuff. Not me."
He hitchhiked to Pennsylvania and the home of compliant relatives who lived in Charleroi. When the war came he decided to join the Marines. He was only 118 pounds and, at 16, underage, but he ate his way up to 150 and lied about his years. He wound up in Guadalcanal, got shot up and got sick. He had blackwater fever, which was fatal in 90 percent of all cases. He lay in a ward at the Navy hospital in Wellington, New Zealand, and a corpsman was assigned to sit a deathwatch by his bed. In his grim, tight-lipped way, Adams said to the corpsman, "I'm not going anyplace."
After the war, hitchhiking to Miami, he ran into another New York kid, Jay Lawrence, who had lived on the same block with Adams back before the war. Lawrence was in Florida trying to catch on with a ball club in spring training, but was too slight to make it. Lawrence, whose older brother had been famous around the neighborhood for doing impersonations, teamed up with Adams as comics at a cheap club on the beach. The long days in movie houses during their childhood paid off. They did Cary Grant, Cagney, Bogart. Seventy-five bucks a week.
Adams played the clubs for a couple of years. He shudders when he talks about it today: "They were the toilets of the world." He was a nobody then, but he was still the Don Adams who would eventually become the ludicrously moral Maxwell Smart, and he resisted the pressures to use dirty jokes. In one place, he didn't tell blue jokes and the boss threw him out. Adams didn't care. "If you have to use them, you're doing the lowest thing in the world, and if it fails, it's horrible."
He married a girl he met in Florida, and soon there were kids, and he quit nightclub work. "You couldn't gypsy around in strip joints when you had kids and needed a steady paycheck," he explained. He was a restaurant cashier and then took up commercial art in Washington, D.C. On weekends he worked dives in Baltimore's famed The Block, hating it.
He and his wife and the three kids, Christine, now 15, Cathy, 14, and Cecilia, 8, drifted back to Florida. He was there when word came that his mother was dead. In New York for her funeral, Adams found out Arthur Godfrey was holding auditions for comics; he went, did his impersonations and caught on. After that there were guest appearances all over television; he may have done more guest shots than any other performer of that period. He also tried comedy writing, producing material for Garry Moore and Steve Allen. He met writer-comic Bill Dana, and when Dana got his own TV comedy series, he hired Adams to play a house detective named Byron Glick. Just when his career began to bloom, his marriage broke up. He married again and now has an infant daughter, Stacey Noel. (She was born during the first day of shooting the first Get Smart segment.)
After Detective Glick came the offer to play Secret Agent Smart. Originally the brainchild of producers Dan Melnick and David Susskind, the concept of Get Smart was refined by writers Mel Brooks (of "2,000 year-old-man" fame) and Buck Henry. It is one of television's top attractions, and was from its opening segment. Millions of teenagers repeat its running jokes: "Sorry about that" and "would you believe . . . ?" gags. ("I love music. I once listened to three weeks of Beethoven." "I don't believe it." "Would you believe two weeks of Brahms?" "No." "A day of Looney Tunes?") Adams has a piece of it, and if it keeps running he will be set for life with residual payments.
And when Get Smart has had its run, he will get out, get away. No more acting. No more makeup. Then, he says, he will go into writing and directing.
Meanwhile, he will live with Maxwell Smart. And he should, for his life with Maxwell is like this: Not long ago he at lunch at one of the more elegant restaurants along Sunset Boulevard---what Hollywood calls "The Strip." When he finished, he gave his car check to one of the kids who worked in the restaurant's parking lot, and the kid went for his little English two-seater. Adams got into the car. While the kid, waiting for the tip, delayed closing the car's door, Adams searched his pockets for a quarter or a half-dollar. Adams came up empty. No change. Out with the wallet. He had only a few bills. A five-dollar bill. A ten-dollar bill. A twenty. Tip a kid five bucks for bringing the car? He began searching his pants again---looking through the glove compartment, digging into his vest pockets. And so motorists began sounding their horns, the kid shifted from foot to foot, and an audience gathered. It was pure Don Adams. And pure Maxwell Smart.