Would You Believe....Don Adams?
By Tom Burke
On one side of the long table in the Beverly Hills dining room is Mrs. Don Adams, who looks like the girl on the Breck shampoo box. On the other side is Stacey, Don Adams' four-year-old daughter, who looks like her mother. At the head of the table is Don Adams himself, in nondescript sweater and slacks, drinking demitasse and chewing on a fudge brownie, looking not like a 44-year-old comic who has parlayed a character called Maxwell Smart, of television's Get Smart, into a fortune-making pop-culture legend, but like a young ad agency V.P. who has just allowed a prospective client to beat him at handball. Don Adams does, in fact, own an ad agency, and he would rather talk about it than about acting. A born entrepreneur, he somehow became a headline comedian, apparently against his will. "I hate performing," he admits easily. "It was never anything more to me than a mean to get behind the scenes in show business."
And now he is behind the scenes, a puppeteer with a trunk full of puppets his ventures include the managing of other entertainers and yet he frowns and chain-smokes. He had played the officious, bumbling Agent 86 for four years when NBC decided, last spring, to cancel the show; then, just when he thought he could hang up his trenchcoat forever, CBS picked up Get Smart for another season. Adams is too good a businessman to abandon a million-dollar project, but these days, when he talks of Maxwell Smart, he just barely hides the boredom. Ask him about the details of the changeover however, one network going to another, and he leans forward as if someone has just slipped him a pep pill.
"Yes, it's very interesting how that happened." We have left the table, looked at the pool a routine topaz rectangle beyond the glass wall of a living room so large that even an abundance of expensive, conservative furniture does not quite fill it and settled into a paneled den, containing a bar, bowling trophies and Adams' three Emmy Awards. "NBC called me a week before they announced their fall season and said they were dropping Get Smart, but offered me lots of money to develop new shows for them and I said, 'Terrific.' But CBS had heard and said they wanted the show, and that night my business people arrived at the door here with both deals in their hands. They said I had to call New York in 15 minutes with my decision. I told them that they were crazy that I needed an hour.
"At that moment, the phone rang and it was Herb Schlosser who told me for half an hour on long distance why I should stay with NBC. I said I'd call back. I hung up, and the phone rang again, and it was Mike Dann of CBS, a real dynamo. I said hello and 25 minutes later, I got my next word in. He told me that NBC had never really given Get Smart a fair shake. The first season, I Dream of Jeanie was lead-in show the show that's on right before you, which is very important because if people don't like it, they'll switch channels and may not switch back. Jeanie was okay, but the second year they put Please Don't Eat The Daises in front of us, and it was about 80th or 90th in the ratings. They tried to save it, but all they did was hurt us. Then, they replaced with Maya, The Jungle Elephant, which had a minus rating. It almost seemed that NBC was campaigning to kill its best comedy show with its worst bombs."
Stacey has come to thee door and rushes forward with two dolls that require medical attention. Many children are called enchanting when they are, at best, amusing. Stacey is both. Her father, as doctor, examines; she retreats to fill his prescription M&M candies for the nurse and the story resumes as if there had been no break.
"So Dann asked what NBC had offered and I said, 'X amount of dollars", and he said, 'We'll give you XX amount of dollars.' When I hesitated, he asked if I didn't have any faith in Get Smart and I said, 'Yes, but you don't, because you're only offering me 26 weeks with a guarantee of 18 if the ratings aren't good and I want 26 firm,' and he said, 'Okay, you've got 26 firm and so..."
The narration continues for some time, up and down corporate corridors, occasionally stymied in cul-de-sacs. Adams opts for the NBC deal, apparently because with it, he can produce without having to go on and play Agent 86. But NBC has not yet drawn up the contracts and CBS insists on a decision and signature on paper, so that it can release its fall schedule ahead of NBC. Left out of the CBS lineup, Don Adams will lose his strong bargaining position at NBC; and so, in the end, the Columbia Broadcasting System triumphs. Asked if he has no qualms about committing himself to a network that so high-handedly squelched the Smothers Brothers, the star smiles. His show takes no political stand, is neither blood nor sexy, has never run afoul of the airwaves' moral guardians, one can only speak for oneself.
"Don't misunderstand all this business talk," he says abruptly, lighting another cigarette. "I still care deeply that the show looks right on the air. I tell myself that after four years I should just say my lines and go home, but I can't do that. I never expected one Emmy, much less three, and I want to maintain our high standard. It's just that my main interests are now in other fields. I don't care about being thought funny. I never did. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got into comedy at all. I did movie-star impressions as a kid, back in De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Somehow, they just got out of hand."
Adams' father, a Hungarian Jew named William Yarmy, ran a modest string of New York restaurants. Young Don graduated from P.S. 87 , but dropped out of De Witt Clinton in 1941, lied about his age to get into the Marine Corps ("I was 16 and went to enlist with two football players who told me I was too small, but they were rejected for being overweight and I made it."), survived deadly blackwater fever at Guadalcanal, and returned to the States to become a drill instructor, rehearsing, in that capacity, the karate-chop vocal delivery that would someday serve Maxwell Smart so ably. After the war, he worked days as a commercial artist, and night in small-time clubs, doing his movie-star imitations.
In 1954, he met Bill Dana and they began writing comedy routines for Don perform; it was really Dana who nurtured the officious, oafish character that Adams made so popular during guest appearance for Garry Moore, Perry Como, Paar, Carson, et al. When Dana, as Jose Jimenez, got his own TV program, he asked Adams to play opposite him as an inept detective named Glick. The Bill Dana show failed, but it lead directly to triumph of Maxwell Smart.
"Now, I don't say that Mel Brooks and Buck Henry wrote Get Smart for me, but that's how it looked when I first read it. Of course, they knew my routines. When NBC called about it, I didn't know who'd written it, I hadn't even seen the script and I wanted to postpone making the pilot because it was late in the season and I didn't want to rush it. I told them that, and they told me who the writers were and I said, 'I'll do it now. Right now.' Brooks and Henry are geniuses."
But they didn't invent Agent 86's verbal trademarks, "Sorry about that" and "Would you believe-?" which became part of the American idiom almost before the first ratings were in. Both phrases were Adams-Dana inspirations. ("Bill and I framed that scrap of paper on which we first jotted those words.") Mel Brooks and Buck Henry eventually left Get Smart for new jobs; since then Adams has written several of each season's scripts himself and constantly edits and revises the work of his writers. "And I improvise all the time right on the set, as we tape. The best, funniest stuff we do happens that way. Barbara Feldon -Agent 99- and the other regulars have come to depend on me to improvise, restage, rewrite. They'll look at the script and say 'Don, get your pencil-'"
How do the writers and directors feel about that? He laughs. "Writers are sensitive. When I'm right, I'm their hero. When I'm wrong, I've ruined their scripts. But I respect their ideas. For instance they thought of the idea of Barbara and I getting married on the show, last season -the audience seemed to like that idea immensely -and this year we're going to have twins. Why twins? I don't know. Funnier. Ask the writers. As for the directors -well, most TV directors just aren't comedy oriented. They respect my feel for comedy. And they sense my determination to tread the show's fine line between satire and farce. They know that when I interfere. I am just trying desperately hard not to let Get Smart get hokey. It will never become another Batman."
Beyond working hours, which total about 14 out of 24, Adams' lifestyle is subdued, to say the least. He rarely leaves the twin cities, Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and feels no sentiment about New York as his birthplace. Saturdays, he plays a good golf game; Sundays, he often paints. His three daughters by a previous marriage (he quietly refuses to discuss it) live with their mother in Maryland and visit him occasionally. Though he has been voted one the 10 best-dressed men in America, he credits his wardrobe to a fantastic tailor, yawns when clothes are mentioned and asserts if he had his way he would never change out of dungarees. Evenings, he watches TV ("Stacey now watches about 15 minutes of Get Smart, and then says, 'Turn it off, so we can talk.'")or reads about military history. He is an authority on the subject.
"You know, the American male doesn't really make a good solider. He's too independent, doesn't like to take orders. One reason the German solider was one of history's best was his discipline, his strong nationalistic feels, his pride in himself as a warrior. The Marine Corps is like the German Army because they drain every bit of individuality out of you, then instill a discipline so strong that it holds up anywhere. In combat, that's vital, because you stand and fight no matter how scared you are. You will never disgrace the Marine uniform. That's what makes a really good fighting man."
At this point, naturally, the war in Vietnam comes up. Don Adams smokes again, looking deeply concerned. "I'm, um, torn by two feelings about it. We're there to honor a treaty and prevent the spread of Communism. All right, so we know that Communism will spread in Southeast Asia, no matter what we do. But, do we just pull out? I recently visited hospitals, amputee wards and spoke to veterans. Their morale is marvelous. I came away from them with an entirely different view of the war. I mean, can all those lives, those millions of dollars, be spent for nothing? When I was in Hawaii, I was invited to the war room there, as a guest. You would not believe it! You would not believe the facts and figures, what we've put into Vietnam. If we pulled out now, you don't know what we would leave. They've cleared swamps, built airbases..."
He pauses eventually. He is hardly a fanatic, only a loyal ex-Marine who perhaps learned the lesson of the Corps too well, and one refrains from suggest that the Vietnamese may well prefer a swamp to an airbase. Besides, it is getting late, and he is due at the Playboy Club on Sunset Strip, to see the debut of a young singer he's managing. The show will begin in a matter of minutes; still, he sees me out to the car.
"Be careful on that hill," he directs quietly as I start the engine. "A baby-sitter of ours started down too fast, the brakes failed, and she was killed."
All the lights of Hollywood lie below. I test the brakes elaborately before heading toward them.
WEBMASTER'S NOTE: Again, there are grammar gaffes in this article. Wherefore art thou O' Copy Desk? I'd like to give a big thanks to Ryan Schroer who provided this article!!! J