from : "Comic With A Killer Instinct," TV Guide,
November 13, 1971.
Don Adams hates to lose, and these days he usually doesn't.
By Arnold Hano
"Let me tell you about Don Adams," says actor James Caan. Caan is a friend of Adams'. They golf together, play poker together, go to the track together. "Don has to win. He has a war game at his home where you fight over territory. He is a vicious player."
A few weeks back, Adams played a round of golf with Caan. On the 18th hole Adams picked up his ball and walked it out of the high grass to the fringe of the green.
"You can't do that," Caan said.
"Yes I can," Adams said.
So Caan picked up Adams, threw him flat, pried open his jaws and stuffed the golf ball between his teeth.
Adams got up, removed the golf ball and said, "Remind me never to go bowling with you."
"If we did," Caan says, "he'd beat me. He has a killer instinct. His idol has got to be Attila."
Don Adams and I sat at the dining room table of his Beverly Hills house, just off Sunset Boulevard. We were having brunch. French toast. He leaned forward. "Do you want honey or syrup with your French toast?"
He looked hurt. "Honey is better for you."
"All right. Make it honey."
He beamed. He'd won again.
The question was put: "How come you hate to lose? Everybody says so. Even your press agent says so."
He laughed. He often laughs when things bother him. "That's true," he says. "But I hate to hear it said that way. (Laugh.) I have a fierce competitive spirit. Fun to me is victory."
So what's a nice killer instinct like Don Adams doing in a blandly amusing cop show like The Partners? Isn't there bigger and better territory to conquer viciously?
It's a long story. In 1970, after Get Smart had finished its fifth and final year, NBC and Universal put Adams under contract to come up with two properties, one for him to star in, the other for him to produce. He read 300 pilots. He rejected them all. Instead, he wrote three pilots. (It's part of the competitive instinct. Adams has virtually no education. Half a year at De Witt Clinton High, in the Bronx, and then he quit to join the Marines, lying about his age. Even when he went to school, he didn't. "I went to movies," he says.)
"The first pilot starred me and Don Rickles. We'd play two actors who have a hit TV show."
But Rickles had a CBS commitment. Adams an NBC commitment. That one never got off the ground.
Next was a script Adams may eventually sell. It is his favorite. It's about a World War II Marine (who lies about his age to get in) who is hurt in New Guinea and does not come out of the bush for 28 years. It's called Good Luck, Ben Gumm, and Ben Gumm must re-enter so-called civilization with values long outdated. Universal and NBC like the idea. The problem seems to be in casting the lead.
Then there's The Partners. Six years ago Don Adams, just attaining stardom as Maxwell Smart, announced, "I'm no messiah. I don't want to change the thinking of the world. My purpose is to make people laugh."
Today he wants to change the thinking of the world. He wrote a pilot about a tough cop, patterned after Johnny Broderick, the old New York detective who used to punch out criminals and ask questions later. Adams places this type of cop in today's world of law enforcement, circumscribed as it is by recent Supreme Court decisions.
"The show takes a position on police practice. If a cop sees a guy shoot three people, kick a baby in the head, and rape an old lady, he must tap the man on the shoulder and read him his rights."
Universal again didn't thrill to the concept, but it did like the idea of a cop show. It suggested, instead, a detective series with Godfrey Cambridge. "Fine," said Adams.
But when they started rehearsing in mid-1971, the chemistry-says Adams wasn't right. "I can't put my finger on it. The writing had to be changed. Godfrey didn't like the new concept. We had to let Godfrey go. Now he's mad at me. I tried to call and explain, but his manager says he won't take my phone calls."
If Cambridge did answer, what was Adams going to tell him?
"I wouldn't know what to tell him."
Godfrey Cambridge knows exactly what he'd tell Adams. Some of it is unprintable . The rest is worse. "On the set," Cambridge says, "Don Adams turns into Captain Queeg. He doesn't have those steel balls, but he drove me crazy. Now he's saying, 'The Chemistry wasn't right.' Don is so uptight. Finally you have to say to him, 'Hey, man, the price ain't right. I'm willing to get off. I still have the original lining of my stomach. You can't buy a stomach for $25,000. I'll get out while I still have my own'."
Concludes Cambridge: "If you tried to find out who in this industry hates Don Adams the most, the line would run all the way to Phoenix."
So Adams and Universal hired black actor Rupert Crosse (Oscar nominee, "The Reivers") for the part. The show deals with a pair of dumbbell cops, Adams a little dumber, Crosse a little straighter. Which is another reason Godfrey Cambridge did not like the concept. He wasn't happy playing straight man to Adams' buffoon.
Crosse may not be much happier. Crosse's main complaint has to do with racial matters. "This is a lily-white show," he says. "It has limited black employment. The stories are lily white." Crosse is not singling out The Partners or Don Adams. "The system is like that, the country is like that, and TV reflects that." No, he does not talk to Adams about these problems. He thinks they're bigger than Adams.
Is Crosse so unhappy he might just up and quit any day now?
"Don't ask me questions like that. I've been a professional actor for 14 years." But he also adds: "I'll take it one day at a time."
Part of the problem may be the show's popularity, or lack of. Expected to do well in the ratings before the season started, The Partners suddenly found itself pitted against All in the Family when CBS made a last-minute schedule change. The same week All in the Family regained its spot as number one in the Nielsens, The Partners finished 54th. Rumblings tend to surface when a show isn't pulling its share of the audience.
Withal, Don Adams says he is happy with the show. "The writing is excellent. The situations are exciting and funny. It's shot well." Well, pretty happy. "It's tough to bring it in on budget. Because of all the action, the chases, it's almost impossible to shoot it in three days. You fight the clock." Other aspects make him less happy. He wanted to write into the show social comment about blacks and whites working together. NBC and Universal nixed it. Adams shrugs. "I am one against the Organization." But he is miffed. He wants to run things. "Of all the things I do," he says, "performing is the least satisfying. In five years on Get Smart, I won three Emmys. What else is there to do or prove? Except to create a show I am not in, and to direct and write it. I want to be in control."
That is the serious side of Don Adams. His friend Don Rickles suggest you don't take it too seriously. Rickles thinks Adams is basically a shy man. "Don wants to be an actor. But he is embarrassed. So he creates. This way he can tell others how to act. He pulls the strings."
Don Adams is a complicated human being . Like most human beings. Rickles says he knows him well, but he also says, "It is not easy to know Don. He doesn't show a great deal of emotion. Pain and sorrow and great moments of happiness embarrass him. He is a private person."
But he is also a very funny man. Naturally and professionally. For instance, he is probably the clumsiest actor in Hollywood. Clumsiest human being. "I trip over things that are not there," he says. He can't remove his eyeglasses without hanging them up on an ear or on his nose.
He forgets things, particularly proper names. He can memorize a script in two hours, but he can't remember a name in three seconds. Names in scripts he has to write on the floor. He goes to a party and he will say, "I want you to meet my wife --er--" and Dorothy Adams says dryly, "Dorothy," and Adams says, "Right." It is not a joke. He forgets his wife's name.
He is, without half trying, the classic clown. Who else had to be bailed out of the Beverly Hills Hotel? Adams hates to be alone. After he and Dorothy had their first child, Stacey (now 6), Dorothy went back East to show off their daughter. Adams checked in to the Beverly Hills Hotel. Except he never carries any money. Well, some. In this case $2. He gave the guy who parks the car $1 and the bellhop $1, and he stayed for four days and then at check-out time he had no identification, no money, no checks, no credit card. He also had a Get Smart make-up call at 7:30 A.M., so a frantic message had to go through to his business manager and attorney, David Licht, who sent the money over by messenger.
Licht is always sending money over by messenger. When Adams goes to the race track -- like nearly every Saturday --Licht send over $400-500 for the day's play, in cash. Adams returns the leftovers, if any. His wife gets $150-a-week allowance. Adams sees no other money. "He owes me $340,000 in tips," wails his friend and co-producer of The Partners, Lee Wolfberg.
Adams has the wealthy man's vivid memory of terrible former days. He married very young, had three daughters, and tried to make a go of it financially, in and out of show biz. He played cheap supper clubs in Washington D.C., and Baltimore. He played in Mae West's night-club show. When it got to be Adam's turn to do his thing, the emcee announced: "There will be no ordering of food and beverages when Miss West appears. So order now." And Adams would deliver his stand-up monologue while customers barked drink orders to the waiters, and trays clattered.
He sold pieces of cloth in the black section of Miami, $1 down, $1 dollar a week. He carried heavy bottles in a glass factory. He worked in a steel mill. He was a cashier in a club where he once performed. "I used to feel that I'd never become anything."
He's become something. That first marriage came and went. Adams picked up a reputation as a good stand-up comedian. He hit the talk shows and variety hours, became a regular on The Bill Dana Show, and in 1965 achieved stardom as Maxwell Smart.
Today he is a rich man. He owns oil wells, airplanes, land. He has a white Cadillac and a fire-engine-red Sunbeam. Once he refused to drive over 50 mph. Now in his Sunbeam he challenges other sports cars at stoplights and outguns them when the light changes. He married Dorothy Bracken, of the June Taylor dancers, 13-plus years his junior, in 1960, and he is madly, romantically in love with her. He gives her such sentimental gifts, on anybody else it would be camp. Adams once rented a recording studio, and with Percy Faith and a hundred violins in the background, he sang and recited the song "Once upon a Time." Then he had the record inserted in a jewel box, as a gift for Dorothy. She cried for two weeks.
He has come a long way. The phone rings in his office. It is a David Susskind flunky. Can Adams appear on a talk show?
"Who else is on?"
"Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner."
"I won't get a word in edgewise," Adams says. "What are we talking about?"
They will talk about comedy.
"I want to talk about the Calley affair," Adams says. He wants to change the thinking of the world. Despite James Caan's joke, Adams' idol is definitely not Attila. "I am totally flabbergasted by the pro-Calley reaction," he later explains. "If we believe Calley has the right to kill women and children, then we are one with Hitler."
On The Partners, he not only stars but he directs and writes an occasional episode. He has written, directed and produced commercials. Nor does he just make commercials. "I want to change the face of commercials on television," he says.
His favorite book is "Les Miserables," the saga of a man tracked by a relentless police officer. "I've read it 20-40 times." It is the classic tale of the underdog coming out on top. Fun, to Don Adams, is coming out on top. "Especially," he says, "when the odds are against you, when you're outclassed as far as talent goes. I'm not basically a funny man. Don Rickles and Shecky Green--they're tremendously funny men. All I've got is the will to win."
He works 12 hours a day on short days, 16 hours on long days. He comes home exhausted; he pops down a tranquilizer so he can sleep.
"I wish I had total commitment," he says. "Then I'd dare more."
Note from the webmaster: The "Calley Affair," which Mr. Adams refers to in this article has to with Lt. William Calley, Jr. His problems began during the Viet Nam War in March of 1968 at the Village of My Lai. He was alleged to have been the deciding force in a massacre that resulted in the killing every military aged man as well as every mother and baby. He was subsequently pinned for this mess and was thrown in jail. In 1971, at the time of the above article, he was granted a pardon. Public opinion of Calley was divided: there were those that felt that he was simply a mere victim of Uncle Sam, while others felt he was nothing more than a big thug. The question of Calley's guilt or innocence is much the same as the old chicken or egg question: there are no straight answers. I do not agree with the opinion of Mr. Adams in this article -namely because there is much about My Lai that is not being told and will never be told. Today Calley is married and leads a life that resembles normalcy.
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