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"GET SMART" TV Gold, October 1986

Ron Magid

Would you believe a Sixties television show whose hero was an inept but loveable spy that somehow managed to save the world every episode? How about a show that weekly made fun of top secret government agencies? Er... would you believe such a program has become a classic of surrealistic shtick yet to be surpassed?

 Of all of the government campy programs that blossomed on the videowaves during that Golden Age of television from 1965-69, Get Smart! ranks right at the top because it dared to be more stupid than any of its contemporaries. Mel Brooks, who created the show along with Buck Henry, has flatly stated, "Get Smart! was the only television show ever that had an idiot for a hero!" In a time when the dividing line between heroes and villains was becoming thinner and thinner, mainly due to the kind of films and tv shows Get Smart was parodying, an incompetent but somehow likable spy was the ultimate Sixties antihero!

 Get Smart! debuted on the CBS television network September 18, 1965, running an almost unheard of five years until it was cancelled September 11, 1970. It predated many of the finest "camp" shows of the Sixties and outlasted all of them -- though the quality of the final two seasons was greatly diminished. It seemed that "the forces of goodness and niceness" which Maxwell Smart felt confident he served at the top secret Washington, D.C.-based CONTROL intelligence agency became rather tired of battling "the forces of badness" over at CHAOS after such a lengthy televised cold war.

 But during its first three seasons, Get Smart! was one of the most consistently funny shows ever aired. To say the format relies on shtick is a gross understatement: as any self-respecting Get Smart fan'll tell you, each episode contains at least half a dozen oft-repeated lines -- Max's "Would you believe..." or "Sorry about that, Chief!" -- which actually became part of our collective unconscious.

BATTLING CHAOS

As James Bond must battle Spectre, the men from UNCLE must conquer Thrush, so Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of CONTROL, must match his razor sharp wits against those dirty dogs of CHAOS. The most brilliant of Smart's opponents was a neo-Nazi fighter ace known as Conrad Siegfried, brilliantly overplayed by comedian Bernie Kopell, who's now a regular on The Love Boat. One particularly sidesplitting encounter between these two intrepid men of action occurs on a park bench where Siegfried, disguised as an old woman, has arranged to meet Smart. Both men had agreed to come unarmed, but since neither trusts the other, they came heeled to the hilt with the latest top secret weaponry! The joke is that they insist on removing one piece of equipment at a time, trading off one device for another, and each is stunned to learn that the other knows everything about their supposedly top secret arsenals!

 Siegfried is assisted by a rather thick-headed but muscular brute named Starker, played by King Moody. Starker is one of those iron men whom Smart always seems to end up attempting to subdue by force in some ridiculously mismatched physical encounter -- the kind where Max smashes andirons over his opponent's head, succeeding only in spoiling a perfectly good bit of brass piping as the super man relentlessly pursues him with a fixed smile on his face. As a henchman, Siegfried perenially finds Starker lacking in the necessary dignity required of a CHAOS agent, and his English is so poor that quite often he will resort to peppering his speeches with outrageously silly sound effects, to which Siegfried will exasperatedly reply, "Starker, ve do not (repeating Starker's silly noise verbatim) here!"

While Siegfried was virtually Get Smart!'s only continuing villain, the show excelled in creating nasties revamped from current film and tv show characters. One particularly horrible creep was Dr. Yes, an insidious oriental villain modelled on Dr. No. The fiend has surrounded himself with a bevy of "yes men" of various nationalities to second him with a chorus of "Oui! Javol! Da! Si!" Another dastardly evildoer was the Groovy Guru, played by F-Troop's Larry Storch as a parody of Timothy Leary. The Groovy Guru hoped to turn the nation's youth into drugged-out hippy hitmen through his television program and its hypnotic theme song, which went something like this: "Thrill, thrill, thrill!/Kill, kill, kill!/Make the scene!/Kill a dean!" Then there was the thoroughly nasty yet dashing Prince Rupert, played by James Caan (!), who fought a particularly pitched swordfight with Smart; at one point when our hero had the ruthless prince backed up against a wall, he observed, "You look pained, Rupert!", to which his opponent responded, "You're standing on my foot!"

 But my favorite villain -- aside from Siegfried, who's my ultimate favorite -- was the vile English art thief and snob, Leadside. An obvious poke at famed television sleuth Ironside, Leadside was a wheelchair-bound master criminal whose passion was collecting art that already belonged to various museums around the world. Leadside was afflicted by the strangest physical malady ever invented for a diabolical screen villain: a strange form of paralysis that permitted him to run, but not walk! Consequently, we are treated to the improbable sight of Leadside running about his hotel room in a tracksuit and then collapsing limply into his wheelchair at the end of his jog! During their climactic swordfight in Leadside's penthouse suite, the villain happens to rip Smart's shirt with his sword. "99 gave me that shirt!" Max exclaims, renewing his attack on Leadside, who frantically issues orders to his manservant, Norman. That is until Max forces Leadside to retreat towards the open window, through which Norman plummets to his doom. At which point, Leadside glares hatefully at Smart as he says, "My mother gave me Norman!" and then resumes his attack with greater savagery than before. Finally, Smart succeeds in dispatching Leadside through the open window as well, and miraculously, he survives the fall, though, as Max ovserves, "He'll never run again!"

 CONTROL'S AGENTS

 Would you believe that CONTROL's top agents were equally as stupid as their CHAOS counterparts, if not more so? How about an agent who specialized in uncomfortable hiding places? Um... would you believe a male agent who was a knockout in a string bikini? Well, all of the above statements are true... Sorry about that, Chief!

 In keeping with the irreverent Sixties' attitudes regarding those over thirty and anyone even remotely connected to our own government, Get Smart!'s portrayal of a top secret FBI/CIA-type agency's gross incompetence made it one of the hippest shows on the air. Just as Batman successfully poked fun at law-and-order on the municipal level, Get Smart! lampooned international politics and espionage, as waged by the government of the United States! It's interesting to note that the kind of comments a show such as Get Smart was able to make on a weekly basis probably couldn't be dealt with even in a sober television drama these days. And in many countries they would've gotten the perpetrators locked up -- and the key thrown away!

Heading the august organization known as CONTROL was an older, gray-haired gentleman known only as Chief, although a number of episodes tend to support the supposition that his first name was Thaddeus. The Chief was played on the edge of permanent exasperation barely masked by disciplined self-control by Ed Platt, a veteran stage and screen actor. He had studied at Princeton University and at Cincinatti's Conservatory of Music, where he developed his fine singing voice. Platt then sang with the Paul Whiteman Band for two years before turning to acting in stage musicals. He appeared in the shortest-running and most unpopular revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado ever staged -- it opened the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor! When Platt finally arrived in Hollywood after a string of successful performances on Broadway and radio, he became one of film and television's most sought-after character actors, appearing in Hitchcock's Psycho and North By Northwest and in "The Man with the Power" episode of Outer Limits, to name but a few. Platt had a patient, fatherly quality that made him an ideal foil to Don Adams' stridently-pitched comedy, even though he was only eleven years older than Adams. Sadly, Platt died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-eight on March 19, 1974.

 It must have been a great comfort to The Chief to know that assisting Maxwell Smart was the beautiful-but-deadly 99, America's answer to England's Emma Peel, played by actress and model Barbara Feldon. Feldon had stuided ballet as a teenager before attending the Carnegie Institute of Technology and majoring in drama. After graduation, she worked for two years in community theatre and then landed what she refers to as a "crawl on" part in Caligula, her first Broadway appearance. A friend suggested that with her statuesque build, Feldon should try to crash the modelling field, and almost overnight, she became one of the top commercial and fashion models. Her famed "Tiger Girl" commercial made her one of the first advertising stars. By 1964, Feldon had won a substantial dramatic role opposite George C. Scott in an episode of East Side, West Side, and then she appeared as an industrial spy on the Mr. Broadway series, which brought her to the attention of the Get Smart! team. Feldon played 99 as a bright woman and excellent spy who is too dazzled to realize what an idiot Smart is most of the time. Once in a while, it becomes clear to her for an instant, but then her growing affection for Max quickly casts him in a better light. Feldon continued to act in features and tv movies after the demise of Get Smart!, and now hosts an issue-oriented cable show, The '80s Woman.

 AGENT 86

 By far the funniest element of Get Smart! is Maxwell Smart himself, as played by comedian Don Adams. Adams handled Smart's ineptness brilliantly, allowing his character an out in every stupid situation that arose, so that Max could retain his sense of selfworth. And while Adams invites us to laugh at Smart's incompetence, he also exells in revealing his truly likable qualities, his foibles, his insecurities; as Don Adams portrays the character, Maxwell Smart might almost be alive. It's a difficult task to bring living qualities to a character who is basically a compendium of cliches, a parody of other characters. But then that's why when Donald James Yarmy crashed an audition for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, he was given a shot on the show (changing his name to Don Adams on the spot!) and won! The reason Adams cites for changing his name from Yarmy is that during a four year stint in the Marines, where everything was handled in alphabetical order, he always wound up at the tail end. Adams pursued a career in stand-up comedy on Garry Moore's morning show and Steve Allen's Tonight Show and soon became a regular member of Perry Como's television family. Then he created the role that would forever change his life, Byron Glick, "the world's worst house detective" on The Bill Dana Show. The part of Glick was what brought Adams to the attention of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. And to this day, Adams has never stopped playing it, both in such commercials as the ones for Chief Auto Parts and in cartoons including Inspector Gadget (Adams has also done the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo). Adams brought a terrific amount of professionalism to his work, and wrote and directed many episodes of Get Smart!

 STILL MORE AGENTS

 Other members of CONTROL's staff of supersleuths included the Chief's moronic assitant, Larrabee, portrayed by Robert Karvelas, who may have exasperated his boss more than Agent 86; Charlie Watkins, as portryaed by the lovely Angelique Pettyjohn, telvision's first-ever transexual character; and Dave Ketchum as the woebegone Agent 13, doomed to a life of serving his country from inside coffee machines, mailboxes and garbage pails! However, everybody's favorite agent (besides Max and 99, of course) was Hymie, the CONTROL robot, played by Dick Gautier. Hymie was programmed to respond literally to commands. Oftentimes, Max would forget that Hymie was a robot and order him to "Grab a waiter" in a restaurant, for example, at which point Hymie would leave and return several moments later carrying the maitre d' over his head! Hymie was originally a CHAOS robot that Max intercepted and who was reprogrammed by CONTORL to serve "the forces of niceness." He eventually became Max's best friend and served as best man at Max's wedding to 99! Gautier brought a warmth to Hymie's robotic personality, and an element of pathos as well. "Don Adams would come up to me after a take and say, "Dick, that was absolutely one-dimensional," Gautier told People Magazine last year. "Hymie never stifled my career, he only enhanced it. I know kids who were named Hymie because they looked like me!" Gautier hopes to make a tv movie about Hymie, which would be interesting so long as he got Adams to act as his foil.

 THE EQUIPMENT

 Hymie wasn't the only piece of elaborate hardware owned and operated by CONTORL. There also existed such memorable devices as the Cone of Silence, 99's powder puff phone and, of course, Max's infamous shoe phone. The Cone of Silence was Get Smart!'s poke at government extravagances, a hugely expensive piece of equipment that was continually on the blink. Max would inevitably insist that the Cone of Silence be employed everytime a top secret discussion took place within The Chief's office. Depsite his objection, "But Max, it doesn't work!" the chief would ultimately give in, and live to regret it! The Cone of Silence was matched by an utterly ridiculous English model, the Umbrella of Silence! "The Umbrella of Silence?!" Max asked the head of British CONTORL, to which the foreign bureaucrat replied, "England, old boy!" But the most memorable gadget in the show's entire run was Max's shoe phone, a device that caused Agent 86 untold embarrassment in public (little old ladies in supermarkets would discreetly nudge Smart and exclaim, "Your shoe is ringing!") and nearly always blew his cover as a CONTROL agent when he was working in disguise. To operate the phone, Smart would remove it from his foot, take off the sole to reveal a standard dialing mechanism, and place his call. Once in a while he'd encounter some interference from nosy operators, such as the one who tried to determine from where Smart was making his collect call. To this indignity, Max retored, "I'm sorry, operator, this is an unlisted shoe!"

 By its fourth season, Get Smart! was showing signs of age. Its ratings were slipping, and it seemed to be going over familiar ground more than usual. Max and 99 were not only married, they had twins, and the show began to resemble a forced domestic comedy instead of a spy thriller parody. Since its cancellation in 1970, Get Smart!'s reputation has blossomed to the point where it may be more poopular now than when it was on the air! Even a lousy theatrical feature, The Nude Bomb, couldn't shake its loyal fans. They daily watch the inane escapades of those loonies from CHAOS and CONTROL, thrilling to the mock-danger, laughing at the ridiculous situations "and (to coin a phrase) loving it!" 

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(Also, here's a stray picture caption that gives us an inside view of the man who dared to spell Kaos wrong)

Would you believe that Ron Magid, a serious student of filmaking with work in such important publications as American Cinematographer, and a rather ambitious mask & makeup making hobby, actually liked this show about the silly and inane antics of American's least credible spies?

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Once again I'd like to give a big thanks to Katherin O'Carroll who transcribed this whole article!!! J

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