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Take me to back

The Secret Life of Don Adams
(which really isn't all that secret)

(Pssst! If you roll your mouse over the pictures, you get exciting captions!)

At one point in the last century, a certain Maxwell Smart was known as Byron Glick who was formerly known as Don Adams a.k.a. Don Young who was, according to all documents legal, Donald James Yarmy. It is Mr. Yarmy that shares a common bond with our hero Max: he was Max -but only to a degree.

 

    A youthful Don AdamsThis story, to anyone that has ever feasted their eyes upon a Get Smart site, has been told a thousand times over. Even so, repeated biographical doses never hurt.... much. It is common knowledge that Don Adams entered this world as Don Yarmy. What is not common knowledge is the date on which he arrived. The Associated Press claims he was born on April 19, 1927. Of course, the failings and inconsistencies of presswork are limitless, which is why the birth date in question has been changed to April 13, 1926; April 19, 1926; and any other combination of the aforementioned. Close, but no cigar. His actual birth date was April 13, 1923.

The future Maxwell Smart was the second of three children1. born Don and younger brother Dick Yarmy in The Hotline episode to an Irish Catholic mother and a Hungarian Jewish father (a marriage that resulted in disownment by both sides of the family) in Manhattan's Upper West Side. During his childhood, he hung out with the likes of Larry Storch (F-Troop) and James Komack (The Courtship of Eddie's Father) who often beat him at their makeshift version of baseball. His talent for mimicry began to develop just as his scholarly pursuits began to decline. A chronic truant and hooky player, little Don Yarmy avoided school incessantly. Education, he found, best took place in the movie house in front of such master teachers as Bogart, Ladd, and Cagney. Still, this theory failed to suit William Yarmy2. who promptly ushered his son into a high school all the way in the Bronx.

Patience was never an Adams virtue and that was certainly proven when he closed his textbooks for the final time. He dropped out of school, certain his time was being wasted, and headed south to the great state of With daugher Stacy in Get Smart Again Pennsylvania. Once there, he arrived in the Charleroi home of his aunt (from his mother's side of the family), and his cousins: the burly football playing Karvelas twins. Bob and Bill Karvelas were famous around the Pittsburgh area as they were paid to play football for a Pittsburgh High School. Shortly after cousin Don moved in, he and the twins decided to join the war effort. Puny Don ate his way up to the kosher Marine Corps weight and much to his cousins' surprise (the Karvelas twins actually had to go on a diet to join the Marines) made the cut. The trio remained together all the way through boot camp until Don was sent to Guadalcanal.

There are no favored places to be when in war, and, in 1942, the island of Guadalcanal was anything but a Sunday School Picnic. Allied soldiers faced dysfunctional environmental conditions, Japanese snipers that fought to the death, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes meant malaria and malaria, along with a bullet, was contracted by one Pfc. Yarmy. This form of malaria was better known as Blackwater Fever and surviving it is no cakewalk since ninety percent of those who contract it die. Young Private Yarmy, however, aptly stated to the corpsman that was placed on his deathwatch that he was "not going any place" (McCrohan 18). What Private Yarmy did go through, however, was a couple rotten months in the hospital and a brief stint as a drill sergeant. His cousins, in the meantime, were both carving out their fame in the 'Corps as Golden Gloves boxing champions.

After Adams' drill sergeant days had ended, he enrolled in art school with designs on becoming a commercial artist. His trade, however, did not take and, even though his artistic skills were nothing to sneeze at, he eventually moved to Miami. Once there, he ran into a co-evil from the old neighborhood: Jay Lawrence (a.k.a. Jay Storch, the brother of F-Troop's Larry Storch) They formed a comedy team then known as "The Young Brothers" and Yarmy temporarily changed his surname to "Young." Their act consisted of over one-hundred impersonations and, although seemingly popular, was not long lasting.

After The Young Brothers dissolved, Adams took to the nightclub circuit all by his lonesome. Don gives Lee Majors heck about speeding on the Fall Guy It was not long afterward that he married a singer, Adelaide Efantis (she adopted the stage surname of Adams), he met in one of the clubs where he performed. Soon there were kids and, even sooner, Yarmy the comic began to loathe his nightclub livelihood. As a non-drinker, he was infuriated by the drunks that repeatedly broke up his act. He once did stand-up in the same club as Mae West, but the only catch was that his act was right before West's and that was the last chance for all the clubbers to order their drinks. The result was that Yarmy's monologue was virtually inaudible and was ignored.

Since he had several dependents to tend to (four daughters at the time: Caroline, Christine, Cathy, and Cecilia3.), Yarmy decided that it was time to make a change. He moved the family up to the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area where he found work in cartographic and engineering drawing. He still hit the nightclubs, including Baltimore's noted (and presently infamous) "The Block" and was still disgusted by the atmosphere as well as his newfound career. He eventually abandoned the D.C. area and made his way back down to Florida.

It was in 1954 that Yarmy made another trek north of the Mason Dixon line. He returned toDon during The Partners New York for his mother's funeral and soon learned that Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was auditioning. After deciding to try out, Don Yarmy, who was getting quite sick of having to stand at the end of the line, also decided to once and for all change his name to... well... Adams -which was his wife's stage name. Adams' impersonations caught the eye of persnickety Mr. Godfrey and resulted in a win that paved the rest of his career. Following his big win on Talent Scouts, Adams became a guest shot staple on The Gary Moore Show, The Tonight Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Not only did he get to do his routine in better joints, but he also got more exposure than any other comic during those mighty halcyon days.

In the late 1950s, Adams gained renown as one of the infamous "Sick Comedians" or "Sic Niks." Other Sickies included the legendary Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, and Tom Lehrer. Adams, however, was not only brazen enough to poke fun at the routines of other Sickies, but he also wrote for them! Note for the Comedy impaired: Sick humor is not the same as blue humor. Sick humor is sick, while blue humor is simply consistent of locker room talk and other perverse jokes. Don Adams was actually thrown out of a club because he refused to tell blue jokes.

It was not, however, Adams' sick routines that caught the eye of another, yet partnerless, Don on the golf course circa 1967comedian. It was his portrayal of a pompous, know-it-all, squeaky voiced detective. Actually, this was Adam's own exaggerated impersonation of William Powell of the Thin Man movies and was not just used as a detective, but also as an Umpire, a Football Coach, and a defense attorney (a.k.a. The Big Mouthpiece). It was one Bill Dana (formerly Bill Szathmary), a former NBC page, who decided that he wanted to write for Adams. The two became partners as well as good buddies. Adams even borrowed Dana's chef for parties during the "Smart" years. It was also one Bill Dana who is responsible for the long running "Would you believe..." formula as well as furthering the use of "the Voice." Adams found the clipped speech annoying and actually hated it, while Dana encouraged him to use it because it was indeed funny.

With the use of “the voice,” Adams’ success exploded. While working as a regular on The Perry Como Show, he initialized the lines "You really know how to hurt a guy" and "Thanks, I needed that" as part of catch-phrase fever. Adams kept himself occupied with not just Como, but also by producing The Detective and The Roving Reporter comedy albums. He also lent "the Voice" to the cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo -a cartoon Penguin, who, with the help of walrus friend Chumley, was constantly trying to escape the zoo he lived in. In a metaphorical sense, Mr. Adams had, roughly around this period of prosperity, his own personal zoo in which there was no escape: his first marriage had come to an end.  

Adams’ period of bachelorhood, however, was not to last after meeting June Taylor DancerDon and Dorothy in the early 1970s, Dorothy Bracken, during summer stock. Don married Dorothy in 1960 and their first child, Stacey Noel, was born in June of 1966. Little flaxen haired Stacey later grew up to play an annoyed government agent/meter maid in Get Smart Again. The couple also had a son, Sean, who has become on of L.A.'s fine chefs. During his marriage to Dorothy, Adams was noted as a romantic as well as a, for lack of a better word, goofball. He showered his wife with sentimental gifts that made her cry, but could not introduce her to his friends because he kept forgetting her name. Name issues aside, he was so much in love with Dorothy that he insisted that she be a bridesmaid at the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell Smart. He could not envision doing that episode with out her. That particular path, however, was quite a way in the distance, while stardom’s path was getting closer.

In the meantime, Bill Dana’s eternally confounded immigrant character, Jose Jimenez, after gaining renown as one of Steve Allen’s “men in the street” on the Tonight Show, made a fortuitous guest appearance as a bellhop on the Danny Thomas Show. This simple guest role enhanced Dana’s popularity, which, in turn, led to Dana acquiring his own sitcom in September of 1963. In what could be seen as a domino effect of stardom, Adams also profited from Bill Dana’s TV venture. After Dana’s series had gained stable ground in the first season, but after not meshing well with his co-star, Gary Crosby, he invited his partner to join him for a few episodes. Adams was then faced with the weighty decision of whether he should work on The Jimmy Dean Show for thirteen episodes and be paid $2,500 for each show or work with Dana for seven and receive $750 an episode (Green 9). Sick of doing variety shows and panting for a change in pace, Adams opted for the pay cut and joined the cast of The Bill Dana Show. His contribution to The Bill Dana Show was a reinvention of his defense attorney character, but this time the “Big Mouthpiece” was now an extraordinarily dense hotel detective by the name of Byron Glick. Adams’ retarded rent-a-cop character came within a cat’s whisker of overshadowing the series’ star. Dana saw this and, without batting an eye, backed off from his role. There was, however, a small undertow that did not approve of Adams’ voice or his presence and that happened to be producers Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard. Adams missed getting fired “by that much” and The Bill Dana Show, with its dumb and dumber duo of Dana and Adams survived until the 17th of January 1965.

Don as Max and Red as Fang in the 1965 Get Smart pilot After the axe of cancellation fell down upon The Bill Dana Show, Adams, still under NBC’s contract, found himself with a myriad of different acting venues to pursue. CBS sought out his talents and he was even offered to work on a project with Sheldon Leonard who had now apparently changed his mind about Adams’ phony vocal characteristics. Deciding not to rush into anything, Adams opted to refuse an offer that he had received about a role in an NBC spy comedy. NBC’s involvement with this particular script came after a degree of haggling between Talent Associates representative Dick Dorso and NBC west’s representative Grant Tinker. The property had initially been a planned ABC pilot that was to star Tom Poston, another one of Steve Allen’s men in the street, as the confounded klutz-spy, Maxwell Smart. NBC eyed Adams and tried to waft him to the pilot, as he was under their contract and Poston was not, but their efforts and the description of the title character as being a moronic James Bond did not particularly attract Adams’ interest. What did change his mind was when the conversation shifted to the mentioning of one name: Mel Brooks. Upon hearing that Brooks, formerly a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, had penned the script, Adams accepted the NBC’s proposal and the role of Brooks’ Maxwell Smart character without even looking at the script –or so legend goes.

For the role of Max, Adams retooled his “Defense Attorney/Byron Glick” persona into the mold of a self-important –yet incredibly thickheaded-spy. He was the James Bond of everyman and according to Adams, “is what every ordinary guy. . .would be if he were James Bond” (Green 28). What had been initially Mel Brooks’ tale of an idiot bungler representing U.S. bureaucracy was now Don Adams’ living and breathing all-thumbs moron that was too stupid to know he was stupid. ToSneeking a kiss courtesy of Imobilo round out the idiocy, since the rest of Control’s employees were also not the sharpest knives in the drawer, Adams acquired two co-stars. One was former opera singer and character actor Ed Platt. Chosen to play Control’s Chief, Platt was seen as Smart’s father figure, but he was actually only seven years older than Adams. Quite a few years younger and a great deal taller than Adams, however, was his other co-star, the former fashion model Barbara Feldon. Regardless of size, what ultimately measured up to Get Smart’s success was the finely tuned chemistry between Adams and Feldon. Fans have often questioned whether there was a presence of romantic sparks between Adams and Feldon, but such a claim could not possibly bear support as the two were work partners and did not socialize during after hours.

After the popularity of Get Smart became not a dream, but a reality, Adams found additionDon as Maxal venues to tap his talents into. He began, with Bill Dana, an ad agency known as Ads Inc., which stood for Adams, Dana, and Silverstein. He also turned to the behind the scenes work of writing and directing episodes of Get Smart. Adams managed to pen, with his older sister Gloria Burton, two episodes of Get Smart: “The King Lives” and part two of “To Sire with Love.” The first episode he directed was “Appointment in the Sahara” where he was given nothing more than a pile of sand, a blue cyclorama, and a camera to work with. Wearing the director’s hat allowed Adams to also cut the spending on Get Smart. Since he owned one third of the show4., and had heard numerous lamentations about how much money was spent on an episode, it only a matter of time before he requested a peek into the bookkeeping:

…I asked to see the sheets. . . Then I saw this big figure, it might have been $12,000. I said, ‘What’s this?’ They said, ‘That’s to build the city morgue.’ I said ‘A morgue costs this?’… I came up with a few ideas that cost two or three hundred dollars instead of all those thousands” (McCrohan 143).

For added fun, Adams managed to squeeze into as many fight scenes as he could without the help of his stunt double –until he broke his nose during a brawl in “Smart Fit the Battled of Jericho.” Get Smart, under Adams’ influence, became a family affair as cousin Robert Karvelas was added to the cast as a reoccurring extra and later as blockheaded Control agent, Larabee. Adams’ brother, comedian Dick Yarmy, also appeared in two episodes of Get Smart, one time working for Kaos and the other working for Control. In the end, after all tallies were counted, Adams was responsible for directing thirteen episodes and wining three Emmys for Best Actor in a Comedy

After Get Smart had finished its run, Adams was given the chance to Don doing stand-up work on exciting behind the scenes work. Still under NBC's belt, he was presented with 300 pilots -all of which he promptly rejected. In turn, Adams presented NBC with three of his own ideas. Those were, in all sense, flushed by the system. His first plan of attack was a sitcom starring himself and old buddy Don Rickles (the duo had previously starred in the 1970 TV Special Hooray for Hollywood and later costarred with Edie Adams5.in the 1973 TV special, A Couple of Dons). Don R., however, was pledging his network allegiance to CBS at the time. Adams' next pilot "Good Luck Ben Gumm,” the tale of a woebegone lost-in-the-bush ex-marine that must readjust to life in the present (er 70s), was scrapped by NBC since it was lacking a lead actor. Finally, the third pilot, The Partners, was put on the air, but only after it morphed away from Adams' original plans. Adams wanted an all-fists lawman, but the series progressed to feature two guys that should have be a part of the Keystone outfit. The Partners became a solidified flop with cast and crew tensions to boot. The fact that it was pitted against Archie Bunker and the All In the Family crew did not help.

Adams' work during the rest of the seventies was piecemeal. He did guest shots everywhereDon getting love advice from Bernie Kopell on The Love Boat (The Love Boat, Love American Style, Hollywood Squares, ect.) and concentrated on directing commercials. In one such ad endeavor where he literally became the poster boy (or would you believe game-box model?) was for the Aurora Skittle Games. Adams not only got to direct his "mini-movies", but he also won several Clios6. in the process. Old Aurora Skittle games, with Don Adams on the box, can sell for quite a pretty penny on Ebay. Aside from ad endeavors, Adams eventually found other work in the form of hosting a game show call The Don Adams’ Screen Test. Lasting from 1974-1975, the syndicated Screen Test had various contestants competing for a shot on TV. All they had to do was act out a scene from a classic flick with a special guest star (which included the likes of William Shatner, Mel Brooks, and Loretta Switt among others) and it was stardom all the way…. well, maybe. By the end of the seventies, Don had split with his Dorothy and in 1977 he married Judy Luciano. Their daughter Beige Dawn (who is listed in Ed Lucaire's The Celebrity Almanac under the 'Odd Names of Celebrity Children' category) has recently graduated from college.

Almost a decade after Get Smart had run its course, Adams was granted theDon in drag for a sting in Jimmy the Kid opportunity to reprise his famous role of Maxwell Smart. The script for what became known as The Nude Bomb was written by Bill Dana, Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan. It was originally designed to have Smart pitted against a flamboyant madman fashion designer, but once the script fell into the hands of Universal, it shifted from the writer's intentions and resulted in a 1980 box office flop. For more reason's and commentary regarding the bombing of the Nude Bomb check out the movie page. Even though Maxwell Smart's moment in the big screen spotlight went to a fast fade out, Don Adams was not about to shy away from movies. He returned to the big screen in 1983's Jimmy the Kid and again in 1987's Back to the Beach. Neither film, however, allowed him to shed the pompous "Glick" persona that he had developed well over twenty years beforehand.

The rest of the 1980s. for Don Adams, were two thirdsAn  Inspector Gadget Doll circa 1985 Max and one third something completely different. Beginning in 1983, Adams supplied the voice of one of the 1980's most memorable cartoons, Inspector Gadget. The cartoon was very much like all things Glick and Smart and spawned videos as well as dolls. In 1985, the year Gadget ended its run, Don packed his bags and moved, despite his aversion to cold weather, to Toronto. What was waiting for him was the Canadian sitcom, Check It Out in which he held the starring role as the manager of a zany supermarket. While Check It Out was not Get Smart and was most definitely not another outlet for "Glick", it was not to last. Check It Out ended its syndicated run in 1988, which was the same year that plans for yet another Get Smart movie were made. Originally planed to air in the fall of 1988, the movie, Get Smart Again was pushed back to February of 1989. Designed as a made-for-TV reunion movie, Get Smart Again reunited Adams and Feldon and proved that, even after nearly twenty-five years, the chemistry between the duo was still finely tuned.

Adams’ cameos in TV commercials moved from the 1980s to well into the 1990s. He was seen in ads for Quality, Comfort, Clarion, and Sleep Inns as one of the many celebrities that mysteriously popped out of a suitcase. He dumped a pitcher of beer into a loudmouthed barfly’s lap in a Coor’s beer spot7., touted Trivial Pursuit, and schlepped cell phones with ‘toon detective Dick Tracy in an ad Don with 99 shoephone toting 99s in Times Square for Mobilink Cellular. Adams was also seen and heard in the early 90s in radio and TV ads for White Castle8.. Crass consumerism, however, was not the only source of activity for Mr. Adams. In 1991, at the onset of the U.S.’s Gulf War with Iraq, a new generation of viewers were introduced to Get Smart through the U.S. cable channel Nickelodeon’s daily dose of reruns. Whether Nick’s replay of Get Smart had any impact on the show’s popularity is yet to be debated. Nick did, however, grant Don with the opportunity to hang out in Times Square with a parade of 99 shoe phone toting 99s

Get Smart’s cord was severed again in January of 1995 when Nick at Nite abruptly and unceremoniously yanked the spy spoof from the new year’s line up. That, however, was not the end for Get Smart as FOX granted TV viewers that same January with a newly revamped version of Get Smart. TheHendrix, Dick, Adams, and Feldon in 1995's Get Smart new series touted Don Adams and Barbara Feldon as reprising their original roles and introduced newcomers Andy Dick as Maxwell Smart’s son, Zach, and Elaine Hendrix as Agent 66, the brash n’ bold 99 of the 90s. Initially intended for a star vehicle for Andy Dick, the game plan of the new Get Smart was not to include Don Adams or Barbara Feldon in the series. Much of the show’s failure lied within its structure since, after FOX tried to spice up the show with Adams and Feldon, there was no clear comedic lead. Get Smart (or GS 95 as it is often referred to by fans) did not fair well in the ratings and, after nine episodes, was subsequently sunk into the great sea of bad TV ventures9..

After GS 95, Adams went into retirement -sort of. In 1995 he became the voice of Gadget Boy10.and in the fall of 1997 he provided the voice of Principal Hickey in the ABC Saturday morning cartoon series, Pepper Ann. In 1999 he made a pilgrimage back to Toronto to pitch Canada’s new Buck-a-Call phone service and found himself in a few odd TV spots. 1999 also brought Hollywood a revival of Inspector Gadget. Now a live action character instead of a cartoon, the Inspector Gadget movie stared Matthew Broderick as Gadget and featured a voice-over cameo of Don as Gadget's dog Brain. Ok, so much for retirement.

Don disguised as Sherlock Holmes on Super Bloopers and Practical JokesIn his later years, Mr. Adams had a good many activities going -although none of them included getting up in the A.M. as he was not a morning person. He did voiceovers, watched old movies, and played a regular bridge game with Hugh Hefner. He was also a member of Yarmy's Army, a group of comedians so named for late brother Dick Yarmy, which meet once a month for down to the wire joke telling. 

Adams spent the late 90s into the year 2000 helping TVLand promo Get Smart with interviews, appearances in The Big Apple, and a 2001 Get Smart documentary Inside TV Land: Get Smart. In November of 2003 the Museum of Television and Radio paid tribute to Get Smart by hosting a panel discussion including Adams, Barbara Feldon, Bernie Kopell, Leonard Stern and other folks involved with the show. Later that week, hosted a dinner, The Get Smart Gathering, honoring Adams, Feldon and the cast and crew of the show.

Adams died of a Sept. 25, 2005 of a pulmonary infection. He had also been battling lymphoma. A little over a year earlier his daughter, casting director Cecily Adams, died from lung cancer.

Epilogue –or What did you just say?  

     Unfortunately, the surface of what composed Don Adams has barely been scratched in this article –or at least to avid Smartians who have been paying apt attention to the myriad of Adams biographies on the web and inDon signing autographs at Hugh Hefner's birthday bash in 1999 printed form. Amidst a small segment of disdain towards him, Adams was a class act type of guy that sincerely wanted to make the best out of what he did -hence the success of Get Smart. Said he:

"At first I wanted every show to be a classic...I then came to the realization that when you do a show every week, you can't be a classic. If you can do a show every week, you can't be a classic. If you can do 3 out of 5 which are good, you should be happy with that" (Javna 53).

Whether or not the parallels between Adams and Smart could be outlined, there is much about this man that is remains a mystery. The similarities between the two may only rest in their firm perseverance regarding their goals. While Adams and his alter ego may both be klutzes, Maxwell Smart is not the shy creative thinker that Don Adams was. Furthermore, Adams' personality could never have been molded into one definition. Those who confess to have known him hardly could: James Caan thought his idol was Attila the Hun, while his second wife, Dorothy Adams, was certain that his absent mindedness made him the personification of Maxwell Smart. Don Rickles viewed him as a shy stoic and co-star Barbara Feldon felt that, despite her fondness for him, they were not of the same planet. It is a fact, though, that Adams did appreciate his fans as he was ranked by autograph collectors as one of the most willing stars to sign.11. He tended, however, not to keep his dates at far away convention halls filled with masses of individuals. Was this some sort of a contradiction of character? Perhaps Mr. Adams, while previously working under the guise of star-comedian, was really a renaissance man seeking a small piece of privacy.

 

Want more Adams info? Go here:

Pete’s Page has a finely tuned filmography of Don Adams. If Don did it, it's there! I called his site Maxwell Smart eye-candy once and I’ll call it that again!

Carl’s Site has, aside from all pertinent and up to the moment Get Smart knowledge, an interview with Don Adams’ personal assistant, Nancy Ellen Barr.

Aside from my Reference Guide, which has articles on Don, Suzy's Get Smart Stuff also has a trove of Adams articles.

Kat's Site is all about Don's non-Smart role on the 80s series Check it Out.

Works Cited

COPYRIGHT © 1999-2014 BY AMANDA HAVERSTICK.