"Betcha Didn't Know?: A Behind The Scenes Look At Get Smart."
By Jenna Terranova
It’s 1965, the space program is in its infancy and Gemini 7 is in orbit. Suddenly one of the crewmember’s urine bags breaks. Ground Control has but one thing to say, “Sorry About That Chief.” Wait a minute? Did NASA engineers actually respond to the problematic incident (at least to the astronauts on board) with a catchphrase that had recently invaded the current lexicon? The answer is a BIG “Yes.” A catchphrase from a groundbreaking TV show that just hit the airwaves, “Get Smart.”
Bumbling, foolish, idiotic, simpleton, are just some of many words used to describe the shows main character: Agent 86, Maxwell Smart. The beautiful and intelligent Agent 99 joins him as they protect the world from chaos…er KAOS. Both work under the fatherly chief of CONTROL, who is known as Thaddeus. No one in his or her right mind would hire Max to do anything, let alone put him in a position where HE was making the world safe for Democracy. But the show’s fans and the show’s executive producer Leonard Stern will point out, that is the biggest misconception. “Max was a unique thinker and that’s what gave him credibility that and the fact that he always succeeded and it was off-beat and his theories were questionable and couldn’t be truly challenged because the results were positive,” says Stern. "That had to be the basis for the Chief’s reaction to him. He was puzzled continuously by Max’s line of reasoning and thought process but couldn’t argue with the results.” Stern cared a great deal about how Max was portrayed, even saying that he didn’t like the scripts that made Max look extremely dumb.
After all, Stern is known for creating endearing characters. At the ripe old age of 17 he was asked to write comedy for Milton Berle. This led to writing stints on “Abbott and Costello,” “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies and one of TV’s Ultimate classics, “The Honeymooners.” After “The Honeymooners,” Stern created a sitcom that brought back physical comedy not seen since the silent film days, it was called “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster” and was a hit for ABC, the big network at the time. The show stared John Astin and comedian Marty Engels, got accolades from critics and won its time slot. By the time it was to be renewed the cast had gone onto other projects and the show was history. At that time, ABC VP Dan Melnick left the network, and with partner David Susskind, created Talent Associates Ltd. The two hired Stern to be their West Coast partner. This new position led to creation of “Get Smart.”
By the mid 1960s everyone had gone spy crazy, but two talented comedic writers with off beat humor—Mel Brooks and Buck Henry---wrote a script about a secret agent who was suave…in his own mind, who solved every case…by accident. His name: Maxwell Smart. Talent Associates Ltd was interested in producing, but it got turned down from ABC (they thought the material was un-American) and so TA took it to NBC. The show loved to satirize current events, even poke fun at the government but at the same time not desecrate its sanctity.
Unlike other spy series and films of the day, “Get Smart” did not rely on a lot of action to get the point across. In fact, Stern was against this, “I personally tried to avoid any display of violence especially where it concerned Don (Adams). He loved to be in action sequences and very often we filmed it, but edited out, so he was gratified he did it and by the time it was put together and on the air he had forgotten about it. I didn’t want him to be exploiting an aggressive attitude and I think it does a disservice to comedy if you sense the reality. You gotta believe the heavies are real and can be dangerous but you don’t have to constantly display it.” No, the show's creators definitely did not go overboard with violence, however they went to other extremes when it came to creating memorable villains. One character that comes to mind was the re-occurring Chinese character the Claw who pronounced his name “Craw,” a take on the stereotype that the Chinese reverse their “l’s” and “r’s”. Or who could forget a line the Chief utters in the Season 2 episode “The Man From Yenta.” In this episode, the Good Guys of CONTROL are being helped by the espionage agency YENTA out of Israel. Max and the Chief are waiting for YENTA to call but according to the Chief, “They have to wait until 7 o’clock for the rates to go down.” How did that get past the censors? “The censors weren’t dictatorial, they made suggestions,” offers Stern. “Unless it was truly offensive, it was up to the show to determine whether or not to do it. At that time, I guess it was a much more permissive and less sensitive arena for comedy.”
It was indeed a special time, according to “Get Smart” casting assistant Nancy Barr. Nancy worked on he last two years of the series and loved it! She told me of many behind the scenes stories. According to her, Edward Platt and Barbara Feldon were just great and that Don Adams didn’t even say “Hi” to her for the first year. One day she was attending the “dailies” and said “Hi” to another Don (the costume man) when Don Adams said “Hi” back. After that they became great friends and remain so to this day. Nancy said working on “Get Smart” with the cast and crew (which included Irving Szathmary (the theme composer) and Al Szathmary, a stand in on the show. Both are the brothers of Bill Dana (Szathmary) who appeared at the last minute on one episode) was a memorable experience.
Nancy actually spent most of the time in the offices, far from the set where she would read the scripts and suggest guest stars for the roles. When she went to the set it was usually for breakfast breaks or to hand out scripts and script changes to each cast member. She also set up appointments for guest stars to come in and read for parts and took care of any Screen Actors Guild paper work.
Nancy and the crew ran into a pickle when James Caan was set to appear in the episode To Sire, With Love. “Don kept asking Jimmy to do a show,” Nancy remembers, “He finally said okay when there was a show with fencing in it…Jimmy said he would do the show but WOULD not agree to having credit on the show.” As Nancy says, film producers would not look at an actor if he/she did television. Anyway, Caan’s arrangement caused major problems with the Screen Actors Guild. “We had to clear every actor as to whether their dues were paid or not and they all (with speaking lines) had to have credit. SAG said “No Way (to Caan’s arrangement), he has to have credit soooo….we finally came up with ‘Rupert of Rathskellar’ as HIMSELF. Somehow it worked.”
Nancy also recalls the time Don Adams refused to do one show (Ice Station Seigfried), although he did appear in the first part of the episode. “It was because it was exactly the same story as the year before. They gave him the script the night before and there was no other scripts to hand out…he called in sick, but he admits it’s because it was the same script…and we had to scramble to get Bill Dana and when we shot that it was like 113 degrees that day and the a/c broke on stage. We had ice buckets, HUGE ice buckets all around the stage to put hands/feet in to cool off . It was awful.” It’s one of the memories Nancy says she’ll never forget.
It seems that in different ways “Get Smart” left an indelible mark on many people, especially when it went into syndication (that’s when most shows, like “The Odd Couple” become major hits). In the early 1990’s “Get Smart” enjoyed a brand new following after cable network Nickelodeon resurrected the show. Despite being set in a 1960’s genre, the comedy surpassed all time boundaries. A decade later Nick’s sister station, TV Land, brought it back, this time it showed the rare Black And White Pilot. But fans old and new did not have to wait for cable to keep the memory alive. A new outlet, the Internet, allowed “Get Smart” lovers to talk about their favorite show and share stories and opinions.
In 1995 a fan named Carl Birkmeyer developed a “Get Smart” website after taking a class in HTML. Says Carl, “I did a real simple page to practice my skills. It was just a trivia contest, an episode guide and a cast list. I started getting e-mail and the site really started gaining momentum.” It also caught the eye of many cast and crewmembers like Leonard Stern, David Ketchum and Nancy Barr. Eight years strong, Carl’s site is considered the ultimate “Get Smart” information source and is the oldest one on the web. But I had to ask, why devote time and webspace to this one show? What was it about “Get Smart” that really appealed to him? “It’s funny! The show is just plain funny and I try to bring a sense of that to my page.”
Journalist Amanda Haverstick, who created the site you’re viewing this article on, echoes Carl’s sentiment saying, “I’ve always been a social studies junkie, so I’ve always liked how the show lambasted the trends, morays and political issues of the day. The jokes have stood the test of time. Plus, using a fool or jester to point out idiocy in the establishment is an age old archetype.” Amanda’s site differs from Carl’s in one way. “I created my site over the fourth of July weekend in 1999…at the time I had been bitten by the fan fiction bug and wanted a place to store the story in question.” Amanda likes to keep the memory of Get Smart alive by writing and fostering fanfiction which takes our beloved characters to new levels.
Who knows how much longer “Get Smart” will continue its run in the world of syndication, but as long as a computer is nearby, fans old and new will continue to Get Smart, Would You Believe That?
Jenna Terranova is a news producer hoping to break into TV production..