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Don Adams, 82; Fought Evil and Got Laughs as Agent 86 on ‘Get Smart’

Times Staff Writer

Don Adams, the Emmy Award-winning comic-actor who played bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart on the hit 1960s spy-spoof series “Get Smart,” has died. He was 82.

Adams, who honed his comedy skills as a post-World War II stand-up comic and impressionist, died of a lung infection Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his agent, Bruce Tufeld, said Monday. He said the actor had been in ill health since breaking a hip more than a year ago.

It was the height of the Cold War and the James Bond spy craze when “Get Smart” debuted on NBC in 1965 with Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 for CONTROL, a Washington-based counterintelligence agency.

It was the job of Smart and beautiful Agent 99 (co-star Barbara Feldon) to destroy KAOS, an international organization of evil. Edward Platt, who died in 1974, played their long-suffering boss, known simply as “Chief.”

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The clever and satirical sitcom, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was filled with sight gags (one character, Agent 13, hid in mailboxes, water fountains and clocks), and ingenious gimmicks (Smart famously phoned headquarters with a dial phone implanted in the sole of his shoe).

Playing the vain but inept secret agent, Adams used the nasal voice and clipped delivery that he had perfected as a stand-up comic years before -- a grossly exaggerated takeoff of William Powell, who portrayed the sophisticated private detective Nick Charles in “The Thin Man” movie series.

“Get Smart” spawned two of the most popular catch phrases of the decade: “Sorry about that” and “Would you believe ... ?” The latter was uttered by Smart whenever someone didn’t believe one of his preposterous fabrications -- as illustrated by the time KAOS’ Mr. Big (played by Michael Dunn, a dwarf) cornered Smart and was ready to kill him.

Thinking fast, Smart says, “At the moment, seven Coast Guard cutters are converging on us. Would you believe it?”

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Mr. Big: “I find that hard to believe.”

Smart: “Hmmm.... Would you believe six?”

Mr. Big: “I don’t think so.”

Smart: “How about two cops in a rowboat?”

Much of the success of the series can be attributed to Adams’ trademark delivery.

During his years as a stand-up comic, he told the Toronto Star in 1999, “I used to do character pieces -- a baseball umpire, a football coach, a defense attorney, all in that same voice.”

But for all the success it brought him, Adams found the staccato voice “incredibly annoying.”

In the Toronto Star interview, he credited comedian Bill Dana, who became his writing partner in 1954, for being “primarily responsible for me using that voice.”

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“Right from the beginning,” Adams recalled, “he said, ‘You should do all your routines in that voice.’ And I said, ‘But I can’t stand that voice.’ And he said, ‘But it’s funny. It makes people laugh.’ ”

Adams said Ed Sullivan told him the same thing the first time he appeared on Sullivan’s variety show. “Of course, they were both right,” Adams conceded. “For whatever reason, the delivery or whatever it is, that voice makes any situation funnier.”

“Get Smart,” which moved from NBC to CBS in 1969 and was canceled a year later, won two Emmys for best comedy series. Adams received three Emmys for his leading role in a comedy series.

On Monday, co-star Feldon told The Times that Adams “was just very arresting as an acting partner, and very engaging because of his energy and his focus, which was really quite fierce when he was in a scene.”

She said working with him was “almost musical in a way.”

“It’s like when you sing and get into a certain rhythm,” she said. “It was inexorable, his tempos, and so easy to fall in with them and kind of get a free ride.”

Like many comedians, Adams was quiet and serious off stage. He viewed himself not as a funny man, but as an actor who did comedy.

“I hate performing,” he said in a 1969 interview. “I don’t care about being thought funny; I never did. Sometimes I wonder how I got into comedy at all.”

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He was born Donald James Yarmy in New York City. His father, who ran a modest string of New York restaurants, was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, but Adams was raised in his mother’s Roman Catholic faith.

A lifelong movie buff, Adams got his feet wet as an entertainer by doing movie star impressions for his classmates at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

During World War II, Adams served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific. After contracting malaria on Guadalcanal, he served as a stateside drill instructor.

After the war, he worked days as a commercial artist and spent his nights doing comedy impressions in small clubs.

Adams’ career took off in 1954, when he became a winner on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” That led to appearances on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and other variety programs.

From 1961 to 1963, he was a regular on “Perry’s Como’s Kraft Music Hall,” and provided the voice for the cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo.

When his friend Dana, who created a comedy sensation with his Jose Jimenez character, landed his own TV series playing Jimenez as a bellboy in a New York City hotel, Adams was cast as the not-too-bright house detective Byron Glick.

Dana’s NBC series ran from 1963 to 1965, and Adams was still under contract to NBC when he was offered the role of Maxwell Smart, whom creators Brooks and Henry viewed as a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau.

As soon as he learned who had written the pilot episode, Adams once recalled, he said, “I’ll do it!”

Adams said he was offered a $12,500-a-week salary or a percentage of the show’s profits. He went with the latter, which he called the best business decision of his life.

After “Get Smart” was canceled, Adams co-starred with Rupert Crosse in “The Partners,” a 1971-72 NBC comedy series about two zany police detectives, and was host of the short-lived, 1975 syndicated “Don Adams’s Screen Test,” in which pre-selected studio contestants were paired with guest stars to reenact famous movie scenes.

Adams, who also guest-starred on various TV series, reprised Maxwell Smart in the 1980 movie “The Nude Bomb,” the TV movie “Get Smart, Again!” (1989) and the short-lived Fox update “Get Smart” (1994), in which Adams was promoted to CONTROL chief and Andy Dick played Smart’s spy son, Zachary.

From 1985 to 1988, he starred as a bumbling supermarket manager in “Check It Out!” a Canadian-produced syndicated sitcom.

He also provided the voice for the syndicated “Inspector Gadget” cartoon series (1983-84) and a younger version of the inspector in the syndicated “Gadget Boy & Heather” (1995).

Adams was married and divorced three times.

He is survived by his children, Beige Adams, Christine Adams, Sean Adams, Stacey Adams, Cathy Metchik and Carolyn Steel; a sister, Gloria Burton; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another daughter, actress and casting director Cecily Adams, died in 2004.

A private funeral service will be held this week, and a public memorial service will be held later.


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