It’s time for my next pick in the Hanspostcard TV Show Draft. My next pick is sort of a guilty pleasure. So many of the gags are ones you see coming a mile away, but they still crack me up. It is another one of those shows that was loaded with great guest stars and a solid cast. My next pick is Get Smart.
In the early 1960’s, America got their first look at James Bond and the secret agent/spy genre took off in full force. In 1965, Daniel Melnick, who was a partner in the production firm of Talent Associates in New York City, decided that it was time for a TV series that satirized James Bond. He approached Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to write a script about a “bungling James Bond-like hero.”
Mel said that Talent Associates had a pool table. He and Buck met at the pool table and while playing discussed the show. Mel says, “I knew we could do this thing together because we couldn’t stop babbling about things like the Shoe Phone and the Cone of Silence. These things just rolled out of our mouths.”
Henry said they created the script for the pilot in about three months around the pool table. “We decided on a secret agent named Smart – Maxwell Smart – and gave him, as his most sterling quality, a remarkable lack of insight. Nevertheless, since he was our hero, he would always win out despite his inspired inefficiency. We also gave him a number, which all operatives must have.” The number they chose was 86, which was chosen by Melnick and derived from the slang expression “to eighty-six someone.”
The show was pitched to ABC. The pitch was pretty much exactly what the show ended up being: Max would work for the Chief, the head of the Washington-based US intelligence agency Control. He would have a beautiful and brilliant young partner known only as Agent 99. Loaded up with gadgets, they would fight against the evil agents of Kaos, an international organization seeking world domination.
Originally, Mel Brooks considered playing Smart himself. Orson Bean was also considered. ABC decided that if it aired the show, Tom Poston (best known for his work on the Steve Allen Show and Newhart) would star as Agent 86. ABC liked the pilot, but wanted to change things up. They wanted Max to have a mother and a dog on the show. Brooks hated the idea of Max coming home to his mother at the end of every show and explaining everything to her. When they told ABC “no,” they passed on the show calling it “un-American.”
They took the script to NBC. NBC had already spent all the money allotted for making pilots. Grant Tinker was contacted about the show and was told that he “had to” read the pilot. “I read it and I just loved it. It was exactly the kind of thing that makes me laugh.” He called the head of programming at NBC and convinced him to come up with the money for one more pilot. They did so on one condition – Tom Poston, who was not under contract at NBC, would be replaced by Don Adams, who was.
Maxwell Smart – Agent 86
You have to wonder how Max keeps his job! He is extremely clumsy and forgetful. He’s forever on the Chief’s last nerve, yet he always wins. He is a proficient marksman, skilled in hand to hand combat, and incredibly lucky. Believe it or not, he is one of the top Control agents!
Once Don Adam’s was brought in as Max, many of his routines from his stand up act were incorporated into the character. He had used his “Would you believe…” before, but it became a staple on Get Smart.
Smart: At this very moment, 25 Control agents are converging on this building.
Kaos Agent: I don’t believe it.
Smart: Would you believe 2 squad cars and a motorcycle cop?
Kaos Agent: No
Smart: How about a vicious street cleaner and a toothless police dog?
Played by Barbara Feldon, whom Buck Henry says he fought for from the beginning. Despite some sources, the creators of the show and Feldon herself say that 99’s real name is never mentioned. Originally, they wanted her to be Agent 69, but Henry says, “We knew it would never get past the censors. So 99 was our little joke.”
99 is another of Control’s top agents and often works together with Max. One had to wonder what an intelligent and sensible woman like 99 sees in a goofball like Maxwell Smart!
For the Chief, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry wanted someone who would “personify authority and grave intensity all while delivering ludicrous information with a stern voice and fatherly demeanor.” They had seen Ed Platt in North by Northwest and Rebel Without a Cause and knew he was their Chief.
He is the head of Control. He oversees all of Control’s activities and missions. He frequently speaks to the President over a direct line. He considers 86 and 99 to be Control’s best agents and his best friends, even though Max seems to be a continuous thorn in his side.
Chief: All we know is that they threaten to wipe out the city containing our finest intellectual minds and greatest leaders!
Max: Well, at least Washington is safe.
Larabee (played by Robert Karvelas) is the Chief’s right hand man and assistant. In all honesty, he is even more slow-witted and incompetent than Max! Don Adams said that they used Larabee for the jokes that were “too dumb for Max.” Despite his stupidity, his unwavering dedication and extremely simple mind make him an indispensable government employee.
Hymie The Robot
Hymie (played by Dick Gautier) was a robot originally designed by Kaos to battle against Control. However, in his first appearance on the show, Max mistakes him for a rookie Control agent and takes him under his wing. When Hymie is ordered to kill Max, Hymie shoots his creator instead. Max then reprograms him to work for Control.
Hymie often takes things literally. When told to get a grip on himself, he grabs himself. Many jokes of this type were Hymie oriented (“Kill the lights,” “Grab a waiter,” “Hop to it,” “Knock it off,” and so on.
Agent 13 (David Ketchum) is forever spying from odd places. You will find him in washing machines, in mailboxes, file cabinets, lockers, fire hydrants, and other small places. He is loyal to Control, but often complains about his assignments. Though he complains, he always gets the job done intercepting messages, overhearing plans, and often coming to Max’s rescue.
From 1965-1966, Agent 44 was played by Victor French and was also confined to small spaces like Agent 13.
Carlson (Stacy Keach Sr.) is a Control scientist and inventor. He often presents Max with gadgets that will be used on his assignment. Carlson succeeded Professor Parker who was played by Milton Selzer.
Maxwell Smart calls Kaos “a monstrous organization of evil dedicated to the destruction of the free world and the systematic subjugation of every man, woman, and child on this planet. Kaos Agent Omar Shurok describes it as “the international organization of evil formed in 1904 in Bucharest , designed to foment unrest and revolution throughout the world.”
Ludwig Von Seigfried
Seigfried (played wonderfully by Bernie Kopell) is described as “the merciless, fiercely conceited, preeminent Kaos kingpin” who “considers himself vastly superior to his underlings and his adversaries.” He is also described as “undeniably sinister, shrewd, underhanded, conniving, contemptuous, haughty, scornful, and explosive. He considers all Kaos agents thick-witted, nitwits, fools, incompetents, bunglers, dummkopfs, dunderheads, and sissies, and he is easily angered by the slightest display of incompetence or silliness.”
Seigfried (on the phone with Max): Your Chief was just silenced by a pistol butt.
Max: That’s a little drastic, wasn’t it, Seigfried? Couldn’t you have just shushed him?
Seigfried: We don’t SHUSH here!
Shtarker (or Starker)
(King Moody) He is Seigfried’s ruthless, but often inept henchman. Shtarker is the Yiddish word for a “strong-arm man” or a “tough guy.” He certainly is a towering bodyguard, but he is nothing more than a goofball.
Throughout the show there are many gadgets. No doubt, many of these were inspired by the James Bond series. There are too many to list here, but there are a couple that have become synonymous with the show.
Mel Brooks is credited with coming up with the idea for the Shoe Phone. It came to him one day when every phone in his office started ringing and he took his shoe off and began speaking into it.
In 2002, the prop shoe phone was placed on display in an exhibit called “Spies: Secrets from the CIA, KGB, and Hollywood” which featured real and fake spy gear in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Cone of Silence
Buck Henry claims to have come up with this recurring gag.
Whenever something needed to be discussed that was sensitive, Max would insist on Control’s protocol of using the Cone of Silence. It was designed to keep whatever was discussed audible to whoever was in it. However, it almost never worked. Many times the people under it could not hear each other, or couldn’t understand what the other was saying. Sometimes they had to yell so loud that the people outside the Cone of Silence could hear better than the ones under it.
Get Smart contributed many catchphrases that were popular among viewers. “Would you believe…” which I already mentioned was just one of them. Others were:
- “Missed it by that much.”
- “Sorry about that Chief”
- “I asked you not to tell me that”
- “….and LOVING it!”
- “Of course, the (such and such). Just one question. What’s the (such and such)?
- “The old (such and such) trick”
Sometimes a password was needed to enter Control buildings. Other times a sign and counter sign was needed.
- Ricardo Montalban hates tortillas
- Herb Alpert takes trumpet lessons from Guy Lombardo
Sign: Camptown ladies sing this song
Countersign: Doo-dah. Doo-dah.
Sign: Camptown racetrack five miles long
Countersign: Oh Doo-dah day.
Get Smart aired for 5 seasons. The first four seasons were on NBC and when faced with cancellation, it moved to CBS for it’s fifth and final season. In the final season, the show “jumped the shark” and 86 and 99 got married and had kids, which many say is what killed the show.
In 1980, Don Adams starred in the theatrical film, The Nude Bomb. It lacked much of what made the show so good. Max is not working for Control, 99 is not present, and it lacked all the fun of the show.
In 1988, many of the original cast reunited for Get Smart Again, a TV movie that aired on ABC. It reunited 86, 99, Larabee, Hymie, and Agent 13. Seigfried and Shtarker return as Kaos agents. It was more true to the original series and it helped spawn a short-lived weekly series on Fox in 1995.
Why I Picked It
Today, we are bombarded with all kinds of shows on TV that try to push a political or social message. Get Smart makes me laugh. It is one of those shows that I wish didn’t have a laugh track (the only thing I hate about it). I love to watch the interaction of the characters and enjoy the guest stars. It’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
The theme song is one of my favorites, too! When I worked at one hospital, I used to have to walk down a long hallway and I would often find myself humming the theme! Silly, yes! Incidentally, it is interesting to note that in 2010, TV Guide ranked the opening title sequence at number 2 on its list of Top 10 credits sequences as selected by readers. It’s classic!
Thanks for reading!!