"There had never been a show about an idiot before. I wanted to be the first"
The original idea for Get Smart came from Patrick Melnick, a member of the show's production company Talent Associates. He wanted to capitalize on "the two biggest things in the entertainment world today," James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. The show's co-creator Mel Brooks (who created Get Smart along with Buck Henry) described the series as "an insane combination of James Bond and Mel Brooks comedy."
The original pilot for Get Smart featured Tom Poston as the show's protagonist, an inept, bumbling (but successful) secret agent Maxwell Smart. It was offered first to ABC, who turned down the show, calling it "un-American."
They suggested the show feature "a lovable dog" as Max's pet and they wanted Max to have a mother, who he would routinely report to. Mel Brooks bristled at the suggestion of a mother: "They wanted to put a print housecoat on the show. Max has to come home to his mother and explain everything. I hate mothers on shows. Max has no mother. He never had one."
After ABC's rejection, the pilot was offered to NBC, who accepted, with the understanding that Don Adams (who they had under contract) be given the lead role of Maxwell Smart. Don Adams had already played a very similar character on NBC's The Bill Dana Show- an inept hotel detective named Byron Glick. Glick had a catchphrase which Don Adams was to carry over into his Get Smart role and make world famous- "Would you believe…?"
Don Adams would later relate how huge the phrase would later become, as whenever he checked into a hotel, he would always be told at the check-in desk some variation of- "Mr. Adams, we have a palatial presidential suite all ready for you... would you believe a pup tent and four wooden stakes?"
Adams said he based the distinctive clipped voice of Max on William Powell in The Thin Man movies of the 1930's.
The pilot episode of Get Smart was the show's only episode filmed in black and white and featured little person Michael Dunn as the villain "Mr. Big." The pilot was picked up and Get Smart was given a Saturday night time slot on NBC. Interestingly, another legendary cult show I Dream of Jeannie premiered right before Get Smart on that same night, September 18, 1965. Each show was to run from 1965 to mid-1970, with I Dream of Jeannie producing 139 original episodes and Get Smart one behind, with 138.
For Max's partner, fellow CONTROL agent and love interest, a sexy young actress named Barbara Feldon was cast as Agent 99 (Max was Agent 86). Barbara says 99 was originally supposed to be Agent 100 (because she was 100 percent), but Buck Henry decided 99 "sounded more feminine." According to Barbara, the story that Agent 99 was originally supposed to be Agent 69 is an urban myth.
99 never was given a real name on the show. Fans often mistakenly assume her name was Susan Hilton because this was the name she used in the 1967 Get Smart episode "99 Loses CONTROL." But 99 makes it clear later in this episode that Susan Hilton" is not her real name and was just an alias she'd used. 99's name would never be spoken throughout the show's five year run, even in the show's highly rated wedding episode.
Barbara basically was to play Max's straight woman over the show's five-year run. Buck Henry tried to add funny lines for 99 by season three, but later told Barbara: "They didn't want you to be 'joke funny,' they wanted you to be glamorous and interesting."
Barbara confessed she spent much of the show slouching, leaning or sitting. This was because she was slightly taller than her co-star (she was 5' 9" and Adams was 5' 8 1/2"). Adams also would often stand on small platforms when the two filmed two-shot close ups together.
The third of the show's three main characters was Ed Platt, who played "the chief" of CONTROL, the "good guy" spy agency where Max and 99 were employed. CONTROL was not an acronym. Platt was a journeyman actor in both films and TV; his most famous pre-Get Smart role was probably as the kindly police officer who tries to befriend James Dean in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. The chief's real name was revealed to be Thaddeus; his undercover name was Harold Clark.
Ed Platt, like Barbara Feldon, spent a lot of his camera time on Get Smart sitting down, albeit for a different reason. Platt had a very bad back, the pain from it was sometimes so severe that he was written out of entire Get Smart episodes.
Max and the chief had a father-son relationship, although Max's incompetence definitely often tried his patience. A hilarious running gag in the show was Max's insistence on using "the cone of silence" (an always malfunctioning set of glass globes which Max loved and chief always resisted.)
In the show's first two seasons, the old ABC idea of "Max having a dog" was employed and a mangy mutt called Agent K-13 was introduced. The dog shtick never quite gave many returns in the laughter department and "Fang" (k-13's real name) was unceremoniously written out.
Max's main nemesis was the KAOS agent (KAOS was not an acronym either) Siegfried, played by Bernie Kopell, who was later to play Doc in the '70's hit show The Love Boat. Siegfried was assisted by his main henchman Shtarker, played by King Moody.
Other popular recurring Get Smart characters include Dick Gautier as Max's robot pal Hymie, who is all powerful, albeit all-too-literal ("kill the light, Hymie"= Hymie shoots the light bulb with a pistol).
William Schallert would often appear as "the Admiral," a 90-something old fossil, who was the original chief of CONTROL. Dave Ketchum also made frequent appearances as Agent 13, a luckless CONTROL agent who got all the worst undercover assignments (in a garbage can, in a mail box, inside a bowling alley ball return mechanism, where the bowling balls keeps hitting his head).
But probably the single funniest recurring character was Larabee, an assistant to the chief, played with dead pan hilarity by Robert Karvelas. Karvelas was actually Don Adams' cousin. Larabee seemed to have been created to be the one person on earth dumber and more inept than Max himself.
Get Smart also had dozens of guest appearances by major celebrities, including Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Larry Storch and Ernest Borgnine.
Get Smart's hilarious combination of verbal humor and visual sight gags made it a big hit for NBC. Kids (and adults) all over America were asking each other "Would you believe…?" or saying "Missed it by that much" or "I asked you not to tell me that." Possibly until The Simpsons came along in the 1990's, no TV show ever spawned as many classic catchphrases as Get Smart.
Like so many TV shows, a sexual chemistry (and tension) was obvious between the series two lead stars. On November 16, 1968, Max and 99 were married in the episode "With Love and Twitches." Although the episode drew huge ratings, it also may have been the show's death knell, as many Get Smart fans feel this was when the series "jumped the shark."
Mel Brooks had left the show after season one to concentrate on films. His career as a film director, writer and performer would soon put him in the category of "comic legend." Buck Henry would stay on until 1967, in the capacity of story editor, before he too, would switch his sights to film.
In 1969, in the two-part episode "And Baby Makes Four," Max and 99 had twins. Like their mother, the twins never were given names. As the ratings grew smaller, NBC dropped Get Smart after four seasons, after the 1968-69 season.
The show was picked up by CBS for its swan song season of 1969-70. Finally, on May 15, 1970, the final original Get Smart episode "I am Curiously Yellow" aired on CBS.
Get Smart was to earn Don Adams three Emmy awards for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Comedy. In 1969, Get Smart was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Before Get Smart ever aired, Don Adams was given the choice of a higher weekly salary or part ownership of the show. He chose the latter. He was never to regret his decision. Reruns of Get Smart over the next several decades were to leave Adams very well-off financially.
Get Smart is still shown around the world and is now regarded as one of television's comedy classics.
Several Get Smart movies were made after the series' original run. Don Adams appeared in The Nude Bomb in 1980, sans Barbara Feldon (Ed Platt died in 1974). In 1989, Adams and Feldon were reunited in the TV movie Get Smart Again!
In 1995, a brief remake of Get Smart (7 episodes) aired on Fox TV, featuring Don Adams returning (now chief of CONTROL) and Barbara Feldon (now a congresswoman). Andy dick played their son, Zach, and Elaine Hendrix played Agent 66.
In 2008, Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway took on the Max and 99 roles (with Alan Arkin playing the chief) in a successful Get Smart reboot film. It garnering $130 million at the box office.
Get Smart remains a hugely popular cult TV series in reruns and is watched all over the world. The series can be viewed (including audio commentary by Barbara Feldon, Mel Brooks, Buck Henry and other Get Smart personnel) on a full set (all five seasons) of DVDs.