No one got smart and silly better than Don Adams.
Adams, who died late Sunday at 82 of a lung infection, had a relatively short reign as a major prime-time TV star: just five years, from 1965 to 1970. But in those five years, he won three straight Emmys and created one of TV’s most hilarious and indelible characters: Maxwell Smart, the self-assured, self-deluded secret agent star of “Get Smart.”
Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry at the height of the James Bond craze, “Get Smart” was one of the decade’s funniest shows, and Adams was one of the decade’s biggest and most widely imitated stars. There probably wasn’t a town or playground in America where someone didn’t copy Adams’ clipped, through-the-nose delivery of “Get Smart’s” twin catchphrases: “Sorry about that, Chief” or “Would you believe … ,” which Adams delivered whenever someone called Max’s bluff.
No doubt few of those playground wits realized they were doing an imitation of an imitation. In interviews, Adams said he based Max’s voice on an exaggerated impersonation he used to do in his stand-up act of William Powell’s “Thin Man” movie character. (Of course, Nick Charles never spoke into his shoe.)
Though the show was clever, sophistication wasn’t “Get Smart’s” calling card. It ran on silly gags and gadgets: the “cone of silence,” that shoe phone. And at the center was Adams’ mad Max, so blindly oblivious to the fact that his partner, Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99, both adored him and carried him.
“Get Smart” was an instant hit, and it cooled just as quickly. And when it did, so did Adams’ TV career. There were other shows: a 1971 cop spoof, “The Partners”; a 1985 Canadian sitcom, “Check It Out.” But Adams was too closely identified with a character and with a style of humor that had gone out of fashion in the more serious ‘70s.
Still, if his face left TV, the voice never did. It got him one of his first TV jobs as the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo in “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.” And it brought him a whole new generation of fans as the voice of “Inspector Gadget,” who was sort of a bionic version of Maxwell Smart.
That was Adams. Smart to the end.