Friday, March 30, 2007

Missed it by that much

Pointed in that direction by Mary of View from the Corner, I came across this interview with Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on Get Smart.

Number of things in the interview made me sit up and take notice.

Would you believe that Get Smart is finally coming out on DVD?

Would you believe that Barbara Feldon is 74 years old? Feldon was the second-sexiest woman on television when she was doing Get Smart, despite the black and white horizontally striped turtleneck minidresses and the bizarre hairstyle that was not quite a bob and not quite a beehive, but she was sexier at 54 than she was at 34, so imagine what she's like now that she's 74!

Would you believe that Feldon can make casual references to the songs of Tom Lehrer, which is just a reminder that a great deal of her sexiness has always been due to her intelligence and sense of humor?

Would you believe that her co-star on Get Smart, Don Adams, Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 himself, served in the Marines in World War II, fought at Guadalcanal, was the only member of his unit to survive, almost died there of fever, and Feldon was apparently unaware of any of this back when she was working with him on the show.

She only found out when late in life they renewed their friendship and he showed her some chapters from the autobiography he was working on and, sadly, didn't get to finish before he died.

I don't know what to make of the fact that during the course of five years Adams never talked about his time in the war. I don't know if it was modesty, stoicism, or simply a sense of proportion---just about every man his age had served, so he might not have thought it was worth mentioning because he assumed everybody around him had the same stories to tell.

But a lot of WWII vets made a point of not talking about what happened to them in the war and in the process of learning to keep quiet about their experiences they learned to keep quiet about a lot of things and wound up not talking to anybody about anything that had to do with what they were feeling.

And would you believe that I have only one story to tell about Don Adams?

I got it from Bob Newhart's book, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This.

Newhart credits Adams with convincing him to become a stand-up comic and perform his own material on stage.

But he doesn't mean that in a way entirely complimentary to Adams.

When Newhart was starting out in show business, he first tried to make his name as a writer for other comedians. He wrote a routine for Adams about a submarine commander talking to his crew at the end of a two year tour at sea. It's a famous routine now, Newhart himself made it famous. "The Voyage of the USS Codfish." But if you read it you can hear Adams doing it too and imagine how funny it would have been in his voice.

But Adams didn't think it was funny.

At least he said he didn't.

He claimed to hate the routine. Said it stunk. He refused to pay Newhart for it.

Oh well, thought Newhart. Them's the breaks.

Then one night he saw Adams on The Tonight Show----doing the routine!

Big chunk of it at any rate.

That's it! Newhart decided then and there, I'm through writing for other comics! From now on he wasn't going to let anything he wrote out of his hands. If he wasn't going to get paid for writing the stuff, then at least he'd get paid for performing it.

If you listen closely to Newhart doing the routine on one of his old albums you might pick up on it. You can feel something's missing. There's a jump, a gap in the captain's monologue. Newhart left out the parts of the routine Adams had stolen because he didn't want anybody to think he had stolen it from Adams.

But Newhart liked and admired Adams anyway. They were friends. Newhart never told the story in public, while Adams was alive. When Adams died, his widow called Newhart and asked him to speak at the funeral. She asked him to tell the story. Don's friends will love it, she said, it was so typical of him, the cheapness and the nerve.

Newhart was glad to oblige.


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