Actor Don Adams Dies at 82; Starred in 'Get Smart' in '60s

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Don Adams, 82, the television comedian best known for playing a bumbling secret agent on the 1960s spy spoof "Get Smart," died Sept. 25 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He had lymphoma and a lung infection.

Mr. Adams won three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, a character created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. When they stopped writing for the program, Mr. Adams contributed scripts and directed episodes. The show ran from 1965 to 1970, first on NBC and on CBS the final year.

Smart's partner at the fictional U.S. intelligence agency named CONTROL was the sexy, straight-laced Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon. Together, they irritated their boss, "the Chief" (Edward Platt), and fought the agents of nemesis KAOS.

Unlike James Bond's arsenal of deadly devices, Smart's tools of spycraft were a series of jokey inventions, such as a shoe phone that he held to his ear to take incoming calls.

With a distinctive voice once described as a nasal staccato, Mr. Adams delivered Smart's trademark expression, "Sorry about that, Chief" whenever the character fouled up or, "Would you believe . . ." whenever he got into trouble.

One memorable exchange had Smart trying to pass for a music expert.

"I once listened to three weeks of Beethoven," Smart says.

"I don't believe it," another character says.

"Would you believe two weeks of Brahms?"


"A day of Looney Tunes?"

Mr. Adams found it hard to escape typecasting and convince people that his off-screen voice was a register below that of Maxwell Smart. He spoke of a wish to do drama, but his efforts failed. He played Maxwell Smart in a feature film, "The Nude Bomb" (1980), about a fashion designer who threatens to destroy people's clothing, and in a 1995 Fox TV revival of "Get Smart" that lasted seven episodes.

He also was the title character's voice for the 1980s cartoon series "Inspector Gadget." However, Mr. Adams said he "never saw one of them. They aired at 8 a.m. on Saturdays. I wouldn't get up for the Second Coming at 8 a.m."

Mr. Adams was born Donald James Yarmy in New York on April 13, 1923. His father, of Hungarian descent, managed restaurants and presided over a home filled with loud, overlapping conversation.

Mr. Adams said he had little use for school ("I was the great truant of my day") and instead spent his days at the movie theaters on 42nd Street. "I had the fundamentals: divide, subtract," he once told the Saturday Evening Post.

When the United States entered World War II, he served in the Marine Corps and participated in the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. He contracted blackwater fever and was hospitalized for more than a year at a Navy hospital in Wellington, New Zealand.

After his discharge, he hung around beaches in Florida, eventually teaming with a friend to do impersonations of movie stars. Their early engagements were strip bars ("the toilets of the world," he said) where he shared the stage with such variety acts as a woman who had birds tear off her clothes.

Mr. Adams refused to use "blue" material, so he was fired. He supported his growing family -- he had four daughters with his first wife, a nightclub singer -- by working as a commercial artist.

In 1954, he befriended comic and writer Bill Dana, best known for his bellhop character Jose Jimenez, and they refined Mr. Adams's jokes and stage personality for various television appearances. One of their favorite bits was Mr. Adams's impersonation of suave film sleuth William Powell: "There's your man, Inspector."

He played a variation of that role as the incompetent house detective on "The Bill Dana Show" from 1963 to 1965. At the time, he also was the voice of the penguin cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo.

Mr. Adams was initially skeptical of the offer to do "Get Smart." He casually asked who was writing the show, and when he heard it was Brooks and Henry, he said, "I'll do it now. Right now."

At times irascible, he told the New York Times after four years on the show: "I hate performing. It was never anything more to me than a means to get behind the scenes in show business." For a time, he owned an ad agency and managed younger comedians. He also was a regular on TV commercials, telling a reporter: "I've pushed everything from toys to beer."

Mr. Adams had other short-lived series in the 1970s. In his spare time, he gambled at the horse track, played card games at the Playboy Mansion and read profusely about Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler.

His marriages to Adelaide Efantis Adams, Dorothy Bracken Adams and Judy Luciano ended in divorce. A daughter from his first marriage, Cecily Adams, died in 2004.

Survivors include three daughters from his first marriage, Carolyn Steel of Pahoa, Hawaii, Christine Adams of Elkridge and Cathy Metchik of Henderson, Nev.; two children from his second marriage, Stacey Adams and Sean Adams, both of Los Angeles; a daughter from his third marriage, Beige Adams of Los Angeles; a sister; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company