Born Donald James Yarmy, April 13, 1923, in New York, NY; died of lymphoma and a lung infection, September 25, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. Though he got his start as a standup comedian, Don Adams is best known for his role as the dull-witted but dedicated secret agent Maxwell Smart on the 1960s sitcom Get Smart. The show, a spoof of James Bond, earned Adams three Emmys and became a cult classic. During Get Smart's five seasons, Adams' trench-coat-wearing character spawned several national catchphrases, including "Would you believe….?" His character uttered the phrase whenever he got into trouble—and viewers at home took to doing the same.
Adams was born Donald James Yarmy on April 13, 1923, in New York City. His father, a restaurant manager, was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, though Adams was raised in his mother's Roman Catholic faith. As a youngster, Adams often skipped school, preferring to spend his days at the movie theaters on 42nd Street. When he was in attendance, he entertained classmates with his impressions of movie stars.
Adams left school in 1941 to join the Marines. He took part in the World War II Pacific invasion of Guadalcanal. His active military service was shortlived, however, because he contracted blackwater fever, a serious complication of malaria. Adams spent a year recuperating at a naval hospital in New Zealand before being sent stateside to work as a drill instructor.
Adams eventually landed in Florida, where he did standup comedy impersonations. He married nightclub singer Adelaide Adams and had four daughters. To secure a steady income to support his family, he worked as a commercial artist and restaurant cashier in between gigs. He also changed his last name to Adams—his wife's name—because acting auditions were conducted alphabetically and he wanted to be at the front of the pack.
In the early 1950s, Adams befriended comedian Bill Dana, who helped Adams revamp his stage persona and rewrite his material. During this time, Adams perfected the distinctive, high-pitched, nasal staccato voice that he later made famous with his character Maxwell Smart. It was Dana who urged Adams to use the voice, which proved to be a steady vehicle for generating laughs during Adams' stand-up routines.
In 1954, Adams won a contest put on by Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and earned a guest appearance on The Tonight Show. Appearances on variety-type shows followed and he became a regular on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall in the early 1960s. Adams also provided the voice for the 1960s cartoon penguin Tennessee Tuxedo. He landed on NBC in 1963, playing an inept detective on The Bill Dana Show.
At the time, NBC producers were interested in launching Get Smart and approached Adams about taking the title role. Lending his distinctive voice to his character, Adams made Get Smart wildly popular upon its debut in 1965. It began airing during the James Bond spy craze brought on by the Cold War and seemed to hit a nerve. In its first two seasons, the spy spoof was among television's top 25 most-watched shows.
The satirical sitcom featured Adams as Maxwell Smart—aka Agent 86—a bumbling special agent who worked for the fictional U.S. counterintelligence agency CONTROL. The agency was locked in battle against KAOS, an evil international organization. Smart perpetually bumbled his assignments and was so hyper-sensitive about security, he would forget to read his top-secret messages before destroying them—by eating them. Smart's partner, Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon, was his strait-laced alter ego.
Maxwell Smart, a character created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was also the polar opposite of the debonair James Bond, whom the show parodied. While Bond relied on sophisticated gadgets to get him out of tough spots, Smart had ridiculous contraptions like the unwieldy shoe phone that frequently called wrong numbers. Another agent, a supposed master of disguise, spied on enemies from inside vending machines and mailboxes. Audiences loved the gags and the show twice won Emmys for best comedy series. Adams, himself, won three consecutive Emmys for best comedy actor, 1967–69. Get Smart ended in 1970, with Smart and Agent 99 having twins.
During the show's run, Adams' character spawned catchphrases such as "Sorry about that, Chief" and "Would you believe….?" When in trouble, Smart often uttered outrageous lies, along with that phrase. According to the Washington Post, a typical exchange went like this: In one episode, as Smart pretends to be a music authority, he says, "I once listened to three weeks of Beethoven." "I don't believe it," the other character replies. "Would you believe two weeks of Brahms?" "No." "A day of Looney Tunes?" The exchanges were comical in part because of Adams' delivery and distinctive voice that made every situation seem even funnier.
Despite the success, Adams always felt the character had stifled his career. He wanted to do drama, but roles never panned out after Get Smart ended. "It was a special show that became a cult classic of sorts, and I made a lot of money for it," Adams remarked in a 1995 interview, according to CNN. "But it also hindered me career-wise because I was typed. The character was so strong, particularly because of that distinctive voice, that nobody could picture me in any other type of role."
While the show aired, Adams wrote many scripts and directed several episodes. Afterward, he found success as a director, focusing on commercials. Adams grabbed a few other acting roles, too. In 1971–72, he played an awkward police detective in the NBC comedy The Partners. In 1975, Adams hosted his own show, Don Adams' Screen Test, which featured guests re-enacting famous movie scenes. He also lent his voice to the 1980s cartoon character Inspector Gadget—another hopeless, yet fearless, crime fighter.
Adams, who suffered from lymphoma, died of a lung infection on September 25, 2005, in Los Angeles, California; he was 82. His health had been declining since falling and breaking his hip a year earlier. Adams was married and divorced three times—to Adelaide Efantis Adams, Dorothy Bracken Adams, and Judy Luciano. Survivors include three daughters from his first marriage, a son and daughter from his second marriage, a daughter from his third marriage, five grandchildren and three greatgrandchildren. One daughter from his first marriage preceded him in death.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/09/26/obit.adams.ap/index.html (September 27, 2005); E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,17449,00.html (September 27, 2005); Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2005, p. B11; New York Times, September 27, 2005, p. A25; People, October 10, 2005, p. 73; Times (London, England), September 28, 2005, p. 67; Washington Post, September 27, 2005, p. B6.