Monday, September 26, 2005

Maxwell Smart, R.I.P.

Don Adams was an up-and-coming Borscht Belt stand-up comedian during the 1960s. He'd been contracted to NBC for a few stints before Mel Brooks and Buck Henry contacted his agent. They wanted him for a pilot sitcom that crossed the supercool motif of James Bond with the wackiness of Inspector Clouseau.

Adams accepted the offer -- and Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, was born.

Adams' routine was generally based on the persona of an average guy who always wanted to brag about mundane accomplishments. When confronted with the truth -- or at least a skeptical eye -- he'd scale down his descriptions, until he came up with the mundane chore preceded by, "Would you believe ... ?"

Couple that persona to a special agent who was supposed to do the very things that he shouldn't really be bragging about -- and you wind up with yet another classic addition to the TV pantheon. Get Smart ran for 4 years on NBC, from 1965 to 1969, and it won Adams 3 Emmy Awards, thanks to his dim-witted portrayal of Agent 86.

Max couldn't be as cool as James Bond -- his suits were more likely to come from Woolworth's than Savile Row. Nor could he be as clumsy as Inspector Clouseau -- Adams' didn't have Peter Sellers' talent for physical comedy. He did, however, share Clouseau's talent for not seeing the obvious -- witness his attempt to sneak up on a possible assassin, only to walk through a plate-glass window.

He was barely competent as a superspy -- more often than not with the help of his partner, Barbara Feldon's Agent 99. But all things considered, he did pretty well, probably better than any of the viewers would, if we were stuck in the same dilemma.

And his Bond-like gadgetry, when not malfunctioning à la the Acme Company's Wile E. Coyote merchandise, functioned with some recognizable human foibles. Sure, Max's shoe phone was pretty cool -- but while Bond could probably call Hong Kong direct, Max would wind up dealing with the telephone operator, who'd then charge him a dime for the call.

Adams' career was more than Max, of course; his distinctive nasal voice and delivery made him a natural for cartoon voice-acting. Not just Tennessee Tuxedo during the 1960s and 1970s, but also Inspector Gadget -- Maxwell Smart as an android cop.

Don Adams passed away Sunday at the age of 82. One can picture the offices of CONTROL and KAOS lowering their flags to half-staff.