Monday, September 26, 2005

Don Adams - 1923-2005

I hate writing obituaries. I particularly hate it when it's an obituary for an actor who has a special place in my memories. Don Adams was one of those people.

Born Donald Yarmy in the Bronx in 1923, his father was a Hungarian Jew who ran a number of small restaurants, while his mother was Irish. During World War II he served with the Marines and contracted malaria on Guadalcanal. Later during his Marine Corps service he was a Drill Instructor. Following the war he worked as a commercial artist during the day while working as a stand up comedian in clubs at night. He took the professional last name of his first wife, singer Adelaide Adams (born Adelaide Efantis) because his own last name tended to get him in at the end of auditions. In 1954 he won on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts series using a routine which he wrote with his boyhood friend Bill Dana (who would gain fame for his own routine as Jose Jimenez). This led to appearances on Ed Sullivan's Toast Of The Town and eventually a regular appearance on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and then costarred with Dana in the latter's own series. He had also started what would become another aspect of his career - voice work for animated cartoons such as Tennessee Tuxedo and later Inspector Gadget.

Of course Don Adams is probably best known for the role of Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 of CONTROL. It was an ideal match of man and part. Get Smart was both witty - thanks in no small part to a huge group of writers which included Buck Henry, Pat McCormick and Adams himself (although Mel Brooks is credited as one of the series creators, Buck Henry has said that he didn't contribute that much after the initial episodes) - and had a considerable amount of physical slapstick comedy in the mix which made it the best satire of the "James Bond" style secret agent movie that could be found. It was certainly more cutting about the absurdities of Bond than either the Matt Helm or the Derek Flint movies (although I have a personal fondness for James Coburn's Flint movies). The character spawned a number of catch phrases including Would you believe..., and of course "Sorry about that Chief" all made more enjoyable by Adams' clipped style of speech which he picked up during his time as a Drill Sergeant. There were also a host of visual gags, like the security systems at Max's apartment, the fact that CONTROL's answer to Q was a woman working as a stripper, and Max's shoe phone (a 9D Florsheim if you're interested). The show ran for only four years on NBC, and after the network dropped it it was picked up for a single season by CBS.

Like Bob Denver, Don Adams never really caught another role as big as the one that made him a household name. He had a single season series called The Partners in 1971, and 1985 he appeared in the atrocious Canadian series Check It Out with Dinah Christie and Gordon Clapp, who would later go on to play Detective Medavoy in NYPD Blue. He also did a number of revivals of the Maxwell Smart role. One was a 1980 feature film The Nude Bomb which tossed out just about everything about the character and the original show (Barbara Feldon was nowhere to be seen and was replaced by Sylvia Kristel - yes Emmanuelle herself) - Don hated it. There was also a 1989 made for TV movie with Barbara Feldon which thankfully ignored The Nude Bomb, and finally a 1995 Fox series with Don as Chief of CONTROL and his wife, 99, as a congresswoman. The show was meant as a springboard for Andy Dick, but whenever Adams and Feldon were on screen they dominated. Finally, starting in 1999 Don Adams did some commercials for a Canadian long-distance phone service as Maxwell Smart. For a number of years he had wanted to do serious acting and a part in the revived Alfred Hitchcock Presents was written specifically for him, however the producers didn't believe that he could be anything but funny and the part went to Martin Landau.

Don Adams was married and divorced three times, and was the father of seven children. Although Maxwell Smart wasn't, the actor who portrayed him was a well read amateur expert on both Lincoln and Hitler, as well as a talented painter and poet. He also enjoyed gambling on horses and playing cards with friends like James Caan, Don Rickles and Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. According to his son-in-law Jim Beaver (who is a frequent poster to various movie newsgroups as well as one of the major characters on Deadwood), Don Adams had been suffering from Lymphoma for a number of years but his health took a serious turn for the worse after his daughter Cecily (Jim's wife) past away last year. According to Jim: "In recent weeks he had declined to continue medications or treatment for his ailments. Following his emergency hospitalization on September 24, he was unable to breathe on his own. As per his instructions, life-support systems were turned off Sunday night. Two of his former wives and three of his children, as well as other family members, were with him when he died."

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