50 Years Ago This Week – Get Smart

Get Smart made its television debut on September 18, 1965, with the episode “Mr. Big,” written by the show’s co-creators, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.  The series, which can be watched with enormous pleasure today, arrived at a transitional moment in American politics and culture.  An odd hybrid of rat-pack sensibilities and New Hollywood anti-establishment irreverence, Get Smart was most obviously a hilarious sendup of James Bond, but it was also an unambiguous parody of the Cold War mind-set, at a time when such things were taken very seriously. (In March 1965 the U.S. had less than 30,000 troops in Vietnam; three years later there would be over 500,000.)  Brooks and Henry told Time magazine in October 1965 (the show then already a big hit for NBC) that they first pitched their script to ABC, who hated everything about it—legend has it an ABC executive declared it “Un-American.”

What made Get Smart great?  The same thing that makes most great art—talent. Brooks, who would go on to write and direct numerous celebrated films, including The Producers and Young Frankenstein (co-written with Gene Wilder), was already well established, having made his reputation as a writer for Sid Caesar during the legendary live-in-the-1950s Your Show of Shows. Henry was a newcomer, but soon would find enormous success writing screenplays; in 1970, on the heels of The Graduate and Catch-22, The New York Times dubbed him “Hollywood’s hottest writer.”  Not a household name, Buck Henry has had a very interesting career as a writer (What’s up Doc, To Die For, Town and Country, The Humbling) and as an actor (worth taking seriously in the underappreciated seventies film The Man Who Fell to Earth); he also co-directed Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty.  And of course, he was also a regular host of Saturday Night Live during its glory days, traditionally hosting the last show of the year. (Some great stories about those good old days here.)

Get Smart boasted impressive talent in front of the camera as well.  Nightclub comedian Don Adams was a major force behind the show’s success – he directed thirteen episodes and wrote two – and his perfectionist streak kept the comedic timing precise.  (Though things got a little loose when his buddy Don Rickles, the rat pack’s court jester, showed up for an episode that stretched into two.)  Adams would win Emmys for best actor in a comedy series three years in a row; Get Smart also twice won for outstanding comedy series, and Henry (with the show’s long-time executive producer Leonard Stern) won an Emmy for writing the two-part episode "Ship of Spies."   

Also essential were Ed Platt, as the Chief of Control (look for him as James Dean’s juvie-cop-with-a-heart in Rebel Without a Cause and Cary Grant’s beleaguered lawyer in North by Northwest), and Barbara Feldon as agent 99 (seventies film aficionados will remember her performance in Michael Ritchie’s Smile).  Especially obvious in retrospect is the fact that Feldon’s 99 was one of the first strong and intelligent working women to appear regularly on TV.  But Get Smart would only show by doing, and always in the service of a laugh – of which there were many – encouraging scores of notables to find their way onto the show one way or another, including Johnny Carson (twice), Robert Culp (his straight, ground-breaking TV show I Spy was running concurrently), and, how could I not mention, Catwoman

Fifty years later—and, loving it.