1998: Grant Tinker talks about I Spy, Get Smart

Grant Tinker (1926-2016)

The blog spent some time viewing a 1998 Archive of American Television interview with Grant Tinker, who spent part of his career as an NBC executive as well as being co-founder (with his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore) of MTM Productions.

In particular, the blog viewed portions of the interview dealing with Tinker’s role as a West Coast-based NBC executive in the 1960s. In that capacity, he dealt with producers such as Norman Felton (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Sheldon Leonard (I Spy) and Leonard Stern (Get Smart).

Tinker didn’t spent much time talking about Norman Felton (he referenced other shows Felton made). But he discussed I Spy and Get Smart in some detail.

I Spy: “I remember the very day” that Sheldon Leonard “walked into my office and said, he wanted to travel a show. He hadn’t done a dramatic show that I could remember. He wanted to cast (Robert) Culp and (Bill) Cosby.”

The interviewer asks if Tinker had pause about casting an African American actor in such a key role. “It didn’t give me pause….Bill was an established comedian.” Tinker said he was more skeptical about containing costs for a series that would have actual location filming in Europe and Asia.

As it turned out, Leonard had $400,000 in cost overruns for the first season (which involved location shooting in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Mexico). Today, that’s quaint. Regardless, Leonard “was such an honorable guy. He was wondering if we could help with that. Of course, we did. We picked it all up.”

Get Smart:  An agent brought Tinker a script after the network had spent all of its development money for the upcoming television season. The script had been turned down by ABC.

“It turned out ABC had paid $7,500 for Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to write it. It was Get Smart. I read it that night.”

Tinker called his superiors, telling them they had to secure the property. “We have to find the money to do one more pilot.”

NBC had Don Adams under contract and he became the star. “We didn’t know what else to do with him, so we put him in Get Smart,” Tinker said. “It was just so funny.”

To watch the part of the interview dealing with I Spy, go here starting around the 24:26 mark.

To watch the part of the interview about Get Smart, go here starting around the 3:38 mark.

The longevity of comedy spies

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

A reader said the following on Twitter: “If Rowan Atkinson can play Johnny English at 63 surely Craig can continue for several more films.”

The reader is referring, of course, to 007 star Daniel Craig, 50. He has said Bond 25 will be his final Bond effort. But The Mirror had a story last week saying Eon Productions boss Barbara Broccoli hasn’t given up on luring him for future installments.

First, to what the reader pointed out. Rowan Atkinson has been in Johnny English (2003), when he was 48; Johnny English Reborn (2011), when he was 56; and Johnny English Strikes Again, coming out this fall.

The blog’s guess: Audience expectations are different for comedy spies than for other fictional spies. Comedy spies may have fight scenes, but that’s not why an audience seeks them out.

Consider Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. Adams served in the military during World War II and became a comic after the war. Get Smart originally was developed with comic actor Tom Poston in mind for the role. But ABC took a pass.

NBC expressed because it had Adams under contract. Writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry retooled their script to work in Adams comedy bits (“Would you believe?….”).

Adams already was 42 when Get Smart began. It ran for five seasons (four on NBC, one on CBS). Then, Smart returned in the 1980 theatrical film The Nude Bomb, when Adams was 57. Then there was the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! when he was 66. Finally, there was a brief Get Smart series revival (seven episodes) in 1995 with Max now the Chief. The series ran its course a couple of months before Adams turned 72.

Over that 30-year span, Adams was Maxwell Smart in the mind of many viewers. Get Smart began as a James Bond parody. But it was so popular, the Western comedy series F-Troop had an episode with actor Pat Harrington doing a Maxwell Smart parody named B Wise. In other words, it was a parody of a parody.

A 2008 film version with Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart did OK business, but no sequel was ordered up.

50th anniversary of U.S. TV spymania

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in an I Spy publicity still

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in an I Spy publicity still

This week marks the 50th anniversary of spymania in the United States, when three spy television series premiered.

I Spy (Sept. 15): The hour-long drama on NBC was the most serious, least escapist spy program on U.S. television. Its greater significance, however, was having an African American actor receiving equal billing with a white star.

That African American actor was Bill Cosby. Cosby has been in the news since last year for numerous accusations of rape, the subject of a notable cover of New York magazine this summer.

A half century ago, Cosby’s presence on I Spy was a major breakthrough for U.S. television. The show debuted in the midst of  the Civil Rights Movement.

Robert Culp, the show’s other star, also wrote episodes that gave Cosby’s Alexander Scott plenty to do and Cosby ample opportunity to show his acting ability.

“People writing…said that I was the Jackie Robinson of television drama,” Cosby said during a 2010 appearance. “I say to all of you if this true that Robert Culp has to be Eddie Stanky, Pee Wee Reese.” He said Culp’s “contribution in I Spy was very valuable in terms of civil rights.”

Besides the show’s social significance, I Spy also had extensive location filming. The lead actors accompanied a small crew that actually traveled to places such as Hong Kong and Tokyo to film exteriors. That footage would be paired with interior scenes shot at stages leased from Desilu Studios.

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

The Wild Wild West (Sept. 17): The show was originally pitched to CBS as something like “James Bond and cowboys.” It became something much greater.

The series concerned the adventures of ace U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). They traveled in style on a train.

They traveled a lot taking on, among other foes, a 19th century cyborg (John Dehner); Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), a short scientist with major plans, such as wiping out the world’s population to restore ecological balance; and Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono), a villain whose magic tricks might not be tricks at all.

Highlights included Conrad frequently fighting a roomful of thugs. In reality, it was usually the same group of stuntmen and it took ingenuity to disguise that fact from the audience. Also a highlight was Martin donning various disguises.

The Wild Wild West really was catching lightning in a bottle. Attempts to recapture the magic (made-for television movies in 1979 and 1980 as well as a 1999 feature film) fell short.

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

Get Smart (Sept. 18): The half-hour comedy created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry originally was developed for ABC with Tom Poston in mind. The network rejected it. NBC, looking for a show for Don Adams, snapped it up.

Brooks and Henry revamped the script to adapt it for Adams. For example, Adams had already perfected his “would you believe?” bit, using it on The Bill Dana Show situation comedy series. Thus, it was incorporated into the Get Smart pilot.

Adams’ Maxwell Smart was a force of nature. He bumbled his way through his adventures but, always confident in himself, emerged triumphant. It helped to have Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) on his side.

Get Smart, naturally, parodied the spy genre, including one episode that did a takeoff on I Spy. But the series had other targets, including an episode that parodied The Fugitive. There have been various attempts over the decades to revive Get Smart, most recently a 2008 feature film with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

Would you believe…Don Adams would have been 90 today?

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon grace the cover of TV Guide

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon grace the cover of TV Guide

April 13, besides being the birthday of the literary James Bond, is also the birthday of one of the better known actors from the 1960s spy craze: Don Adams, who played Maxwell Smart on Get Smart, the 1965-1970 spy comedy.

He was born April 13, 1923, according to his IMDB.COM BIOGRAPHY. As we’ve written before, Adams wasn’t the first choice to play Maxwell Smart.

The show was originally developed with Tom Poston as the lead character. But it was rejected by ABC, where executives were not amused by the Mel Brooks-Buck Henry script, which included a dwarf as a villain called Mr. Big. All this came out in interviews Poston and producer Leonard Stern made for the Archive of American Television decades later.

Shortly after the ABC rejection, a crestfallen Mel Brooks encountered an NBC executive who asked the writer what was wrong. Brooks told the story of his unsold pilot. As it turned out, NBC had Don Adams under contract and had to pay him until the network could find Adams a show. NBC, thus, was now very interested. Brooks and Henry worked in Adams’ “Would you believe?” routine and other changes. Michael Dunn, soon to be the villainous Dr. Loveless on The Wild, Wild West, brought Mr. Big to life.

Get Smart was one of the most successful of the ’60s spy shows, running five full seasons (four on NBC, one on CBS). It was revived as a 1980 theatrical movie starring Adams, The Nude Bomb (which didn’t include Barbara Feldon as Agent 99) and a later television movie Get Smart Again (this time with Feldon). There was also another short lived Get Smart television series on Fox.

The concept was brought back in 2008 with Steve Carell in another theatrical movie. This one insisted on providing a backstory for Max, where he had once been an obese back-office employee who dreamed of being an agent, etc., etc. In the original, there was no attempt to explain Max; he simply was.

The 2008 film did OK at the box office, with with $230 million in worldwide ticket sales. But Steve Carell didn’t make anybody forget Don Adams, who had died three years earlier. As it turned out, that would be impossible.

For Warner Bros., which released the ’08 movie, the box office wasn’t good enough to order up a sequel. Sorry about that, Chief.

Leonard Stern, Get Smart producer, dies at 88

Leonard Stern, the producer of Get Smart and a long-time writer and producer of other shows, passed away this week at the age of 88. Besides Get Smart, his credits were varied and included The Jackie Gleason Show, The Honeymooners, and McMillan & Wife. Even his short-lived shows, such as I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster and He & She, have a devoted following.

Because of our subject matter, though, we’re concentrating on his contributions to Get Smart. As executive producer, he helped turn the pilot script by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry into a successful series. That wasn’t easy, as Stern described in this interview; the script had to be redone to tailor it to Don Adams (under contract to NBC) after the show was originally envisioned for Tom Poston:

During the show’s run, Stern collaborated on a script with Buck Henry that earned both men an Emmy. The 1967 Emmys turned out to be a big night for TV spy shows, with Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller and co-star Barbara Bain also getting Emmys. You can Stern and Henry get theirs (presented by Bain and M:I’s Martin Landau), starting around the 2:40 mark of this video:

RIP, Mr. Stern. CLICK HERE TO READ THE WASHINGTON POST’S OBITUARY. Meanwhile you can READ THE WRAP’S OBITUARY BY CLICKING HERE (which gives Stern’s age as 87).

45th anniversary of TV spy mania part IV: Would you believe…Tom Poston was the first choice to play Maxwell Smart?

We conclude our look at the 45th anniversary of TV spy mania with Get Smart, which premiered in September 1965. Now, Don Adams as Maxwell Smart. A television classic. How could anything go wrong with that? You’re probably thinking that there could not have been any doubt about that casting.

Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re wrong. Not only was Don Adams not the first choice to play the lead in a parody of James Bond, NBC wasn’t the first network approached. ABC was.

The script was penned by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Producer Leonard Stern and actor Tom Poston take it from there:

Once Don Adams was on board, he incorporated his own comedic persona. This clip isn’t from Get Smart, but The Bill Dana Show, where Adams appeared as a hotel detective, Byron Glick. The clip contains a familiar gag that’d be a regular part of Get Smart:

In the pilot, Maxwell Smart and agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) encounter Mr. Big of KAOS, played by an actor who’d shortly make a big impression on CBS’s The Wild, Wild West:

Get Smart’s 45th, 30th and 21st anniversaries

Would you believe Get Smart has three important anniversaries this year? Would you believe two significant anniversaries and a footnote? How about some minor trivia?

First, this fall is the 45th anniversary of the debut of the spy spoof created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and starring Don Adams as the bumbling, but ever triumphant CONTROL agent Maxwell Smart.

Get Smart is often described as a James Bond parody but it also owes much to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which featured the intrepid U.N.C.L.E. versus the mysterious Thrush. The first several episodes of Man showed agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin entering a secret headquarters and going through a series of doors. Get Smart’s title sequence seized upon that and exaggerated it.

The Brooks-Henry pilot scripted pilot established a number of bits that would be repeated throughout the series. One of the best of the best concerned the Cone of Silence:

Get Smart would run five successful seasons (four on NBC, one on CBS) and outlast other 1960s spy favorites including U.N.C.L.E. But you can’t keep a good agent down. So, in 1980, 15 years after his debut, Max made his theatrical movie debut in The Nude Bomb. Universal, which released the film, hired Arne Sultan and Leonard B. Stern, writer-producers on the original series, to help do the script. Don Adams reprised his most famous role. But the studio jettisoned Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 and other characters from the series. Don Black, a frequent 007 songwriter, collaborated with Lalo Schifrin on a title song. The results were mixed. Here are the main titles:

Despite the mixed reaction, nine years later, much of the (surviving) original cast was reunited in a 1989 television movie. This time, the producers sought to emphasize the original source material as much as possible. That’s reflected in the main titles:

A mere two years ago, Maxwell Smart returned to the big screen, courtesy of Steve Carrell. One of the tips of the hat the movie made was to the Brooks-Henry cone of silence: