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.

1965: To Tell The Truth panel, again, tries to spot a spy

The panel on the popular CBS game show To Tell The Truth in 1963 had to figure out which of three men was a former Polish spy.

On that occasion, the panel was skunked, all four voting for an impostor (Henry Morgan, a panelist on another game show, I’ve Got a Secret).

The panel came up short in 1964 when trying to figure which of three men was the real John Le Carre.

In 1965, the To Tell The Truth panel again had to figure out a real spy, in this case a former British spy posing as a German agent during World War II.

Did the panel do better this time? You can see for yourself because the episode is embedded below. The same episode includes a replay of the daytime version of the show where Otto Preminger tried to fool the panel. And, without giving too much away, it relates to one of the previous spy installments on To Tell The Truth.

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.

1964: John Le Carre appears on To Tell the Truth

David Cornell, aka John Le Carre

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre

There was a time that game shows sometimes featured major literary or even historical figures. So it was in 1964 on the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman program To Tell The Truth when author David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, was a contestant.

At the time of the broadcast on CBS, the author’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a best seller. Cornwell had sold the film rights and it would be made into A 1965 MOVIE STARRING RICHARD BURTON. One of the screenwriters would be Paul Dehn, who had penned the later drafts of 1964’s Goldfinger.

The regular panel of Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle faced the daunting task of determining which of three contestents had once worked in British intelligence. The outcome? Well, let’s just say it didn’t turn out well for the panel.

Here’s the broadcast, featuring host Bud Collyer. Our usual caveat: these things are often yanked off YouTube, so it’s possible the embedded video may be gone by the time you see see this. Cornwell/Le Carre appears in the second of the three games:

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.

1963: To Tell The Truth panel hunts a real spy

The defection of Pawel Monat from Poland to the U.S. caused a stir (as noted in a 1959 article in Time magazine). In 1963, Monat did something unusual for a defecting spy: he appeared on the CBS game show To Tell the Truth.

Going on a national television show isn’t the best way to keep a low profile. But Monat and two impostors wore masks and the real spy’s face was never revealed on the show. So a panel of Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, game-show host Art James and Kitty Carlisle went about trying to figure which of the three was the former spy. The staff of the Bud Collyer-hosted program, though, had one more twist to throw at the panel. Here’s how it played out (the video quality is unfortunately poor):

UPDATE (Oct. 5, 2012): Here’s a better quality video. The title admittedly gives the surprise away:

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: