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Don Adams Biography


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Birth Name: Don Adams
Born: 04/13/1923
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA
Death Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Died: 09/25/2005


Don Adams was born Donald James Yarmy on April 13, 1923, in New York City. The second son and middle child of a Hungarian-Jewish restaurant manager and his Irish Roman Catholic wife, he was baptized Catholic by his mother while his older brother had been brought up in their father's faith. More interested in going to see movies than in attending school, Adams was a frequent truant, whose frustrated father eventually packed him off to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Nevertheless, Adams dropped out of high school and worked briefly as a theater usher. He was living with family in Pennsylvania at the time of the Japanese Imperial Navy's attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Following the cue of his teenage cousins, he swiftly enlisted in the U.S. Marines like many young men at that time. Assigned to the Third Marines in Samoa, Adams was transferred to Guadalcanal for the second major Allied offense against Japan. Taken out of the action early on due to a bout of blackwater fever secondary to malaria, Adams would be his platoon's only survivor after the protracted Battle of Guadalcanal.

After spending a year in a military hospital in New Zealand, he finished his Marine Corps career as a stateside drill instructor. After his military discharge, Adams worked for a time as a commercial artist but his childhood talent for mimicry pulled him toward the life of a performer. He relocated to Miami, FL and formed a brief comedy partnership with Jay Storch, brother of his New York neighbor Larry Storch. Together Adams and Storch toured as The Young Brothers. When the act broke up, Adams continued alone. Married in 1945 to nightclub singer Adelaide Adams, the budding comedian adopted his bride's stage name to become Don Adams for the first time. Fathering four children in quick succession, Adams quit performing and settled in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, where he earned a wage as an engineering draftsman and cartographer. Upon the death of his mother in 1954, Adams returned to New York, where he learned that auditions were being held for Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" (CBS, 1948-1958). Adams angled himself a spot among the hopefuls and his comic talents impressed the famously prickly Godfrey. Adams' victory on the broadcast led to subsequent appearances on "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC, 1956-1960), "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) and "The Gary Moore Show" (CBS, 1958-1967).

As a regular performer on "The Perry Como Show" (CBS/NBC, 1948-1966), Adams introduced a recurring character type, a calamity-prone know-it-all whose inherent cluelessness could be adapted to accommodate a wealth of professions, from umpire to hotel detective. Adam's clipped vocal inflections were an adaptation of an earlier impersonation of William Powell, star of the long-running "Thin Man" detective film franchise. He ultimately came to call this character Byron Glick. When his friend Bill Dana, a stand-up comic famous for playing ill-starred immigrant Jose Jiménez, was made the star of NBC's "The Bill Dana Show" (1963-65), Adams was hired as a semi-regular, reprising the Byron Glick character in a dozen episodes. During this time, Adams was also retained by CBS to provide the voice of a wayward cartoon penguin for Total Television's semi-educational "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales" (1963-1966).

With the cancellation of "The Bill Dana Show," Adams was offered a shot at his own weekly series. The concept for inept secret agent Maxwell Smart was born from the vogue for the James Bond films starring Sean Connery. The profitable series was copied for television as "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68), a straight-forward espionage drama with satirical touches and an emphasis on gee-wiz gadgetry over onscreen sex and violence. The creators of "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS, 1965-1970), Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, had no small amount of difficulty luring Adams to the series. The actor had tired of his Byron Glick persona and had to be persuaded by friend Dana to resurrect it for his own shot at fame and fortune.

Turned down by ABC, the 1965 pilot for "Get Smart" was picked up instead by NBC. Focusing on the adventures of Adams' bungling but upright and ultimately victorious secret agent No. 86, an operative for the government agency CONTROL and foe of the underworld conclave KAOS, "Get Smart" benefited from a stronger-than-average supporting cast, which included Barbara Feldon as Smart's partner, girlfriend and, later wife Agent 99, and veteran Hollywood actor Edward Platt as Smart's long-suffering bureau chief. The show also featured such guest villains as Bernie Kopell (who recurred as KAOS bigwig Konrad Siegfried), Vincent Price, Julie Newmar, Ted Knight, Pat Paulson and Tom Poston, a one-time candidate for the role of Maxwell Smart. The recipient of multiple Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, "Get Smart" enjoyed a four-season run on NBC before shifting to CBS for its final season.

With the end of his long run as Maxwell Smart, Adams made a number of personal appearances. For friend Hugh Hefner, he appeared in several episodes of the CBS variety series "Playboy After Dark" (1969-1970) while also turning up on "The Andy Williams Show" (NBC, 1969-1971) and "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1971-74). Another shot at a weekly series came with "The Partners" (NBC, 1971-72), a police sitcom that paired Adams with black actor Rupert Crosse, a last-minute replacement for comedian Godfrey Cambridge, as a pair of luckless plain clothes cops. Although the pilot had tested well and gave NBC hopes for another hit on par with "Get Smart," the series was clobbered in the ratings when scheduled opposite the CBS cash cow "All in the Family." "The Partners" series limped through a single season before being cancelled in September 1972. Adams rebounded as the host of Universal TV's syndicated game show "Don Adams' Screen Test" (1975). Boasting better production values than the average TV competition and employing a better-than-average roster of celebrity guests - including James Caan, Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart and Adams' old "Get Smart" co-star Barbara Feldon - the show ran civilian contestants through a gauntlet of hair, make-up and costuming to provide them with a screen test culled from a scene from a Hollywood classic. Despite the novelty of the show, "Don Adams' Screen Test" was canceled after its first season.

Adams filled the next few years with special guest appearances, providing a voice for Hanna-Barbera's animated sitcom "Wait 'til Your Father Gets Home" (1972-74), acting in the 1976 pilot for ABC's long-running "The Love Boat" (1977-1987) and turning up on "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1977-1984) as a milquetoast locksmith who yearns to experience life as a World War I flying ace. Adams revived his Maxwell Smart character in "The Return of Maxwell Smart," retitled "The Nude Bomb" (1980) upon its release by Universal. Though the film's producers retained Adams and two writers from the original series, creators Brooks and Henry were never approached to participate, nor was Feldon asked to reprise the character of Agent 99. Despite high hopes for its success, "The Nude Bomb" was a financial and critical disaster that failed even to deliver on the salacious promise of its title.

Failing in his bid for a comeback, Adams returned to television, traveling to Canada to provide the voice for "Inspector Gadget" (1983-85), a crime-solving cyborg with more snap-on accoutrements than a James Bond villain. The cartoon lasted for three seasons but ran in syndication for years. While in Canada, Adams also starred in the supermarket sitcom "Check It Out" (1985-88), as punctilious floor manager Howard Bannister. Agent 86 was revived in more faithful form for the ABC telefilm "Get Smart, Again!" (1989). Pushing 70, Adams was an awkward fit for the Boy Scout-like secret agent, but audiences enjoyed seeing him reteamed with former castmates Feldon, Bernie Kopell, Dick Gautier, and Robert Karvelas, who also happened to be Adams' cousin. A belated follow-up series, "Get Smart" (Fox, 1995), promoted Smart and 99 to executive positions at CONTROL, leaving the comic onus on the narrow shoulders of their offspring, Andy Dick. When the reboot was canceled after seven weeks, Adam returned to his profitable sideline as the animated host of the Canadian travel show "Field Trip Starring Inspector Gadget" (1996). For the feature-length "Inspector Gadget" (1999) starring Matthew Broderick in the title role, Adams contributed a cameo vocal appearance for the film's end credits.

Adams' final performance was as the voice of an autocratic middle school principal on Disney's animated "Pepper Ann" (1997-2000). While undergoing treatment for cancer, he celebrated a poignant 75th birthday as the guest of honor at a celebrity roast, along with a cadre of his former castmates and industry friends. In 2004, the thrice-married, thrice-divorced Adams' daughter Cecily, a Hollywood casting agent, died of lung cancer at the age of 46. That same year, he suffered a broken hip, which left him confined to his Culver City condominium. On Sept. 25, 2005, Adams died at age 82 while undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a pulmonary infection secondary to bone lymphoma. In 2008, "Get Smart" was given a successful relaunch by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for rubber-faced comedian actor Steve Carell.

By Richard Harland Smith