Friday, December 11, 2020

Whatever happened to Barbara Feldon of "Get Smart"?

"There's not a day when somebody doesn't smile and say, 'Oh, you're Agent 99.'  I like being in a world that regards me in  a friendly way."

- Barbara Feldon, 1983 interview with Toby Kahn

Barbara Feldon is best known for her leading lady role in the popular 1960s TV comedy Get Smart.  She portrayed Agent 99, opposite Don Adams, who played Maxwell Smart (Agent 86), a clever but very klutzy spy.  Edward Platt played Thaddeus, better known as the "Chief."  Thaddeus was the head of CONTROL, a secret United States government counterintelligence agency based in Washington, D.C.  CONTROL's nemesis was KAOS, "an international organization of evil."  The villainous Lugvig von Siegrfried (Bernie Kopell) and his bumbling sidekick Shtarker (King Moody) were the archenemies.of Smart and 99.

Get Smart was a huge hit and it ran for five seasons, from 1965 to 1970.  The series was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry during a period of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.  It was a parody of films about special agents such as James Bond or the inept police detective Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panthers movies.  Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 used many gadgets in their attempts to foil KAOS.  For example, Smart had a shoe with a telephone.  In fact, phones were concealed in numerous objects such as combs, watches and clocks.  Barbara's character, Agent 99, even had hidden phones in her makeup compact and in her fingernail.

Smart with shoe phone

1966 photo of Feldon as Agent 99

Barbara Feldon was born Barbara Anne Hall in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) on March 12, 1933.  She had one sibling, a sister named Patricia.  Barbara graduated from Bethel Park High School.  She then attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, where she earned a B.A. in drama in 1955.  She began her theatre training at Pittsburgh Playhouse.  

Barbara left her native Pittsburgh for the bright lights of  Broadway.  She began a new life in Now York City, where she studied acting at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village.  As a 1965 article in the Sunday News of Lancaster, Pennsylvania described her early New York experience: "Jobs were scarce when Barbara came to New York, but she picked up a job in the once-famous Copa Line, a nightclub famous for the pretty girls in its chorus."  The Copa Line job led  to a part in a Beatrice Lillie revival of the Ziegfeld Follies.  In 1957, Barbara, performed as a showgirl in the the Ziegfeld revival at New York's Winter Garden Theater.  

Barbara's acting career did not flourish in the Big Apple.  As she put it, "The best I ever had was small parts in off-Broadway flops, and I found going around and sitting in sleazy offices was just too awful."  So, she turned to making TV commercials and modelling.  A statuesque woman, (1.75 metres, 5 feet, 9 inches tall), Barbara eventually launched a career as a high-priced fashion model.  One night at a party, she spoke to New York fashion model Gillis MacGill, who helped her get a job modelling for Pauline Trigere, a Franco-American designer.

Barbara had another big break in the early 1960s when she appeared in print ads and television commercial. for a men's hair pomade by Revlon called Top Brass.  Lying on an animal print rug, she purred  to the "tigers" in the viewing audience as she pitched Top Brass.  Barbara's ad was very popular at the time and often spoofed.  Below is a photo of Barbara in the Top Brass commercial.

Prior to starring role in Get Smart, Barbara appeared in episodes of such TV shows as Flipper (1964), 12 O'Clock High (1964). She also had a role in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a more serious spy series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.  The episode is entitled "The Never-Never Affair" (Season 1, Episode 25, Air Date: March 22, 1965).  Barbara is featured as the bespectacled Mandy Stevenson, an U.N.C.L.E. translator whom Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) "recruits" as a courier.  She ends up in possession of some valuable information.  Below is a photo of Barbara an Robert Vaughn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Top Brass commercial gave Barbara some public recognition.  It also made an impression on Leonard Stern a prominent film and television producer and director.  Stern was getting ready to produce a spy spoof called Get Smart and he thought Barbara would be right for the part of the alluring Agent 99, the leading female character in the show.

Get Smart debuted on NBC on September 18, 1965 with Barbara Feldon in the role of 99.  She was reluctant to commit to the series and only signed for four episodes. After filming the pilot, she agreed to a three-year contract instead of the traditional five-year contract.  When Don Adams first met Barbara, he was not thrilled about the fact that she was taller than he.  In order to accommodate her co-star, she wore flats and agreed to slouch or go barefoot.  Although her poor posture was noticeable to viewers, Barbara told the Archive of American Television that "Don would have liked a shorter leading lady, and I wanted to please my co-star."  

In a 2016 interview with Jim Clash for Forbes magazine, Barbara stated the following: "If I were doing a scene in a desert, Don would dig a hole for me.  When we walked into a room together, I was taller.  By the time we got to the close-up, I was two inches (5.08 centimetres) shorter due to my ability to slouch effectively."

Despite the difference in height, Don and Barbara really worked well together.  According to Ed Robertson, host of the TV Confidential podcast, "Barbara and Don Adams were one the great comedy pairings of the '60s.  She was basically the straight man to Don Adams.  There would be a little sarcasm toward the end of their run, but basically her job was to prop up Maxwell Smart and she did a marvelous job."

The beautiful and intelligent Agent 99 was the perfect foil for the bumbling Maxwell Smart.  Yet, Agent 99's name was never revealed during the run of the series.  Even though she and Max wed during he show's fourth season, he continued to call her "99."  Slightly more than a year after their marriage, Agent 99 gave birth to twins, a son named Zachery and a daughter whose name, like her mother's, was never revealed.

Below is the wedding photo of Agent 99 and Maxwell Smart.

In 1968, Barbara agreed to a two-year extension of her 1965 Get Smart contract.  In 1969, NBC cancelled the show after four seasons.  However, it was picked up by CBS for what would turn out to be its final season.  Barbara stayed with the series until it ended its run.  On May 15, 1970, Get Smart went off the air after five seasons and 138 episodes.  

After Get Smart, Barbara Feldon's acting career slowed down, due to typecasting.  However, that didn't seem to faze Barbara, who told Forbes magazine that she didn't find the typecasting confining.  "I was just happy to be working back then," she said.  "I was too busy to be thinking about that.."  She continued to do voice overs for TV commercials and she guest-starred on a number of  television shows such as Medical Center (1973), McMillan and Wife (1973), Cheers (1991) and Mad About You (1993).  She also appeared in a slew of TV movies such as Let's Switch (1975), in which she co-starred with Barbara Eden, A Guide for the Married Woman, Sooner of Later (1979), Before and After (1979), Children of Divorce (1980).  

Barbara reprised her role as Agent 99 in the 1989 ABC television film Get Smart Again!  In 1995, she reunited with Don Adams in a short-lived revival of Get Smart on the Fox network.  In the updated series, Maxwell Smart was now the  chief of CONTROL and Agent 99 served as a Congresswoman in charge of CONTROL's budget.  Max and 99 had to deal with their son, Zach Smart, who was also a newly bumbling new secret agent.  The series was a springtime replacement and was essentially cancelled before it even aired.  A Fox executive revealed that the network had no intention of picking it up after its initial run.  Don Adams appeared in all seven episodes and Barbara Feldon appeared in five.

Although retired from acting, Barbara still attends Get Smart fan and nostalgia conventions on occasion.  She has noted that the submissive nature of Agent 99 could not be portrayed on television today because woman are far more assertive.

In 1958, Barbara Hall wed photographer and artist's representative Lucien Verdoux-Feldon (A Closer Weekly article refers to him as an "ad man").  Barbara took "Feldon" as her last name but the marriage did not last.  The couple divorced in 1967 and did not have any children together.  In 1968, while in Los Angeles, Barbara began a relationship with Get Smart producer Burt Nodella.  The couple were together. from 1968 to 1979.  In 1980, after the dissolution of the relationship, Barbara returned to New York City, where she still resides.  She felt she felt the need to shake her life up, so she bought a townshouse in Manhattan and never looked back.

"When I left Hollywood, I threw my life in the air," Barbara told The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California.  "I went to New York to see what would happen.  To me, a person's life is like a kaleidoscope.  You hold it still and look at the beads making a set pattern.  Then you turn it a little and everything changes.  Well I needed that sort of change.  I gave the kaleidoscope of my life a real big twist."

Jim Colucci, an author who sat down with Barbara Feldon for a 3-hour Television Academy Foundation interview at her her New York home, said the following about his impression of her: "She is so cultured and has kind of a waspy persona.  The way she describes it in our interview (for the Archives of American Television), she talks about her father's family as being very English and proper and puritanical, and that she preferred her mother's Scottish side of the family, who were warm and musical and fun.  What's funny is that she could be patrician if she wanted to be, but she's also very warm, and it's a great combination."  


* In 1957, Barbara Feldon won the grand prize on the then-popular quiz show The $64,000 Question.  She won by correctly answering a series of questions in the category of William Shakespeare and then increased her earnings to $96,000. Barbara had an avid interest in books and ballet as a child and she studied Shakespeare while a drama student at Carnegie Institute of Technology. 

* Barbar admitted that she was "too young" and didn't quite know what to do with her winnings from The $64,000 Question.  She invested some of the money, "some wisely, some I didn't."  One of  her investments was an art gallery with  Lucien Verdoux-Feldon, whom she later married.  The art gallery didn't last long.

Below is a 1956 photo of Barbara with actor and singer/dancer Gene Kelly, who was the The $64,000 Question's master of ceremonies.  Both Barbara and Gene grew up in the Pittsburgh area and they were both dancers.

* Barbara's favourite episode of Get Smart is "The Impossible Mission," (Season 4, Episode 1, Air Date: September 21, 1968), due to the costumes and romance.  In the episode, Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 are trapped in a television station's control room.  Escape seems impossible and Max confesses that he wants to spend the rest of his life with 99,  A lovestruck 99 takes that as a marriage proposal.

* Don Adams, Barbara's co-star on Get Smart, died on September 25, 2005 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.  Don was 82 years old at the time of his passing and had suffered from lymphoma and lung infection.

* Edward Platt, the "Chief" on Get Smart, was found dead in his Santa Monica, California apartment on March 19, 1974 after committing suicide.  According to his family, he suffered from depression.  Ed Platt  was 58 years old at the time of his passing.

* Barbara's ex-partner, television producer Burt Nodella (also known as Cary Nodella), died on February 23, 2016.  

* For her role as Agent 99, Barbara was nominated twice for Primetime Emmy Awards, in  1968 and 1969.

* Barbara Feldon is the author of a self-help book entitled Living Alone and Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life.  The book was published in 2003.  It is a memoir that chronicles how she dealt with being alone after her divorce from Lucien Feldon and the end of her long relationship with Burt Nodella.  Barbara's memoir is a declaration of the benefits of being on one's own, without dependence on a romantic partner.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Barbara Feldon and 'The $64,000 Question," by Marylynne Pitz, July 5, 2013; The Pennsylvania Center For The Book website; Closer Weekly, "Here's What Happened to Barbara Feldon Before, During and After Playing Agent 99 on 'Get Smart',"  by Ed Gross, July 2, 2020; Forbes, "Barbara Feldon (Agent 99)):Why I Did 'Get Smart' in Bare Feet," by Jim Clash, March 25, 2016;  Wikipedia; IMDb (Internet Move Database)

- Joanne

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