‘Get Smart’ Agent 99 Still Has Her Smarts: Exclusive Barbara Feldon Interview
Barbara Feldon played the mysterious and beautiful Agent 99 in the Get Smart series. Since then, she’s written several books, got swept up in the art scene, and continued acting. We were able to ask her some burning questions and obtain a copy of her book Getting Smarter: A Memoir (play our Daily POP Trivia quiz this week to enter to win a copy!).
Let’s start with the book. How did playing Agent 99 help you “get smarter” and navigate your career?
The title Getting Smarter refers to my life in general; though, of course, the TV series was a part of the whole picture. The central focus of the book is a love story, and Get Smart is folded into it. I thank Mel Brooks and Buck Henry for creating Agent 99, who was my imaginary mentor. She was way more of a feminist than I was in 1965, but I finally caught up to her by the end of the series in 1970.
Why did you feel called to write your memoir now?
For years I’ve wanted to tell the story of meeting a wildly glamorous Frenchman – the epitome of my romantic girlhood fantasies – and, after marrying him, finding out that he was a stranger. A crazy adventure ensued during which there were times I thought I was being followed by the KGB, a sort of preview of being tracked by KAOS a few years later in Get Smart! It’s a fun and sometimes a dark story that taught me a lot about sociopaths, and about my willing participation in a life built on fantasy.
What fun or juicy behind-the-scenes tales of Hollywood can you tease about the book?
There are lots of behind-the-scenes stories, but alas, I’m afraid they’re not super juicy– unless Don Adams inadvertently shooting a parrot with a fake gun and causing it to have a nervous breakdown qualifies. I do take the reader with me for a day on the set, to experience, hour by hour, what it’s like to shoot a series. Edifying, but not particularly juicy. And there are some startling stories about how I was mistreated by certain producers when I was starting out (pre-Me Too movement). Decidedly juicy – but they happened in New York City, not Hollywood.
Could you share a favorite memory or two of working with Don Adams, and how your friendship continued after the show?
Don and I met for the first time the morning we shot the pilot. We were introduced, and told to stand on our marks, and when the director shouted, “Action!” we began the scene, both queasily aware that I was 5’9” and he was not. That would become a theme in our relationship. If we were shooting on a beach, he dug a hole for me; if on a hill, I took the downhill side. I entered a scene wearing shoes and was the taller one, for close-ups, I was in bare feet and was the shorter one. Acting with Don was a breeze. His energy was so propulsive, all I had to do was get on board and the scene took off like a rocket. Though Max and 99 had instant chemistry, Don and I didn’t. We were friendly and respectful to each other, but in five years we rarely had a conversation, and when the show was canceled we never got in touch. Nineteen years later, we did a reunion movie and it was as if seeds of affection had been planted years earlier and they suddenly blossomed into a sweet friendship that lasted until the end of his life.
Whatever happened to the Cone of Silence, did it make it into a museum? Is there a fun prop you took home? What do you have from the set still?
Hmm. I know someone has the Cone of Silence, but I don’t know who. The spy show memorabilia collector, Danny Biederman, has the shoe phone and other props. Personally, I didn’t save anything, not even the Get Smart lunch box. Too bad, because it’s a collector’s item today! A few years ago I was invited to CIA Headquarters to see a spy device exhibit. There were props from our show and other spy shows, and also real spy devices from the KGB that actually killed people. A counter-terrorist agent told me they used to watch Get Smart and then go into the laboratory and try to make them work! It was life imitating art!
You were on the game show ‘The $64,000 Question’ and won the grand prize. What can you tell us about that experience?
I was working as a showgirl when the producers of The $64,000 Question contacted me. The idea was to see if a showgirl, in sequins and feathers, actually had a brain. I picked the category and they allowed me three months to cram every piece of Shakespearean trivia available. And I won. The story in the book is less about my experience winning and more about how that avalanche of cash disappeared within six weeks!
You’ve had so many other roles on TV, film and stage over the years. Can you share a couple of your non-‘Get Smart’ favorites?
A great delight was doing Dean Martin’s shows. He didn’t rehearse, so I prepared on my own. When we were ready to shoot, the director would shout, “Bring out the kid!” and Dean would stroll out, look at the teleprompter, and the fun would begin. He was deliciously responsive and it was an absolute joy performing with him. An earlier thrill was playing opposite George C. Scott in an episode of his series East Side, West Side. It was that role that led to my being cast in Get Smart. In Michael Richie’s film Smile, I got to play a narcissistic, cold, woman, who had a hairdo so stiff it couldn’t move in a gale. It was a shock to my self-image that I found her a cinch to portray!
What is the true story behind you almost losing your role as Agent 99 over a deodorant ad you did?
The second week of shooting Get Smart, our producer took me aside and told me our sponsor’s CEO was insisting I be fired. Six months earlier I had done a brief promotion for a Revlon roll-on deodorant, and the CEO believed my presence in Get Smart would remind people of that commercial and compete with one of the sponsor’s products–a soap containing deodorant. He was undeterred by Revlon’s avowal that they would never run their commercial again, and completely unmoved by my personal plea to save the most important role of my life. Each day I waited in dread for NBC to remove me from the set. Miraculously, it didn’t happen, and when Get Smart became the number one rated show, that same CEO invited me to his office for a photo op with him. I enjoyed the irony.
Where is home to you today, and what makes you most happy?
I live in NYC, where I dreamed of living from the time I was 12 years old and saw pictures of it in Life Magazine. I love the daily mind fizz you get here, not only from the culture at your fingertips but from the novel human surprises that make your brain grow. What makes me happiest in life is conversation. In a few minutes, I’m going to an Italian cafe right around the corner to sit at an outdoor table with an interesting friend, sip my cappuccino, and have a glorious chat. What could be lovelier!
Can you tell us a little about how you’re still active in the arts?
I’m happy being an audience to the arts, whether in a concert hall, theater or museum. And I’m besotted with reading (there’s so much to explore!), and am easily addicted to certain cable series, especially if they’re Korean! To express myself creatively, I write daily – hence Getting Smarter and my earlier book, Living Alone & Loving It.