The History of Get Smart


The Beginning

In 1965, Dan Melnick, a partner in the production company Talent Associates, decided it was time to create a television show spoofing James Bond and the current spy craze. He convinced the other partners of Talent Associates, Leonard Stern and David Susskind, that the idea would work and so Melnick started to put together the show.

He approached Mel Brooks to create the show. Brooks, who was still trying to produce his first move, The Producers, agreed to do it. He has later said that the money from creating Get Smart allowed him to work on The Producers without having to spend time writing jokes for shows like the Perry Como Holiday Hour.

There was a slight problem, however. Brooks had plenty of jokes and ideas, but he hated to actually put anything down on paper. Melnick approached Buck Henry and asked him to work with Brooks to create the show, and most importantly, put things down on paper.

ABC initially expressed interest in the concept and wanted Talent Associates to use Tom Poston as Maxwell Smart. Talent Associates agreed, but ABC hated the initial script and demanded that a dog and Max's mother be added to the script. Brooks added Fang, but refused to add a mother for Max, saying it would destroy the integrity of the character. ABC rejected the script, saying it wasn't funny. Talent Associates bought back the script from ABC, which allowed them to show it to other networks.

Melnick then approached Grant Tinker at NBC who picked up the show and commissioned a pilot. However, it would have to star Don Adams, not Tom Poston. When initially approached with the idea, Adams was hesitant to commit. When he found out Brooks and Henry had done the script, he immediately signed on for the pilot. Dan Melnick and Leonard Stern had already found Barbara Feldon to play 99 and she was actually cast before Don.

The initial ideas of the show were conceived by Brooks, who came up with both the shoe phone and Max's name. It was Buck Henry who came up with the idea for the Cone of Silence. Many of the mannerisms and sayings for Maxwell Smart, however, came from Don Adams and his stand-up work, including the famous "Would you believe..." line. It was Leonard Stern who designed the open and close of the show, including the famous "nose gag" at the end of each episode. The theme song was written by Irving Szathmary, who was the brother of Bill Dana. Jon Burlingame of the Film Music Society has written a superb article on Szathmary and I highly recommend it.

 For an excellent behind-the-scenes discussion of the creation of Get Smart, check out my interview with Leonard Stern. You should also check out Jim Benson's TV Time Machine's interview with Mel Brooks.

Season One

Producer(s): Jay Sandrich, Arnie Rosen
Executive Producer: Leonard Stern
Story Editor: Buck Henry

The first season saw the introduction of Hymie and the introduction and disappearance of Fang. Fang, who was a poorly trained dog, just was too difficult to work with and was written out of the show (aside from a brief appearance in season two. It's important to note that Mel Brooks' involvement with the show basically ended after the pilot. It's Buck Henry who was the main force behind the show and Henry who rewrote every episode. More than anyone, Buck Henry is responsible for the direction, style, and humor of the show. Stern and Henry won an Emmy Award for scriptwriting with "Ship of Spies."

Season Two

Producer: Arnie Rosen
Executive Producer: Leonard Stern
Story Editor: Buck Henry

Season two saw the introduction of Max's favorite enemy, Siegfried, who opened this season by kidnapping the Chief. The Admiral also was introduced at the end of the season, while Agent 44's job was taken over by Agent 13, played by Dave Ketchum. Don Adams won an Emmy Award for his acting ability.

Season Three

Producer(s): Burt Nodella, Jess Oppenheimer
Executive Producer: Leonard Stern
Story Editor(s): Arne Sultan, Norman Paul

Season Three saw the open change slightly as Max now drove a blue Kharman Ghia instead of the red Sunbeam. It also saw Buck Henry leave the show. The show received Emmy Awards for directing, acting, and Outstanding Comedy Series of the Year.

Season Four

Producer: Burt Nodella
Executive Producer: Arne Sultan
Story Editors: Allan Burns and Chris Hayward

The fourth season saw a big change for the show. Max and 99 got engaged in the season opener and married during the November sweeps. The show's ratings had been slipping and NBC demanded a marriage in order to drum up interest in the show and boost ratings. Larabee began to take on a prominent role in the series, serving as the only agent dumber than Max. The wedding episode only provided a temporary boost in the ratings so NBC canceled the show at the end of the season. Don Adams picked up his third Emmy Award and the show picked up its second for the Outstanding Comedy Series.

Season Five

Producer: Chris Hayward
Executive Producer: Arne Sultan
Associate Producer: David Davis

As soon as he heard of the cancellation by NBC, Melnick was on the phone to CBS who immediately picked up the show for a fifth season. The opening was made more uptempo by adding a brass section to it and Max was now driving an Opel. Episode titles now appeared in the beginning of the episode. Siegfried was eliminated, allowed only one appearance in the show's worst episode. Agent 13 was gone, replaced by Al Molinaro as Agent 44. The Chief also began to get out of the office more to help Max, since 99 was pregnant or taking care of the children. The style and humor in the show took a dramatic change, as it become far less a satire and far more a traditional sit-com, featuring mugging to the camera and other not-subtle attempts at humor. The writing staff also changed, as Whitey Mitchell and Lloyd Turner become head writers and the show changes reflected their style.

The big change in the Smart's relationship was 99's pregnancy, announced in the season opener. She gave birth to twins (never named) during the November sweeps period. Despite that ratings grabber, the show's ratings decline continued and CBS cancelled the show after one year. Aaron Handy III points out that Get Smart ended its its 5-season, 2-network run with a repeat of "Apes Of Rath" on CBS, September 11, 1970.

Life After Cancellation

Get Smart moved to syndication in 1970 and became an immediate success story in that arena. The showed played regularly for over a decade in syndication, well past the normal three-year life of syndicated shows. That interest led to a theatrical movie, The Nude Bomb, bringing back Max. A critical and commercial failure, the movie also left a bad taste with Leonard Stern, Arne Sultan, and Don Adams. Eventually, they were convinced to create a second reunion, this time for ABC. Airing in 1988, Get Smart Again! was a commercial and critical success. In 1995, Fox attempted a rejuvenation of the series by casting Andy Dick (really) as Max's son and making him the star of the show. A total disaster, the show only lasted seven painful episodes. Complete details on these shows can be found on my sequels page. For many years Warner Brothers attempted to create a Get Smart movie, even signing Will Ferrell to play Max, but script problems caused delay after delay. Ferrell dropped out and Steve Carell came in as Max and, despite script problems, an unfunny Peter Segal-directed movie came out in 2008. A sequel was considered but never moved out of development. I was told by several insiders that audience polls held after the movie were not encouraging for a sequel. Details can be found on my movie page.

A complicated rights picture meant that Get Smart would not be one of the early TV shows to be distributed on DVD. Unfortunately, the battling rightsholders reached agreement on DVD distribution mere weeks before the death of Don Adams, preventing him from participating in any extras for the set. Fortunately, Time-Life and HBO hired the brilliant Paul Brownstein to produce the DVDs and the set is fantastic. Check out the details on my DVD page.

A Complete List of Episodes
A Complete List of the Show's Writers
A Complete List of the Show's Directors
A Complete List of the Show's Emmy Awards
A List of Inconsistencies and Goofs in the Shows Contents


Copyright 1995-2010 Carl Birkmeyer