Don Adams, who won three Emmys for his performance as secret agent Maxwell Smart in the classic laffer “Get Smart,” died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was 82.
He had been suffering from bone lymphoma for more than two years and contracted a lung infection.
Gotham native was born Donald James Yarmy — his brother was thesp Dick Yarmy — and later adopted the stage surname of wife Adelaide Adams because he was tired of being called last when auditions were held in alphabetical order.
He joined the Marines at the outbreak of WWII and served in the South Pacific, where he contracted blackwater fever and nearly died. After the war, he worked as a professional artist and engineer while trying his hand as a standup and impressionist, but he found little success and left the business.
In 1954, on a whim, he auditioned for TV talent-search skein “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” He went on to win the competish and stayed in the biz from then on. Collaborating with friend Bill Dana, he put together a popular standup act and became one of the most popular comics on TV, making numerous appearances on variety series including “Saturday Spectacular” and “The Steve Allen Show.” He also recorded successful comedy LPs.
In the early ’60s he was one of the Kraft Music Hall Players on Perry Como’s variety skein and a regular on NBC sitcom “The Bill Dana Show.” He also scored a hit as the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo on the toon of the same name.
The Peacock had Adams under contract, and when ABC passed on “Get Smart,” the James Bond spoof from Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, NBC picked it up on condition that Adams play the lead.
The show became a huge hit, and for a few years, Adams was one of the biggest stars on television. As inept but always confident Agent 86 of spy agency CONTROL, he fought the evil agents of KAOS while pursuing a romance with lissome Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon.
The show was a Saturday night staple, and Adams’ signature lines — “Missed it by that much,” “Would you believe …?” and “Sorry about that, Chief” — entered everyday language. He was nommed for an Emmy as lead actor in a comedy series after the first season, then won in the category the next three years.
“Get Smart” ran five seasons in all, four on the Peacock and a fifth on CBS, ending with the 1969-70 sesh. But the skein remained popular in reruns and eventually spawned a feature film, 1980’s “The Nude Bomb,” as well as two telepics and a short-lived 1995 revival.
Adams worked on several other sitcoms including “The Partner” and Canadian sitcom “Check It Out,” but none as successful as “Get Smart.” In 1983 he again had a hit as a voice of a cartoon character, the title role in “Inspector Gadget.” He continued to voice the character in toon skeins into the late ’90s.
Adams directed a number of “Get Smart” episodes, which led to a successful later career as a commercials director. He won the Clio Award for his helming in 1971.
He was married three times, with all three ending in divorce. His first marriage, to singer Adelaide Adams, resulted in four children. In 1960 he married dancer Dorothy Bracken, with whom he had two children. He had another daughter with his third wife, Judy Luciano, whom he married in 1977.
Adams is survived by six of his seven children: daughters Carolyn Steele, Christine Adams; Cathy Metchik; Beige Adams and Stacey Adams, a Paramount TV exec; son Sean Adams; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A daughter, thesp and casting director Cecily Adams, predeceased him.
Services will be private.
Donations may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.