Barbara Feldon Did Not Have to Get Smart: She Was Born That Way

This month’s blog is taking a look at some Supportive Women. First up is Barbara Feldon, costar with Don Adams in Get Smart.

Photo: getsmartwikifandom.com

Feldon was born Barbara Anne Hall in 1933 in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. During an interview with Emerson College, Barbara talked about the ecstasy of performing in a little band in first grade. When things stopped, she got to play her triangle, and the thought that everyone was watching her, and her mother’s pride in seeing her made her want to perform more. In sixth grade she went into the gym to watch her friend doing her ballet lessons. The teacher invited Barbara to join them and played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music; that combination of music and movement took her away to another place. She was hooked at that point, and she knew that she wanted to dance.

She trained at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and then graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BA in drama in 1955. They didn’t have a dance program, and her mother thought Bennington, where she wanted to go for dance, was too expensive and too liberal. While she enjoyed acting, it never had the enchantment for her that dance did.

Feldon made her way to New York and studied at the HB Studio. She briefly had a career as a showgirl at the Copacabana. She said “that was my first professional job in New York and it was probably the highlight of my whole career. We got to dance with Jimmy Durante. Oh, my God, it was a thrill.” They replaced the girls every three months so, then she went on to appear in The Ziegfield Follies. She landed one job that never made it to Broadway. A friend of hers who was a model talked her into exploring a modeling career.

Photo: punkglobe.com

She worked as a model and was in a Revlon commercial about a hair pomade for men, Top Brass. Feldon said commercials were excellent training to get experience in acting. You do the same scene over and over, maybe more than forty times, but you have to keep that spontaneity. “You must remember to stress each word properly and come in on a split-second when that camera rolls.”

Like several actresses that we have discussed in this blog, before Feldon got her first big break, she appeared on a game show. In this instance, she was on The $64,000 Question in 1955, and she won the grand prize of $64,000 in the category of Shakespeare.

She didn’t use her winnings to buy a mansion or live the typical party life. She opened an art gallery with a man who was a photographer and ad man who was no longer interested in advertising named Lucien Verdoux Feldon. Barbara would be the subject of a Warhol pop art painting in 1965.

In 1958 Barbara married Lucien Feldon. They divorced nine years later. She had a longer relationship with one of the Get Smart producers, Burt Nodella and when that ended, she moved back to New York City.

After her commercial debut, she received offers for several television roles in the early sixties including The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Flipper. She was also offered a chance to appear on East Side/West Side with George C. Scott. Colleen Dewhurst was her mentor and Scott’s wife. He asked her to play his girlfriend in the next episode. Talent Associates which produced the show was working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on a potential spy spoof called Get Smart. Her second television role was as a spy. So, when Talent Associates was casting for a spy on Get Smart, she was an obvious choice.

Photo: facebook.com

She turned down the role at first because she didn’t want to move from New York to California, but she did love the script. They agreed to offer her a two-year contract instead of a five-year contract, and she accepted. Her first review was in TV Guide which compared her to the dog and concluded that the dog came off better. She was devastated and humiliated. In later years, the reviewer rated her performance much better.

From 1965 till 1970, Feldon was known as Agent 99 working with Maxwell Smart for CONTROL. In both 1968 and 1969, she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Lucille Ball won for The Lucy Show in 1968 and Hope Lange won for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in 1969.

Women at the time looked at Feldon as an example of a powerful woman; Feldon commented that young women said “she was a role model for them because she was smart and always got the right answer.” If you look closely in the early seasons, you will typically see Feldon sitting and Adams standing because she was taller than he was. Once she even had to bury her feet in the sand. While Adams was the blundering, awkward Smart, it was Agent 99 who was really the “smart” one, getting him out of trouble during their spy missions.

Feldon said that she is not a comedienne; she is an actress who can play comedy. She said that she is the worst person to tell a joke to because she doesn’t always get it. She never enjoyed drama much because the actual acting on camera was wonderful but the long, boring hours waiting were very tedious, and if you have a tearful scene, you have to be able to keep the momentum.

During the run of Get Smart, Feldon also appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In and The Dean Martin Show.

Photo: imdb.com

After the show ended, she would appear on 20 additional television series including Cheers and Mad About You. She made fifteen made-for-tv movies, one of which was a 1989 movie, Get Smart, Again. She also could be found in six big-screen films including The Last Request, her last acting role, in 2006.

During my research, I read an article where pop culture historian Geoffre Mark commented on one of her movies, Fitzwilly, which I admit I have never seen. He said that it was a gem of a movie and that “Dick Van Dyke is brilliant in it and Barbara plays his love interest and she’s brilliant in it. She was playing a version of herself: a beautiful, sensual, highly intelligent woman with a strong moral compass and a loving heart. That’s what the character is and that’s who Barbara is.” According to imdb.com, the plot of the 1967 movie is that a butler and the staff of an eccentric aged philanthropist whose family wealth is exhausted engage in larceny and crimes to maintain her lifestyle and provide funds for her charitable activities.

Feldon was offered a cameo in the Get Smart movie with Anne Hathaway and Steve Carrell in 2008, but she declined. She said that “times have changed too much. The psychology of the writers and the audience has changed radically. Get Smart belongs in the 1960s, or it’s not going to be Get Smart.”

Despite her comment of Get Smart staying in the sixties, in 1995 Feldon took on the role of Agent 99 again in a brief reboot of Get Smart. Feldon discussed that series with The (Westchester County NY) Journal News reporter Karen Croke in 2017. She said that she and Adams never became friends after the original Get Smart. She said he was a lovely man and very funny, but they had their jobs to do and did their acting and then parted ways for the day. After they worked together on this series, they became very close friends in a way they could not have in their original show. She said once Don Adams died, Max also died and she can’t do any work as 99 without Max now. That might be the real reason she turned down the cameo in the Carrell-Hathaway film.

Photo: imdb.com

Barbara said it’s hard to make friendships on a set because it’s more like a factory and when you’re not acting, you might be resting or talking to your agent. The only person she said she was able to maintain a good relationship with after acting with him, was Alan Alda.

Apparently, she still enjoyed games shows and she appeared regularly in several of them including Hollywood Squares and The $20,000 Pyramid.

Feldon lost interest in acting, but she did numerous television and radio commercials and documentaries. In 1977, Barbara hosted a news show called Special Edition. In the 1990s she had a one-woman show she took around the country. She has also taken up writing and had two of her pieces published in Metropolitan Magazine. She wrote a book about living as a single person in 2003 called Living Alone and Loving It. She also enjoys writing poetry. In talking about her book, Barbara said, “I had been in relationships my whole life. I’d been married, then had lived with someone for several years. After those, I just assumed I would find another relationship. But it didn’t happen. As time went on with some good guidance, I learned how to live alone really happily. I’ve met a number of people—men and women—who feel living by themselves is a second-rate life. I thought that was sad, and since I had this technique of living alone, I decided to write a book. And I’m really glad I did.”

Photo: pixels.com

Feldon said that she has nothing but gratitude for Get Smart. She said acting is not a kind career and you only have a few years to be able to find your place, and she is grateful for being in the right place at the right time. I think after learning about Barbara Feldon, she manages to put herself in the right place at the right time often.

Now, her life sounds almost perfect. She lives where she wants to, is open to meeting a lot of people, attends concerts, advocates for the arts, and travels and writes whenever she wants to. During her life, she has managed to learn from so many experiences and during her life journey she definitely “got smart.”

2 thoughts on “Barbara Feldon Did Not Have to Get Smart: She Was Born That Way

  1. I haven’t seen Get Smart. The Steve Carrell/Anne Hathaway movie sounds familiar but I don’t think I saw that one either. I tried participating in a band when I was younger and her experience sounds like it went better!

    Like

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