Born Donald James Yarmy to a Hungarian-Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, Adams dropped out of high school and served in the US Marine Corps during World War II.
He began in show business as a stand-up comic and impressionist, gaining notice in 1954 as a winner on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which led to appearances on a number of variety series, including The Steve Allen Show and Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. He also supplied the voice of the cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo.
But his big break came in 1965 when NBC offered Adams a chance to star in Get Smart, a sitcom created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry lampooning the James Bond spy genre.
Adams played the buttoned-down but inept Maxwell Smart, who worked as Agent 86 for the government intelligence agency C.O.N.T.R.O.L., which existed to battle the evil forces of rival espionage agency K.A.O.S.
Smart answered to his boss, Thaddeus, “the Chief” (played by Edward Platt) and worked closely with a beautiful and far more intelligent partner, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). The two agents later married on the show.
Feldon remembered Adams as “the perfect person to inhabit” his character, but said that in real life he was the polar opposite of his TV alter ego. “He was very intelligent and very sentimental in person,” she said.
The Maxwell Smart persona grew out of a clueless hotel detective character, Byron Glick, that Adams developed for an earlier variety show.
The pet expressions “Would you believe . . . ?” and “Sorry about that, Chief” became signature phrases on “Get Smart.” The show also was known for its recurring sight gags, such as Smart’s shoe telephone and the “cone of silence” he used to carry on secret conversations.
Get Smart became an overnight sensation with its 1965 debut and remained on NBC for four years. The show was then picked up for one more season on CBS.
The role earned Adams three Emmy Awards, but he admitted that he sometimes tired of the recognition he received.
“In restaurants, (people) send over shoes. I’m so tired of it. I keep getting shoes,” Adams was quoted as saying in The Get Smart Handbook, published in 1993.
Adams reprised the character in the 1980 feature film The Nude Bomb and reunited with Feldon for the 1989 TV movie Get Smart Again. The Fox network revived the show in 1995, with Max now the chief of C.O.N.T.R.O.L. and Agent 99 elected to Congress. The new series only lasted seven episodes.
More recently, Adams performed voice work for the children’s film Inspector Gadget (as Brainy the dog) and for related TV programs.
- April, 13, 1923
- New York City, New York
- September, 25, 2005
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- lymphoma and a lung infection
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery