Actress Barbara Feldon
By Kate Benz
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 2:44 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, May 16, 2012
At a time when most women in film and television were playing second fiddle to their leading men, Barbara Feldon was breaking into new territory as Agent 99, the voice of reason in the television series "Get Smart" (1965-70). A self-proclaimed "50's girl", she learned from the role to stand tall without bruising the delicate ego of her fellow man, especially that of her bumbling partner, Maxwell Smart. With a list of credits from the stage and screen that span four decades, Feldon is enjoying life in the Big Apple without harboring any dreams of returning to the spotlight. As the author of "Living Alone and Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life," she, instead. has turned her focus to her writing (projects include an autobiography about growing up in Pittsburgh) and her beloved poetry readings at the Cornelia Cafe in New York City.
Question: You were born in Butler and graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1955 with a bachelor of arts degree in drama. How did you end up in Hollywood?
Answer: A lot of luck in the sense that along the way I worked with some very gifted young actors, and I was just fortunate that I was in the right place at the right time. When I came to New York, I didn't have much success, and I kept getting dropped. I actually turned ("Get Smart") down at first because they wanted me to sign a five-year contract and move to L.A. Then they came back and asked if I would do it for two years, and I said yes. I was very fortunate to be cast in a series that was so wonderfully written by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks that just hit the right nerve with America that it stayed on five years. Those things are just so rare.
Q: "Get Smart" took the "knight in shining armor and damsel in distress" ideal and flipped it during a time when women's roles were changing dramatically. Do you think that television began imitating life or life began imitating television?
A: I think that Mel and Buck were sensing what was up ahead, which is what artists do. 99 really straddled the 1950s and the '60s. She was very careful of Maxwell's ego, as many women were in those days, and so she was differential to him in certain ways, but she never lost her footing in terms of her self-esteem. 99 was way more evolved than I was. I had to catch up to her. I was very much a '50s girl. I learned a lot from 99.
Q: On "Get Smart," you and Don Adams had this fantastic chemistry on camera. What was the camaraderie like between you two off camera?
A: During the five years we did the show, I doubt if Don and I actually had more than one conversation. Don was the star of the show, and he was very preoccupied with everything having to do with the filming of it. There was no time to get to know each other. I was kind of the hired skirt, and my job was to know what I was doing, to be on time, and to do it. There was a different relationship between Don and me as citizens and Maxwell and 99. When the show ended, we never were in touch with each other for 19 years until ABC did a film version for television. When we saw each other, it was like we were long lost friends. And that persisted until the end of his life.
Q: Maxwell's shoe phone seems to be the holy grail of "Get Smart" memorabilia. Do you know whatever happened to that phone?
A: Yes, I do. It's in a traveling spy paraphernalia show. A few years ago, the CIA invited me to come down to Langley because they were having an exhibition of life imitating art and art imitating life. And they had an exposition of spy paraphernalia from spy TV shows juxtaposed with real spy devices from the KGB. That was really spooky.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring stars of the stage and screen?
A: I think if you love performing, you will always find a venue to do it. Keep practicing. But to become a star takes luck. I know so many talented, wonderful actors and they never got that special chance. If "Get Smart" hadn't been a success, I would not have had the career that I had. So I was lucky. But, that being said, being a star is not the be-all end-all, and I know that only because I had a taste of it. I had enough to see what it was and what it was not.
Stardom does not make you happy. The joy should be in the work itself, and if it's in that, you'll always be happy. Culture supports the idea of celebrity and money, and that really is not the golden ring.
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