Donald James Yarmy was born April 13, 1923 in New York City.
As a young teenager, Don worked as a theater usher.
Then, at the start of World War II, he dropped out of high school and joined the Marine Corps by lying about his age.
Don fought at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was the only member of his platoon to survive.
While on Guadalcanal, he contracted malaria which soon became a more serious complication known as blackwater fever that had a 90% mortality rate.
He was evacuated and hospitalized for more than a year at a Navy hospital in New Zealand.
Don overcame the odds and recovered, becoming a Marine drill instructor back in the United States, proud to be preparing Marines for combat during the remainder of the war.
After the war, he held a series of jobs, until he falsified college credentials along with an engineering background, and was hired to design underground sewers. His lack of training was not discovered for nearly six months.
Don then followed his talent as a comedian and mimic by hitting the road as a stand-up comic. He met and married a fellow comic named Adelaide “Dell” Efantis who performed as Adelaide Adams.
After their wedding, Don decided to also use the last name of Adams, and the rest as they say, is history.
Together, they raised four daughters while Don supplemented his income as a commercial artist and restaurant cashier to help support his growing family.
In 1954, Don won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show, with a stand-up comedy act written by boyhood friend Bill Dana.
Don soon began appearing in numerous comedy, variety, and dramatic television series, while his friend Bill Dana landed a writing gig for the Steve Allen Show where he created the José Jiménez character for the show’s “Man in the Street” segments.
Don divorced in 1960, keeping the stage name of Adams because auditions were often held in alphabetical order.
While Don continued to struggle, his friend Bill Dana began appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, also in the guise of the heavily accented Puerto Rican character José Jiménez.
The Bill Dana Show
Then in 1963, friend Bill Dana landed his own show with an NBC sitcom titled The Bill Dana Show.
Soon, Don appeared on the show playing a bumbling hotel detective named Byron Glick.
By the time the Bill Dana Show ended in 1965, Don Adams was under contract with NBC.
Then Mel Brooks and Buck Henry wrote a comedy show pilot for CBS in answer to the successful spy television dramas such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and I Spy.
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry combined elements from James Bond and Pink Panther calling their new show “Get Smart.”
They wrote the character of Agent “86” Maxwell Smart with actor Tom Poston in mind.
When CBS turned the show down, NBC picked up the show and cast Don Adams in the role of Agent 86 because he was already under contract.
When Get Smart debuted in 1965, it became an immediate hit.
Barbara Feldon co-starred as Max’s young and attractive partner, Agent 99, where she had great chemistry with Don Adams throughout the show’s run, despite a 10-year age difference.
Although the two were married “on screen”, they were never married offscreen as many were led to believe.
Don Adams gave the Smart character a clipped, unique speaking style he stated was based upon the speaking style of actor William Powell.
Barbara Feldon later was quoted as saying, “Part of the pop fervor for Agent 86 was because Don did such an extreme portrayal of the character that it made it easy to imitate.”
Adams created many popular catch-phrases (some of which were in his comedy act prior to the show), including “Sorry about that, Chief”, “Would you believe …?”, “Ahh … the old [noun] in the [noun] trick. That’s the [number]th time this [month/week].”
(Sometimes the description of the trick was simply, “Ahh… the old [noun] trick.”), and “Missed it by ‘that much.'”
These phrases caught on, helping to make the series a hit in over 100 countries.
In addition to acting, Adams also produced and directed several episodes of the show.
Don was nominated for Emmys four seasons in a row, between 1966 and 1969, for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series.
He won the Emmy award three consecutive times.
Then Get Smart moved to CBS for its final season, with ratings declining, as spy series went out of fashion.
Get Smart was canceled in 1970, after 138 episodes.
After the series ended, Don worked in less successful comedies, such as “The Partners” (1971), and in one movie that reprised the Maxwell Smart character, “The Nude Bomb” (1980), as well as guest appearances on other shows, including “The Love Boat”, “Fantasy Island” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour”.
Two later attempts, in 1989 and 1995, to reprise his ‘Maxwell Smart’ role on television ended in failure, although he did find some success with his voice characterization of cartoon character, ‘Inspector Gadget’.
His success in directing “Get Smart” led to a career as a director of commercials, and in 1971, he won a Clio Award for outstanding commercial direction.
Don married three times, and had seven children.
Don Adams was also an avid gambler; according to his longtime friend Bill Dana, “He could be very devoted to his family if you reminded him about it, [but] Don’s whole life was focused around gambling.”
He died September 25, 2005 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from lymphoma and a lung infection.
Before he died, Don joked about not wanting a mournful funeral, preferring, he said, to have his friends get together “and bring me back to life.” This was a line he said to Agent 99 in season 2, 1966.
Among his eulogists were his decades-long friends Barbara Feldon, Don Rickles, James Caan, and Bill Dana, and his son-in-law, actor Jim Beaver (widower of Adams’s actress-daughter Cecily Adams). Although Adams had expressed a desire to be buried with military rites at Arlington National Cemetery, he was instead interred in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. His non-military funeral mass was held at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.
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