Barbara Feldon and Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer at the Episcopal Actors Guild in New York City.
On November 21, Cinema Retro hosted an Evening With Barbara Feldon at the historic Episcopal Actors Guild in New York City. The event benefited indigent people in the arts. Ms. Feldon was interviewed by Cinema Retro Editor-in-Chief Lee Pfeiffer, who asked her about her career prior to her Emmy-nominated performance in "Get Smart". She revealed that she had come to New York as a young woman from her native Pittsburgh with the desire to enter show business. Good looking and statuesque, Feldon was soon hired for a three month stint as a chorus girl at the famed Copacabana. She said it was the most thrilling time of her life, to be young and in New York with unlimited possibilities before her. Shortly thereafter, she became one of the top fashion models of the era, which- in turn- led her to be the face of Revlon in print and on TV ads. Those ads helped elevate her status and brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. She played some bit roles in TV series before the producers of "Get Smart" (created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) approached her for the role of Agent "99" opposite Don Adams. She initially turned down the offer, as she already had a lucrative career in modeling. She had also been offered a plum role in Sidney Lumet's film "The Group". She credits her agent at the time for convincing her to accept the part of "99" on the basis that Candice Bergen had the prime role in the Lumet film because she played a lesbian, which was a sensational notion at the time. He cautioned Feldon that she would just be lumped in with the other talented actresses who were to appear in the film and that Bergen would get all the attention. She accepted his advice and reluctantly flew to Hollywood, leaving behind her beloved New York. She immediately knew she made the right decision. The friendly bond between cast and crew on "Get Smart" was addictive and she said the show was a pleasure from day one. She credited Buck Henry for setting the tone of the early episodes, as Mel Brooks had already departed to work on his first feature film, "The Producers". After viewing a screening of the "Satan Place" episode with Cinema Retro's own Joe Sirola as the villain, Feldon remarked at how well the writing held up. Amusingly, she said she still feels self-conscious about how she towered over the much-shorter Don Adams and was reminded of how she attempted to minimize the height difference by slumping a bit in their scenes together or finding an excuse to sit down. Feldon said that when the show's ratings fell in the fourth season and the show moved from NBC to CBS for the fifth and final season, the idea of marrying "99" and Maxwell Smart was done simply as a gimmick, as was the introduction of their twin children who she laughingly said "disappeared rather quickly". Feldon also discussed the fact that the character of "99" was one of the first independent female characters on television. Pfeiffer mentioned that there were precious few such role models aside from Emma Peel and Cathy Gale of "The Avengers" and April Dancer of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E". Feldon agreed, saying that she was happy that "99" was given more to do than simply being "the skirt" but said that, even then, it was clear that her character was often there to comfort or console the male hero, Maxwell Smart. She said, however, that given this was before the Women's Lib movement, it was rather progressive for the medium of television.
Feldon signs a commemorative shoe phone for contributing Cinema Retro photographer Tom Stroud.
Feldon said that, despite working with Adams for years, she knew very little about his personal life. It was only when they reunited for the TV movie "Get Smart Again!" in 1989 that they truly bonded and became close friends until Adams' death in 2005. Asked about why she didn't appear in the rather anemic "Get Smart" 1980 feature film, "The Nude Bomb", she said bluntly that she simply hadn't been asked. She said she was philosophical about the snub, saying that they were obviously looking for younger women to play against Adams. Pfeiffer asked Feldon to reflect on the contributions of Edward Platt, whose spot-on performance as "The Chief" is often overlooked in evaluations of the show. She said he played an integral part in the show's success and was a truly lovely man who was also a trained professional opera singer. She also discussed her post-"Smart" career when she wrote and performed a one woman show because she thought her acting skills might be getting stale and wanted a challenge that would "terrify" her. She also spoke about her lucrative career as one of New York's top voice-over talents. Speaking of feature films, she said that, at the time, being a TV star had made it difficult to transfer into theatrical films, although she loved working with Dick Van Dyke on the 1968 Disney film "Fitzwilly" and was especially pleased to star with Bruce Dern in the acclaimed 1975 comedy "Smile". She also spoke about how, after a failed marriage and relationships, she came to the conclusion that people don't need committed relationships in order to find happiness. She said her book, "Living Alone & Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life", extols the virtues of living an independent life. She said living alone doesn't mean you are living a lonely life. She said her life is filled with wonderful people and great times, but she has chosen not to engage in a monogamous relationship.
"...and loving it!" Barbara expresses her appreciation to "Get Smart" scholar Nate Sears for flying in from Utah for the event.
Cinema Retro reader Tony Latino with Barbara Feldon.
Prior to the event, Barbara Feldon was interviewed for ABC News Radio by film critic Bill Diehl.
Following the interview, Ms. Feldon graciously answered questions, signed autographs and posed for seemingly endless photos with fans. She said she was genuinely touched by the fact that so many people still take an interest in her work. In all, a fun and informative evening with the ultimate New York "independent woman"- who still cites her three month stint as a chorus girl as the most fulfilling time of her career.
(Click here to find out how to join the Episcopal Actors Guild, which is non-sectarian. Dues are only $35 annually and you will get invitations to many exclusive entertainment-related performances and events. Proceeds go to aid charitable causes relating to the arts.)
(Click here to order Barbara Feldon's book "Living Alone & Loving It" from Amazon)