Arts & Entertainment

Barbara Feldon Today

Agent 99’s story of love, loss & growth

You probably remember Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, the competent, lovable sidekick to Don Adams’ bumbling Maxwell Smart on the classic sitcom “Get Smart.”

It’s the best-known credit of her on-screen career, which also included appearances on such shows as “Cheers,” “McMillan & Wife,” “Mad About You” and
“The Dean Martin Show.”  

Feldon book W jpg

But in the ’60s, Feldon was immersed in a remarkable personal drama as she played for laughs in front of the camera. She chronicles it all in a new memoir, “Getting Smarter.” 

 “I had lived with the story for so many years,” Feldon said from her home in New York. “I was telling it to a writer friend one day, and she said, ‘You should really write that.’”

Image Title and Alt Text: Barbara Feldon and Lucien Verdeaux
Feldon and Lucien Verdeaux | Neal Barr

It all centers on her courtship and marriage to Lucien Feldon Verdeaux, a handsome young man with a European accent who claimed to be a pilot and even a spy. 

As their romance began, she had an opportunity to appear on the classic game show “The $64,000 Question.” 

It was an offer she intended to turn down, but Verdeaux encouraged her to go in for an interview. Feldon would make it on the show and win, thanks to some intensive studying of Shakespeare. 

But much of that prize money — which she had trusted Verdeaux to save — would disappear due to his gambling addiction, she said.

His deception was pervasive, she said, and she would come to realize that he was a sociopath.

“If you grew up in an environment where you were never lied to, you don’t go around in life expecting lies,” she said. “You’re not looking for deception. You’re accepting what you’re given as true.”

In addition to gambling away her money, there was infidelity and drug addiction, she said. They divorced in 1967 after nine years of marriage. 

 He died in 1991, and Feldon even spoke at his funeral. It wasn’t hard to forgive him, she said.

“I had so many fortunate things happening to me that I had no reason to complain,” Feldon said. “It was probably … the second-biggest adventure of my life and one that I’m ultimately grateful for because I was just the right age to be that much in love and to experience that.”

Feldon has not re-married. Her first book, “Living Alone and Loving It,” was published in 2002.

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with their Spy Shows in the TV Show Get Smart
“Get Smart,” with Don Adams, Feldon, and Edward Platt as the Chief.

 Memories of ‘Get Smart’

Early on, the Pennsylvania native’s career involved both acting and modeling. There was some commercial work, including for a product called Top Brass Hair Cream. She got her big break in the early ’60s thanks to George C. Scott; he picked her to appear in his TV drama, “East Side/West Side.”

Just a few years later, she landed the role of Agent 99.

She has fond memories of her experience working with “Get Smart” star Adams and co-creator Buck Henry. Its other creator, of course, was Mel Brooks, but Feldon said he was not on set as much throughout its run. That said, she has nothing but nice words about the comedy legend. 

“I owe a great deal to Mel Brooks,” she said.

And would you believe that she almost did NOT get the role of Agent 99? 

Her commercial work for Revlon had upset the CEO of a rival company, which was the only sponsor of the new show. In the book, Feldon details a phone call to that executive to ask him to reconsider, but he hung up on her.

“I just waited in terror for the network to come down and remove me, and it just didn’t happen,” she said.

“Get Smart” won seven Emmy Awards and was nominated for another seven during its run from 1965 to 1970. 

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in a 1968 Scene from the TV Show Get Smart
Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in a screne from “The Impossible Mission,” “Get Smart” (1968)

Feldon said her favorite episode is the Season 4 premiere, “The Impossible Mission.” Smart and 99 were both disguised as Charlie Chaplin, and circumstances led to Smart proposing to his sidekick.

“It was their first kiss, and it was in mustaches,” she said. “It was just very sweet.”

“Get Smart” premiered in the mid-’60s, and she sees the character as “an example of what was going on in the nation” at the time.

“Agent 99 came out of the 1950s. So she was still of the mind to support the guy [and] make him seem smarter than her, try to be shorter than him — which was a bone of contention, of course, on the show.”  (Feldon was taller than Adams, and in the book, she details exactly how the show worked around that.)

“On the other hand,” she continued, “she’s not ashamed of being smarter than the guy. She’s just protecting him, protecting his ego.”

Barbara Feldon Today, Smarter and Happy, by Marius-Luppino
Barbara Feldon, smarter and happy | Photo by Marius-Luppino

Her Life in New York Today

Feldon has since returned to the East Coast, where she started all those years ago. Her days usually consist of sleeping in, meditating, reading a lot, running errands, watching a little TV (she’s partial to Korean dramas), and enjoying dinner with friends. 

“Friends are just the anchor in life,” she said, “and I’m very fortunate to have enough friends that just make me feel anchored.”

This life of independence is a far cry from the twenty-something who fell hard for that handsome, mysterious man back in the ‘60s. Feldon said that if she had the wisdom back then that she has now, she would have noticed the red flags.

“But I wanted to be taken care of,” she said. “And when you’ve got this handsome European …  you feel like, ‘Oh my God, I am in good hands here and this is heroic.’”

And she’s smarter now.

“The fact was that our happiness really resides in us,” she explained, “and if we reach outside in a dependent way to be happy or to be secure, we’re in danger.”


Jack Pointer

Jack Pointer is a freelance writer who helped edit The Dallas Morning News in a previous life. He’s also worked for The Chicago Tribune and a news radio station out East. In his spare time, he plays piano and argues with his dog.

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button