When Buck Henry and Mel Brooks created 1965’s Get Smart, both were at peak points in their careers.
In 1968, Henry would receive an Academy Award nomination for writing The Graduate; the next year, Brooks would win a screenwriting Oscar for The Producers.
The Get Smart premise had inept secret agent Maxwell Smart trying to foil the evil plots of the rival KAOS spy network. The idea to create a spy who combined earnest seriousness with complete cluelessness came from producer Dan Melnick, who put the two writers together.
Henry, who died in January at 89, said in a 2008 interview that he “fantasized” about James Bond and The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau having a child.
“Buck and I really complemented each other,” Brooks tells THR. “He was gifted with a great imagination. He came up with that amazingly funny concept of the ‘cone of silence’ in which no one could hear each other. I invented the shoe phone. I should have patented it.”
Years ago, Henry noted that the show was originally written for ABC, but execs there “felt they couldn’t impose this on families at dinner in their homes.”
It was picked up by NBC’s Grant Tinker as a vehicle for Don Adams, who would portray Smart with a mortician’s gravity. “Don’s nonstop energy was incredible,” says Brooks. “He wasn’t just doing a job, he knew it was his life’s work.”
The series offered a kind of humor never before seen on TV. “There’s a comfort zone, and we’re staying out of it,” is the way Henry described the writing.
While the 138-episode series was a critical hit, it did just so-so in the ratings (it aired on NBC for four seasons, then moved to CBS for one more). But it fared well at the Emmys, collecting 14 nominations and seven wins.
One of the victories went to Henry and Leonard Stern in 1967 for writing the two-part episode “Ship of Spies,” in which Smart and Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) chase plans for an amphibious nuclear battleship.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.