Spies on Television & Radio ~
He Kept 86 in Control –
An Interview with Get Smart Writer Whitey Mitchell
By Wesley Britton
Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell
The birth of Get Smart is, of course, a story well-known
in TV Lore.
In brief, it was Daniel Melnick’s idea to do a James Bond
spoof, a premise he sold to his partners, Leonard Stern and David
Susskind at Talent Associates. Melnick brought in comic writers Mel
Brooks and Buck Henry to draft the first script, which they pitched to
ABC. After reading their pilot script, ABC rejected the series saying it
was too un-American and not funny. Talent took the concept to NBC
which, at the last minute, added the series to their fall 1965 line-up.
The perfect cast, popular catch-phrases, and iconic images like the
shoe-phone and Cone of Silence were immediate hits, and Get
Smart became one of the most enduring and beloved
situation-comedies ever produced.
As the years went by, many of the original creators moved on to
other projects, most famously Mel Brooks and Buck Henry finding
success writing for the big screen. New producers and writers kept
the show alive, and among them was the new team of comedy
writers Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell and Lloyd Turner.
In 1968, they weren’t yet well-known for their scripts,
but their work for Get Smart would lead into long careers
in television. They would end up contributing stories for series like
The Jeffersons, Mork and Mindy, Good
Times, The Partridge Family, The Odd
Couple, Mary Tyler Moore, Diff’rent
Strokes – to name but a very few.
In 2008, Whitey Mitchell published his memoirs, Hackensack
to Hollywood: My Two Show Business Careers (BearManor
Media), which not only describes his years writing for television,
but also his distinguished history as a jazz musician. (He played
bass for the likes of Gene Krupa, Kai Winding, Herbie Mann, and
Benny Goodman. Among his rock credits, he’s the bass
player on Ben E. King’s 1961 “Stand By
We decided to ask him for some of his memories working for
Get Smart, especially since the production of the final
seasons of the show haven’t gotten the same attention as
the formative years. We were able to but scratch the surface –
and hope this interview whets your appetite for more stories available
in his excellent book.
Q – How does a jazz musician move into
the realm of writing television comedy?
I didn’t know I’d be good at writing TV comedy
scripts, but I wrote a funny article in Down Beat that
generated letters to the editor, one of which came from Lenny
Bruce, who called me “a brilliant writer” and the
idea of becoming a writer germinated for a couple of years. Then
one day, in the orchestra pit of the Mark Hellinger Theater, I had
an epiphany. I was a thirty-three-year old musician and everybody
else was about eighty-five and we were all making the same check
and it scared the bejesus out of me. I moved to the coast a few
Q – How did you connect with the Get
Smart writing team?
Through Chris Hayward (whom I knew from the music business . . .
he used to come to the clubs where I was playing) and Allan Burns,
both of whom were fellow workers with my partner Lloyd Turner at the
Jay Ward studio (Bullwinkle, Super Chicken,
George of the Jungle, etc.) and who were Story Editors
on the fourth season of Get Smart.
Lloyd and I were not given an episode, but were invited to come
up with story ideas and come pitch them. They loved an idea we had
involving CONTROL developing a substance which could bend light
rays and enable a person to become invisible. But, of course it was
brand new and very unreliable, which could lead to lots of physical
comedy for the star – not a bad idea. They gave us an
assignment which became an episode called “One Nation
Invisible,” which turned out to be very funny. They wanted
us to do another one right away which became
“Leadside,” and when that turned out funny, they
promised that the next season (if there was a next season) they’d
be Producers and we’d be Story Editors.
Q – How would you describe your writing
partnership with Lloyd Turner?
I think Lloyd and I made a good team because we both had a
good sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculous. Lloyd, with his
background of working for Jay Ward, thought like a cartoonist, very
visually, and it was something I hope I picked up. Humor for the eye.
I was good at word humor and story construction and logic, if that
ever came to bat . . . and it seldom did.
Q – In total, you wrote 11 Get Smart
scripts and were a “Story Consultant” for 17 more.
What exactly is a “Story Consultant”?
Story Consultant, Story Editor, Script Supervisor, and other
similar titles are all euphemisms for Head Writer. That means, you
meet with outside writers, try to develop ideas they bring with them
into episodes, guide them through the process, and, if they get an
assignment from the producers, give them notes on their first draft,
and re-write their final draft until the producers are happy.
Plus (at least in our case) come up with original episodes while
working on everybody else’s script. We wrote nine originals
the last year of Get Smart (including one freebee,
credited to a member of Don Adams’ family who provided us
with three pages of mish-mosh written in long hand with nothing that
could be used. We didn’t know it when we accepted the
job . . . but that was a traditional part of it.
Back row – Unidentified staff member, unidentified stuntman,
unidentified staff member, Marilyn Mitchell, Whitey Mitchell, executive
producer Leonard Stern, unidentified director, director Reza Badiyi.
Front row – Unidentified staff member, producer Burt Nodella,
Barbara Feldon, Don Adams, Bernie Kopell, William Schallert,
unidentified film editor.
Q – Were you given suggestions on what
to parody or satirize in the scripts? I noticed many of your episode
titles were plays on popular movies of the era.
We were given no instructions about what to parody . . . just to
be funny. We always looked for a strong story and if something
came along that was current and ridiculous and fair game to make
fun of, we never turned it down. Since episode titles appeared in
TV Guide back then, we always looked for a funny
titles and spent far too much time coming up with them.
Q – In your scripts, the most frequent
supporting player was Larrabee. Was he a favorite character for
We loved Larrabee, mainly because it’s always fun
writing dumb-guy jokes.
Q – As you were mostly involved with the
final season, how did you come up with fresh ideas for Get
This is a little like asking a composer since there are only eight
notes in an octave and they’ve all been used before, how
do you come up with fresh melodies? We never had
“writer’s block”. If we wanted to think of an
episode possibility, we’d stroll around the lot and look at sets
and see if that might spark something. Very frequently it did. For
instance we saw a set for a Southern Mansion exterior, thought of a
story about a KAOS villain who looked an awful lot like Colonel
Sanders and came up with “Smart Fell on Alabama.”
Don Adams (Maxwell Smart) and Barbara Feldon (Agent 99) in
“Ironhand” (Oct. 3, 1969).
Q – I remember that one – with
“Colonel Kirby’s Tennessee Fricasseed
Another one of the episodes you scripted has been
the subject of debate in the Get Smart fan community.
Reportedly, Don Adams refused to star in “Ice Station
Sigfried” as he felt the plot was just a reworking of a previous
story, just in a different setting. This claim has baffled viewers as no
one can figure which episode he was referring to. What’s the
scoop on this episode, the only one Adams wasn’t in?
The reason that Bill Dana starred in “Ice Station
Siegfried” is that Don Adams had a terrible gambling habit,
lost his ass in Vegas, and had to perform there for two weeks
FREE for “the boys” or they might get angry. So
the producers excused him for two weeks (one was a hiatus week
anyhow) and Bill showed up, and all we had to do was change
“86” to “Agent Quigley” or whatever
his name became in the script.
Q – When you came along, NBC cancelled
the show before CBS picked it up for the fifth season. One of the
changes was the birth of the twins, a move Buck Henry said later
he’d have fought like a tiger. What did you think of this
Buck Henry was right. The idea of twins came from on high, and
I’m not sure of the source, but let me hazard a guess –
demographers who decided we were not getting enough viewers who
Q – With Lloyd, you wrote the very last
episode of Get Smart – “I Am Curiously
Yellow.” That was the one in which, for one fleeting moment,
Agent 86 was everything he pretended to be, mainly being actually
smart. Did you know it was the finale for the show and did you do
anything to “wrap up” the series?
I didn’t think “I Am Curiously Yellow” was
the last episode written (and I don’t remember writing it . . .
but the records are notoriously poorly kept) and I doubt that anything
was “wrapped up”.
Q – Did the work you and Lloyd did for
Get Smart lead to other work, as in writing for Allen
Burnes when he produced Mary Tyler Moore?
Get Smart put us on the map as a funny team and
I’m sure it gave us credibility which led to other work. Knowing
Allan Burns led to pitching to the brand new Mary Tyler Moore
Show but wasn’t an assignment until we came up
with a story that he and James Brooks couldn’t resist.
For the first season, we came up with “Toulouse-Lautrec”
as he was one of my favorite artists. We got the idea from watching
poor Barbara Feldon on the Get Smart set trying
(unsuccessfully) to appear shorter than Don Adams, standing
around on her ankles, etc. The Mary Tyler Moore
episode dealt with Mary being interested in a short guy (before she
knew he was short) and finding out she was a height bigot. The
episode won an Emmy for the director, Jay Sandrich. Mostly it was
true that good work seemed to lead to other good work.
Q – Did you keep up with any other
Get Smart participants after the show left the air?
I played golf with Don Adams a few times over the years but
couldn’t, in fairness, say we were friends. The last time I
saw him was at a Get Smart reunion party at a
restaurant in Universal City in 2004, and I was saddened by his
condition. He died about a year later.
~ Whitey Mitchell’s Work for
Get Smart ~
- – “One Nation Invisible” – 28
- – “Leadside” – 8 March 1969
- – “Ironhand” – 3 October
- – “Widow Often Annie” – 17
- – “Smart Fell on Alabama” –
31 October 1969
- – “Physician Impossible” –
21 November 1969
- – “Apes of Rath” – 28 November
- – “Rebecca of Funny-Folk Farm”
– 23 January 1970
- – “Witness for the Execution” –
6 February 1970
- – “Smartacus” – 27 February
- – “I Am Curiously Yellow” –
15 May 1970
Story Consultant ~
- – “Pheasant Under Glass” – 26
- – “Valerie of the Dolls” – 10
- – “The Treasure of C. Errol Madre”
– 24 October 1969
- – “And Baby Makes Four”, Part 1
– 7 November 1969
- – “And Baby Makes Four”, Part 2
– 14 November 1969
- – “Age Before Duty” – 5
- – “Is This Trip Necessary?” – 12
- – “Ice Station Siegfried” – 19
- – “Moonlighting Becomes You”
– 2 January 1970
- – “House of Max”, Part 1 –
9 January 1970
- – “House of Max”, Part 2 –
16 January 1970
- – “The Mess of Adrian Listenger”
– 30 January 1970
- – “How Green Was My Valet”
– 13 February 1970
- – “And Only Two Ninety-Nine”
– 20 February 1970
- – “What’s It All About, Algie?”
– 24 April 1970
- – “Hello, Columbus – Goodbye,
America” – 1 May 1970
- – “Do I Hear a Vaults?” –
8 May 1970
Thanks to Carl Berkmeyer for the series photos.
He’s got the best Get Smart website on the
Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell’s Hackensack
to Hollywood: My Two Show Business Careers is available in
bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants ~