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The Third Screen: Barbara Feldon on the Future of Television

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First Screen = Film
Second Screen = Television
Third Screen = Internet

I wonder if Barbara Feldon knows that she's still adored as Agent 99 from the original Get Smart television series. Consider these recent posts from the imdb.com site: "In the 1960s, I followed Barbara Feldon closely during her Get Smart days, Diana Rigg from the Avengers, and saw every Sean Connery James Bond movie, wishing I could be like Bond. But alas, I wasn't as lucky as he was with the ladies. For me, Barbara was our American "Diana Rigg." And: "When I was young, Barbara Feldon and Barbara Eden were my favorite actresses on t.v. Barbara Feldon on Get Smart was so classy and sweet." I spoke with Feldon recently about how a manipulated medium like the television sitcom - script, laugh track, acting, editing - manages to become such an authentic experience for so many people, and other Smart things.

Third Screen: As an actor, what do you like about television?

Feldon: The thing I love about television is that people watch you in their pajamas, and when they're eating dinner. You're part of the family. They watch you every week, at the same time, so you become, in a sense, there when they need you. And there isn't the distance the film stars suffer. Film stars are intimidating, but I can see in the way people come up and talk to me on a line or at the store that they feel as if I am family. They're comfortable. And I am, too. In my book, Living Alone, I talk about the fact that even when you are alone in bed at night, the world is right there. You are by yourself but you are not alone. The community is right outside the door.

Third Screen: I clearly remember feeling the world was watching Ed Sullivan together.

Feldon: It reminds me of my mother. She grew up in a small town. Flint, Michigan. And when she married she moved to a much bigger city where she felt alone and anonymous, abandoned. We used to have three channels. It was like a small town. Today, television is hundreds of channels. And we feel as if we are lost in a big city. But we're not.

Third Screen: Larry Gelbart, creator of M.A.S.H., said when I spoke with him recently for this column that he's sad to see that the subtleties of language are being replaced by special effects, which are a common language for the global marketplace.

Feldon: Oh, how smart. That's so true.

Third Screen: Do you resent special effects becoming the stars of the show?

Feldon: No. When we were doing Get Smart, most of the people -- including Don Adams -- were against the laugh track. I have always been in favor of the laugh track.

Third Screen: Why?

Feldon: If people are watching television by themselves, it makes them part of a community of people laughing.

Third Screen: Did you enjoy working with Don Adams?

Feldon: I was a very loving and good friend with Don Adams in the years after Get Smart and until he died. We never really bonded during the show except as characters. He was preoccupied with the role. We just thought of ourselves as congenial business colleagues.

Third Screen: What changed? Did the episodes begin to feel like a family album?

Feldon: Yes. There was an extra sweetness about them, a sense of nostalgia. And you never know when something will turn into art. I don't think it's pretentious to say it was art, maybe pop art. Every element worked. It was crafted like a comic strip, in a way. Everything had to pay off with a laugh. Don would say "there are too many words" or "the set up isn't right. There was no improvisation. There is a sort of poetry to writing comedy. Poetry is very crafted. You can't have too many words. It needs compression. It has to be spare, just the right number of words. And Don's instincts were infallible. We never rehearsed. I think we got more skilled as time went on. I did. At first, I had one foot in my little girl's self and one foot in my grown-up self. You can see it in my character. By the end, I had both feet in my adult self. 99 still had an adoration for Maxwell Smart, but with more authority.

Third Screen: What do you look for now from television?

Feldon: I gotta be honest. I'm never home. I turn on tv to hear the news or see specials on PBS and HBO.

Third Screen: Why PBS and HBO?

Feldon: Because they are repeated at night so I can bond with them.

Third Screen: How do you feel about reality tv?

Feldon: I don't like shows where they make fun of people. I think that's a muscle of derision that we can do without practicing and without talent. I think it should be discouraged, not encouraged. Too easy to access that. If a show gets good ratings, that makes it seem okay. You can relate this, unfortunately, to the greater picture of life. To do reality shows where the contestants are pitted against and mean to each other, how can that be a good thing? It's corrupting to the contestants and it's encouraging to the audience. I think mean-spiritedness has gotten bigger and gone into politics. The dirty tricks of media and politics feed on each other. It's the darker part of tv's nature.

Third Screen: Would this include news shows where they yell and interrupt?

Feldon: People who have built up a tolerance to it may become the whole fabric of our culture. Celebrity bashing is another side of it. It's taken the place of encouraging people to look at a serious problem with compassion rather than castigate. The question is, is negativity on screen a reflection of the society or is the society a reflection of it? Off the top of my head, I would say that all of us have a dark side and that advertisers or powers at tv have discovered how to tap into that and make it seem like entertainment.

Third Screen: Is television becoming a negative force?

Feldon: Not if you look at what it's done for Civil Rights. Or for women. When I started doing voiceovers in 1980, there was a handful of us doing women's voiceovers. The voice of authority was male. Women never did cars or banks. Women did soap suds. Well, fade in 20 years later, and you hear women doing pharmaceuticals, cars, you name it. I don't do voiceovers anymore, but it's amusing to see it as a barometer of how women are doing and where we are. These days, I love writing. I've always written journals. I loved writing the book on living alone. A story I fictionalized and wrote into a novel is just about finished. It's a love story, but an uncommon love story. Part of what I say in it is that to me, the secret of living a full life is to be fully engaged, moment to moment, to have something in your life that engages you so that there's nothing missing.

Third Screen: You love poetry, too. Do you still do readings?

Feldon: Yes. But when I cheer up, I turn to prose.

Roll Credits: The Last Request (2006); The American Experience (2002); Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (2002); Chicago Sons (1997); Mothers, Lost Fullbacks, and Other Soft Things (1997); Something So Right" (1997); Something About a Silver Anniversary (1997); Get Smart.... Agent 99 (1995); Mad About You" (1993);The Spy Who Loved Me (1993); Cheers (1991); Same Time Next Year (1991); Get Smart, Again! (1989); Square One TV (1987); Secrets (1986); ABC Afterschool Specials (1982); The Unforgivable Secret (1982); Children of Divorce (1980); Before and After (1979); A Vacation in Hell (1979); Sooner or Later (1979); A Guide for the Married Woman (1978); The Four of Us (1977); No Deposit, No Return (1976); Doctors' Hospital (1975); And Sorrow for Angels (1975); Smile (1975); Let's Switch! (1975); The Dean Martin Comedy World (1974); What Are Best Friends For? (1973); The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973);Freefall to Terror (1973); Griff (1973); Of Men and Women (1973); Thriller (1973); Medical Center (1973); Search (1972); Playmates (1972); Here Comes the Judge (1972); Getting Away from It All (1972); The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (1971); Matt Lincoln (1970); The Name of the Game (1970); Get Smart Agent 99 (135 episodes, 1965-1970); Fitzwilly (1967); Profiles in Courage( 1965); The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965): 12 O'Clock High (1965); The End of the Line (1965); Slattery's People (1965); Flipper (1964). (partial list, courtesy of www.imdb.com).