I love websites that keep me connected to the TV shows I grew up with. There's nothing like firing up some Jiffy Pop, mixing myself a tall glass of Tang and searching Netflix, YouTube or Hulu for classic comedies that knew how to get laughs without taking the low road. One of my favorite sitcoms was the 1960's spy spoof Get Smart. It still is. In fact, when Entertainment Weekly asked comedian Jerry Seinfeld about his all-time favorite TV shows recently, he mentioned Get Smart as well.
"It was structured like a sitcom, but it wasn't really a sitcom," Seinfeld explained. "It was much more bit to bit. The spine of the story didn't really carry you to the end. It was just like, 'Oh, Siegfried is coming on, he's funny!'"
Siegfried. The nemesis of secret agent Maxwell Smart. What a character. Imagine Hitler as a frustrated middle-manager for an evil agency subject to the same budget cuts and labor disputes as any other company. He was played by Bernie Kopell. The prolific television actor, who turned 80 on June 21, spoke with me not long ago about his career in a medium that has seen quite a few changes over the past 50 years...
Plugged In: We always enjoy talking with actors and comedians from the classic era of television, partly because you remember what it was like when families could sit down around prime time television together and enjoy programs that were family-friendly.
Bernie Kopell: Well, everything I did was family-friendly, primarily because you were not allowed to do anything that was not family-friendly. Which is opposed to what's going on on television today. It really scares the heck out of my wife and myself, because we have two little boys, 14 and 9, and we don't want them to get into the kind of stuff that's on cable.
International secret agents got a new look in the 1960s, and a couple of your shows found comedy in that.
Well, it started off with James Bond. Then it went to Man From U.N.C.L.E. So we thought we'd do a satire on the whole thing called Get Smart. I was so lucky that I got to play [in German accent] Siegfried, "Vee dun't shoosh here!" Then the writers and myself were sitting around talking one day and said, "OK, what are we gonna do now?" And Mike Marmer, who created Siegfried, said, "We'll do it with monkeys!"
That would be Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.
It was so much fun doing this. And you might ask, How did they get the chimpanzees to move their mouths so it looked like they were speaking? Well, some liked chewing gum. Some liked peanut butter. Some liked a little piece of banana [on their lip] to make their mouths move up and down. I don't know how they got the handlers to choreograph these chimps, because chimps in general are not that trainable.
Nowadays, most voice actors record their lines first, and then it's up to the animators to match the images and the sound. Am I right to assume that you did it the other way around?
This was totally different. First they got the chimpanzees to move their mouths. And then we had to put the words into the movement of their mouths. Of course, it derives from Get Smart. It's the same writers and basic stories, with chases and subterfuge going on. It's all in fun. There's no language that would be offensive to any parent or child.
Y'know, Bernie, when I interviewed Dave Madden about his time on The Partridge Family, he told me an interesting story about a time when ABC's censors stepped in and made him change the word rotten to awful. Rotten was too strong a word back then. Can you ever remember something like that happening on any of your shows?
When I came into television back in 1961, you were not permitted to say the word pregnant. Even if people were married, they had to have twin beds. If they were in a, how shall I say, "sensuous situation," one foot had to be on the floor—which is totally ridiculous and difficult to do.
Have you ever found yourself channel-surfing and run across something that made you think, "We never would have done that in my day"?
Oh every day. Every day. We have some channels that we just eliminate, because we don't want our kids [watching them]. And we have to be so strict about films. That's why they have ratings. They use every kind of word that you wouldn't use in mixed company or polite society. It's scary.
Well, it's rare anymore that people can sit down and watch television together. Do you think that's the reason DVD box sets of those classic comedies are so popular?
Absolutely! Absolutely, Bob. People have a yearning to go back to the way television was. The Love Boat, for example. We had happy endings. Every show just about, you switch around every channel [now], there's a dead body on a table. And people are having conversations about, "Well, what are we going to have for lunch today?" And the dead body is there, staring you in the face.
You mentioned Love Boat. That series lasted nine seasons, 250 episodes, and you played Dr. Adam Bricker. Would you agree that might be the most iconic role of your career?
I don't know about iconic. I would think of it as a paid vacation. My frame of reference on The Doris Day Show, on Bewitched, on My Favorite Martian, was that you spend three or four days in the studio, then you go out and you're in Hollywood. This was getting on a beautiful, white, clean ship and being treated like royalty with as much as you wanted to eat and drink. You could bring your significant other. And there were some days that you didn't even have to work. I had such license on that show.
Didn't you also have opportunities to write episodes for The Love Boat?
Fred Grandy [who played Gopher before representing Iowa as a Republican congressman from 1986-1995] and I wrote some scripts for Love Boat. I'm very proud about that. My favorite was the one we wrote for Scatman Crothers. He starts out as a guy hawking peanuts, popcorn and beer at the baseball stadium. At the same time, a Black studies major comes on the ship, and she is contemptuous of this man who is having a bad image for Black people. She thinks of him as an Uncle Tom who's just jivin' his way through life. And it turns out that he was a famous pitcher in the Black leagues, and he loves baseball so much that he doesn't want to remove himself from the stadium. So he takes the job that's available to him, which is selling peanuts and popcorn and so forth. Eventually there's a resolution between the young girl and Scatman Crothers, and it was a very heartwarming episode. Again, I would certainly say family-friendly. And it opened people's eyes.
As a writer, you really do have an opportunity to make impressions and statements about social issues like that, don't you?
Oh, exactly. And even though some people called Love Boat "mind candy" because of the happy endings, whenever we could we would say something that was in our hearts.
One of the things that makes any show fun to watch is the sense that the actors are having a good time. You always seemed to do that. Looking back, which of your shows, week in and week out, would you say was the most fun to do?
Get Smart, no question about it. I loved my time on Get Smart. I loved the fact that I was also doing The Marlo Thomas Show at the same time. Sometimes I'd do both in the same week. You might call this my schizophrenic period. Working is fun. Just like Morgan Freeman said, "I never worked a day in my life; it was all fun." That's the way I feel about it now, and that's the way I felt about it then.Published July 2013
A Chat with Tim Conway
A Chat with Actor Dave Madden
A Conversation with Steve Allen