Cone of Silence: When a 60s spy show drops into current events

The Cone of Silence in its inaugural use in 1965. It's still hanging around in 2018 - just check your Twitter feed.

The Cone of Silence in its inaugural use in 1965. It’s still hanging around in 2018 – just check your Twitter feed.

What have I found in the last few weeks when doing a simple internet search of Get Smart? Lots and lots of references to the Cone of Silence —  but not in the way I would expect.

It seems in the last year Get Smart has moved from the entertainment corner of cyberspace to the op ed/political realm. That’s a wild and woolly place to be. I should know since in real life I spend my days putting together opinion pages.

On April 16 the Government Accountability Office issued findings that the EPA violated

The old spy device in a sci fi magazine trick. This cartoon was in the December 2001 edition of Starlog.

The old spy device in a sci fi magazine trick. This cartoon was in the December 2001 edition of Starlog.

federal spending laws when it purchased a sound proof booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt to use for making private phone calls. The price tag on the booth came to the tune of $43,000. Federal law prohibits agencies from spending more than $5,000 on redecorating or remodeling offices. Oops.
With this story, the online commentary soon followed. Pruitt’s booth was quickly compared to the always malfunctioning Cone of Silence on Get Smart. References to the COS were quickly birthed on Facebook, Twitter, the op ed pages of major newspapers and even by a political cartoonist or two.
The comparisons are not going away. I started pulling together research for this blog installment more than a week ago. In that amount of time, the number of memes referencing Pruitt and the COS have proliferated.

There’s the standard meme of a GS screen grab with Max and the Chief under the device with some text referencing Pruitt. Then there are the more creative graphics with Pruitt under the COS himself, taking the place of the Chief. One meme even had Pruitt’s head Photoshopped onto Don Adams’ body and Donald Trump taking the place of Ed Platt. Blasphemy.

The Cone of Silence in action. The Chief sacrifices his desk in the name of security.

The Cone of Silence in action. The Chief sacrifices his desk in the name of security.

This isn’t the first time that Maxwell Smart has been shoved into recent current events and political commentary.

The March 31, 2017 front page of The New York Daily News prominently (like two thirds of the page) featured U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, edited onto a shoephone bearing Maxwell Smart. Nunes serves as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. And yes, this all had to do with his role in the Trump-Russia investigation.

As 99 would say, “Poor Max.”

London's Control HQ uses the Umbrella of Silence. Please refrain from smoking.

London’s Control HQ uses the Umbrella of Silence. Please refrain from smoking.

Previous administrations were not immune to COS references. In 2013 the New York Times reported on Barack Obama’s portable “Zone of Secrecy.” Basically a tent used while meeting with officials in other nations, it could keep conversations private. This drew all kinds of online comparisons to the Cone of Silence.

The COS dropped into the opinion pages back during George W. Bush’s administration. A couple editorial cartoonists featured “Dubya” under the cone with a reference to security leaks. Also, a 1995 Washington Post editorial referenced the COS in a column about President Bill Clinton’s problems with the CIA.

Would you believe someone even lifted a COS image from this website and used it in a March 22 Reddit forum?

One would wonder if and how often this sort of thing occurred during Get Smart’s run.

The term “cone of silence” isn’t just relegated to Get Smart lore. Prior to Get Smart, the term “Cone of Silence” appeared in a 1955 episode of Science Fiction Theatre titled “Barrier of Silence.” A cone of silence was also used in Dune, which was initially serialized in Analog from 1963 to 1965.

Cone of Silence is also a legal term that can be found in the ordinances of a governing body. It is defined as a directive that prohibits oral communication about a specified subject.

Now for something actually fun to talk about: The Cone of Silence’s role on Get Smart.

The cramped Closet of Silence gets some exercise when the COS is broken or on loan to the CIA.

The cramped Closet of Silence gets some exercise when the COS is broken or on loan to the CIA.

Out of 138 episodes the device itself (not counting “alternative cones”) appeared in nine episodes, which include:
Mr. Big (pilot)
Kaos in Control
My Nephew the Spy
Too Many Chiefs
Smart, the Assassin
I’m Only Human
The Whole Tooth And…
A Man Called Smart (Part 1)
A Tale of Two Tails

The routine is usually the same. The Chief or Max have an instance where they need to discuss sensitive information. Rule-oriented Max demands (it’s always a “demand”) the Cone of Silence. The device is begrudgingly lowered by the Chief or one of his administrative assistants. What follows is either the device malfunctioning and/or the Chief and 86 not hearing each other. The Chief has even gotten stuck in the thing and in one episode it destroyed his desk.

In the series, the COS is revealed to have been invented by a Professor Cone. It also costs an exorbitant sum to operate. In one episode, Control tries to combat budget cuts by loaning the device to the CIA.

The COS was actually a product of show creator Buck Henry’s wonderful imagination.

“I have always loved the Cone of Silence because I just loved the idea of this thing that was its own worst enemy,” Henry said in a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary, C.I.A.: Hollywood Spytek. “It was such a clearly dopey, funny, piece of equipment.”

The picture of absurdity - the Portable Cone of Silence.

The picture of absurdity – the Portable Cone of Silence.

There were a few opportunities for alternative cones.

The first was the ridiculous Portable Cone of Silence which was used in Hubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Max takes this with him while he and the Chief are on a mission in a concert hall. The Chief spends much of that time stuck in the thing. The Portable Cone of Silence was one of the accessories that came with the 2002 Sideshow Toys action figures. The toy version is just as annoying as the real version. Good luck assembling it.

The London branch of Control uses the Umbrella of Silence in That Old Gang of Mine. Unlike the American COS, this device can hold four people and everyone can hear each other. It its advisable, however, to refrain from smoking in it.

The Closet of Silence is used in two episodes, Maxwell Smart, Private Eye and Supersonic Boom. Also, the Control Secret Word File is used in lieu of the COS in A Tale of Two Tails.

The COS would eventually end up hanging above Max and 99’s bed in Get Smart Again. In that movie, Max’s demands for secrecy were met with two other impractical procedures: Hover Cover and The Hall of Hush. Also in the movies, The Nude Bomb and Get Smart (2008) had their own incarnations of the cone.

As for the whereabouts of the original COS… it seems to have faded into legend.

I saw what you did there: A Get Smart reference worked its way into the recent editorial page offerings.

I saw what you did there: A Get Smart reference worked its way into the recent editorial page offerings.

From page to screen: Get Smart marks 50 years

Maxwell Smart answers his shoephone for the first time on Sept. 18, 1965. Would you believe for the second time?

Fifty years ago this week a few of spyfi’s noted 60s TV shows were birthed – I Spy, The Wild Wild West and Get Smart.
It was on Sept. 18, 1965 that viewers may have tuned into NBC and found themselves watching the beginning of a black and white show, which starts off with a tuxedoed man sitting at concert next to his elegantly dressed and perfectly coiffed date. Then a phone rings. People stare. He excuses himself and takes the call in the nearest closet, where it’s revealed that the ringing is coming from a phone in, of all places, his shoe.
We learn from that one-sided conversation this character is a spy. We’re clued in early on that he’s an awkward person, since he can’t help but get stuck in the closet before driving off to his assignment. What we don’t learn is what happened to that woman he left back in the concert hall, but that’s just how Get Smart rolls.

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in Get Smart's pilot episode.

The seeds to Smart were planted by Dan Melnick, a partner in the New York-based production firm of Talent Associates. The other partner in Talent Associates was David Susskind.
With spies galore on screen, Melnick felt the world was ready for James Bond and the like to be parodied.
Melnick initially approached Mike Nichols to work on the project, but the logistics didn’t work out.
He then contacted his pal Mel Brooks and, following that, brought Buck Henry into the fold. He pitched the idea to ABC, which gave Talent Associates the funds for a screenplay.
“We wrote this take off on spy stories. We figured the people running our country were completely inept and we’d show the world,” Brooks noted in an audio commentary of the pilot.
The group worked out the nuts and bolts of the show, namely that their version of James Bond should be named Maxwell Smart – because he wasn’t smart.

Prior to netting the role of Maxwell Smart, Don Adams played Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show. The rest of the cast included Maggie Mancuso, Jonathan Harris and Bill Dana.

“We…gave him, as his most sterling quality, a remarkable lack of insight,” said Henry, as stated in The Life and Times of Maxwell Smart.
Since secret agents of the day were all about code numbers, they gave Smart the number 86 – the signal bartenders use to cut off service to drunks.
It took Brooks and Henry three and a half months to write the script – a processes mostly worked out over Henry’s pool table.
“We could have done it in a week, but we loved playing pool,” said Brooks.
Getting Smart from page to screen was a bit of a process, part of which was meeting the desires of the network. At some point in that process ABC suggested adding a dog to the cast – and a mother.
Brooks’ opposition to Max having a mother, in most writings about Get Smart’s back story, has been well stated. He and Henry did relent on the matter of a dog – only they made sure this dog would be the antitheses of Lassie.
ABC’s head of programming, Edgar Scherick, didn’t find the script funny. Some reports have quoted him as calling the script “un-American,” however, he denied that statement. Still, ABC gave Smart a no-go.
“ABC commissioned this pilot. Somebody looked at it and said, no, it’s creepy. It’s not funny. It’s basically un-American,” Henry noted in an audio commentary of the pilot.
Some may respond to that with a well earned, “Seriously?” However, lately I don’t think today’s social conscious is so different. That script revolved around a terrorist plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty. In our post- 9-11 world, Americans may have a hard time immediately grasping that concept as funny. Given how our current culture is so eager to be offended, I’ve also wondered if the idea of a spy satire would have been spiked entirely.
ABC’s good opinion really didn’t matter. Talent Associates, which had brought in Leonard Stern to head its west cost operation, moved on – specifically to NBC.
There were some minor tweaks NBC wanted – and one rather significant change. Earlier in the process, when the team presented the show to ABC, Tom Poston was named to play the lead. NBC, however, had an actor they wanted to play Smart: Don Adams.
Adams was under contract with NBC after the sitcom he had co-starred in, The Bill Dana Show, was canceled. As the story goes, Adams had a year to pick and choose a pilot – and was waiting for a possible Sheldon Leonard produced project. Instead he was asked if he’d consider a script about a bumbling James Bond. He was initially hesitant. When he found out Brooks and Henry were the writers, he agreed to do it without even reading the script.
Adams brought elements from his stand-up routine to the mix, specifically his exaggerated impression of actor William Powell and the “Would you believe” gag, which had been created by writer Bill Dana. While the part wasn’t originally intended for Adams, Henry has described the casting as serendipitous and Brooks called it a wonderful marriage.
“I think the energy behind it all…the jet engine… was Don Adams, who really believed in what he was doing,” said Brooks. “He could work from morning to night and never quit.”

A pre-99 Barbara Feldon pitching Top Brass hair cream.

The part of Smart’s femme fatale, the never-named Agent 99, was written with actress Barbara Feldon in mind. Prior to spots on such shows as The Man From Uncle, Mr. Broadway and the Talent Associates produced series East Side/West Side, Feldon garnered fame for crawling on a tiger skin rug to pitch Top Brass hair cream.
Chosen to play 86 and 99’s boss, The Chief, was character actor and opera singer Ed Platt. One of his most memorable pre-Get Smart roles was as James Dean’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without A Cause. He also had roles in Written on the Wind and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The pilot was not created with a logo or opening. Leonard Stern later added the noted opening and closing sequence with the multiple doors Max walked through. That scene itself has been parodied a number of times and is as iconic as the shoephone.
As for that shoephone, Brooks noted in DVD commentary that he thought a bizarre place for anyone to have a secret telephone was in the heel of a shoe.
“That was the first time a phone went off in an audience,” said Brooks, in reference to the pilot’s opening scene.
Henry said, as stated in DVD commentary, it was ironic that the show started with a phone ringing in an audience.
“Now of course there’s nothing unusual about this,” said Henry. “Then, this was a remarkable instance of strangeness.”
This was actually a simplified glimpse of what went into the premiere of Get Smart. There’s a lot more to digest on the matter and more insights can be found in my reference guide. Also, the DVD box set features two rounds of wonderful audio commentary on the pilot from Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.

It's the old snap your fingers and turn a black and white show into color trick. Prior to Get Smart's first episode, Don Adams hosted NBC's fall preview show, "A Secret Agent's Dilemma, or A Clear Case of Mind Over Mata Hari."

Also premiering on NBC the night of Sept. 18 was another iconic 60s sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie. That show, along with the other shows in NBC’s fall lineup were featured in a TV special, A Secret Agent’s Dilemma, or A Clear Case of Mind Over Mata Hari. Airing Sept. 6, 1965, this was the first appearance of Maxwell Smart on TV.
So what was the world like when Get Smart aired? Perhaps it was as confusing and turbulent as it is today. The country was both in the midst of changing social norms and engaged in a war.
In a nutshell, here’s what kept people glued to the news in the month prior to Get Smart’s premiere:
• The war in Vietnam had escalated and the American ground war was underway. On Sept. 11, 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division of the United States Army arrived in Vietnam. During this period President Lyndon Johnson, signed a law penalizing the burning of draft cards with up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
• The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 was ongoing. The day of Get Smart’s airing, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin invited the leaders of India and Pakistan to meet in the Soviet Union to negotiate.
• In Iraq, Prime Minister Arif Abd ar-Razzaq’s attempted coup fails.
• Hurricane Betsy hit the New Orleans area with winds reaching 145 mph. There were 76 deaths and $1.42 billion in damage.
In non-scary news:
• Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, featuring “Like a Rolling Stone.”
• The fourth and final period of the Second Vatican Council opened.
• Gemini 5, with a crew of Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, was launched.
September inches us closer to the World Series. Here’s what was going on in sports around this time:
• Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs.
• On the night Get Smart aired, Mickey Mantle played his 2,000th game at Yankee stadium.
Born in September of 1965 were: President of Syria Bashar al-Assad, boxer Lennox Lewis, actress Marlee Matlin, musician Moby and actor Charlie Sheen.

86 and 99 tune into radio station KAOS for a special broadcast.

Mr. Big: The old black and white pilot trick

Agent 86 and the Chief attempt to discuss classified information under the Cone of Silence in “Mr. Big.”

Episode One
Mr. Big (original air date: 9-18-65)
Cast: Mr. Big – Michael Dunn (special guest star), Dante – Vito Scotti, Zelinka – Janine Gray, Garth – Kelton Garwood, Mother – Karen Norris, Fang – Red
Director: Howard Morris
Writers: Mel Brooks and Buck Henry
Producer: Jay Sandrich
Filming Location: Paramount Studios, Hollywood

Synopsis: Meet counter-espionage organization Control and its top agent Maxwell Smart –who has been specially trained never to disclose the fact that he’s a spy –except maybe when his shoe phone rings in symphony hall. Agent 86 must: find Agent 99, rescue Professor Dante and get his mitts on Dante’s Inthermo before Mr. Big uses it to blow up the Statue of Liberty.

Max and 99 try to steal a kiss after nearly being vaporized by the inthermo.

My Thoughts: I guess if I have to blame something for my Get Smart addiction, it would be the black and white pilot. I never get tired of this episode. Over on www.ilovegetsmart.com I have it listed as my number four favorite episode. In comparison to how the series progressed, Max, 99 and the Chief are a bit “raw,” yet this really is a tight little episode.

I first saw this episode in January of 1991 when Nick at Nite began airing Get Smart. Unlike the rest of my Chicagoland pals who watched the show in reruns during the ’80s on Channel 32, I had never seen it before. I lived in the Mid-Atlantic prior to the ’90s and there was no Get Smart to be found on Baltimore TV.

Being an ’80s kid, there was one thing that made me raise an eyebrow the first time I saw the pilot — the voice. I wondered, why does this guy sound like Inspector Gadget? He’s even got an inflatable coat, a dog and a brainy female sidekick like Inspector Gadget did! My 12 year old mind was impressed.

The scene in this episode I love the most is Max and 99’s near kiss. After Fang saves Max from being vaporized, 99 takes off her hat and shakes out her hair. This prompts Max to utter, “Why you’re a girl!” The two then go for a kiss, which Fang interrupts.

Logically the whole concept of this scene is absurd -especially for the fact that Mr. Smart clearly needed a stronger pair of Bino-Specs with regard to 99. Comically it takes the opportunity to mock spy movie heroes that make out with Bond girls they’ve just met.

Watch for: Mr.Big’s little cigarettes, 99’s bad driving, the humorous fight scene on the garbage scow and Max discovering that 99 is indeed a girl

Max clocks in before his assignment.

Footnotes:
• This is the only black and white episode of the series.
• The opening is slightly different. Max drives a Ferrari 250 GT Cabriolet and tosses a hat into the back seat. This is the only time this car is used. In the rest of the episode 99 attempts to drive a limo and Max attempts to close the vehicle’s door.
• During filming of the pilot Don Adams learned that his wife Dorothy gave birth to their daughter Stacey Noel.
• Michael Dunn had quite a bit of experience playing the archenemy of secret agents – he had a reoccurring role as evil Miguelito Loveless on The Wild Wild West.
• “Zelinka” is an in-joke – Executive Producer Leonard Stern’s co-writer on The Honeymooners was Sydney Zelinka.
• Howard Morris worked with Mel Brooks on Your Show of Shows and he played Ernest T. Bass on the Andy Griffith Show.
• Dante’s Inthermo is a reference to Dante’s Inferno.
• Vito Scotti was probably in every old TV show known to man.
• Karen Norris had a role in the movie Fitzwilly which starred Barbara Feldon.

Glick meter: 100%

Oh Max meter: Probably the only episode 99 refers to Agent 86 as Maxwell. They haven’t quite hit their stride.

Control Agents: Hodgkins, Agent 34 (in locker), Fang. Also mentioned: Agent 57 who is in Hong Kong

Kaos Agents: Mr. Big, Zelinka, Garth, un-named Kaos agent at the airport and random Kaos Frogmen

Gadgets: Cone of Silence, Shoe Phone, Mirrored Cuff Links, Bino-Specs, Locker Key, a Beretta and the Inflato-Coat

Episode Locations: Washington, D.C., New York City, Cravehaven Laboratory, South Street Novelty

Agents 86 and 99 report that they've wrapped up their mission - only to get a wrong number.