The Wall Breaker Interviews Vol. 12: Whatever Happened to Barbara Feldon?

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In Vol. 12 of Our interview series, extraordinary author Colin Broderick is back, with a guest interview.

I was scrolling through facebook a few weeks ago (I know, I know, please don’t tell anyone, I have little enough street cred left as it is) and I was caught by a random question someone had posted:

“Whatever happened to Barbara Feldon?”

It was an interesting question; interesting to me as I had no idea who Barbara Feldon was until quite recently, when I had the good fortune to run into her at a cultural event at Lincoln Center.  But once you have met Barbara Feldon you understand immediately what all the fuss is about.  She is one of those rare individuals who seem to transcend categorization; she carries herself with the graceful poise of a swan, her eyes sparkle with a child’s bright curiosity. She is timeless, ineffable, and when she takes your hand and bestows the gift of her smile you get the distinct impression that you could tell this woman absolutely anything.  Am I gushing? I am gushing. Well, the truth is, Barbara Feldon is gush worthy.

For those of you who don’t know who she is, Barbara Feldon was known to millions the world over as Agent 99 on the hit show Get Smart.  She is one of the great legends from the golden era of television.

On the facebook thread that I had happened upon, a handful of people had answered; no one, it seemed, had any idea where she had gone. But one thing was obvious; after all these years on the missing list, Barbara Feldon was still sorely missed and thought of in very high regard.

Colin Broderick: Hi Barbara. First off I just want to say thanks for taking the time out to chat. Perhaps to begin with you could just take a moment to paint a little portrait of your childhood. Where did you grow up?

Barbara Feldon: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the bad old days before smoke control. Soot settled everywhere– the grass, the bricks, and the curtains. It was a steel town then, with coal mines sprinkled around the landscape and giant Bessemer furnaces lining the banks of the rivers. Every night they’d open the furnaces and for miles around the sky would glow red; and when they dumped the slag it would flow down the hills like burning lava. It was very dramatic. Poetic really.

Some streets were nearly perpendicular with houses seemingly piled on top of each other. It was the perfect place to be a kid. It was big enough to offer opportunities and small enough to not crush you with competition. My dad was a traveling salesman who climbed the “ladder of success” to become an executive in a paperboard company.

He lived the American dream, but my mom was born too soon to enjoy the fruits of the woman’s movement. She gave up a singing career to raise my sister and me.

CB: I’ve never heard coal country described in such poetic terms. It sounds like you have a healthy relationship with your childhood. From Pittsburgh, you came to New York to pursue acting. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like in the beginning?

BF: After a couple of years, I became so disheartened about ever breaking into show business that I just gave it up and turned to modeling. I absolutely loved it, even more than acting. The photographer’s studios were spectacular and the fashion in the early 6o’s was imaginative and fun. I’d always longed to travel, so to model in Paris and on location in Italy and Africa was beyond wish fulfilling. Then when I did commercials for Revlon I got a jaw dropping view of the workings of that complicated corporation. The whole thing was one big, fascinating field trip. I never once pined for my acting career.

CB: It sounds like you were content just to be in show business. Had that been a dream of yours since you were little?

BF: When I was eleven I began studying ballet and it became the greatest ecstasy of my life. It also helped me sail through the multiple indignities of adolescence. But there were no colleges with dance programs so I studied drama at Carnegie Tech (which is now Carnegie Mellon). After graduation I did summer stock and a stint as a showgirl in a Broadway musical — walking down perilous staircases in spike heels and monstrous headdresses, and scant (for those days) costumes. And, oh yes, I danced in the chorus line at the Copa Cabana, which was heaven! It was my favorite job ever – flashing sequins, jazzy band, dangerous looking men – very noir and glam.

CB: It sounds like it was a fun time. I don’t suppose you have any pictures of you as a showgirl in high heels and sequins that you’d like to share with me are there… I’m sorry, forget that, let’s just move on, I’ll tuck my tongue back into my mouth now.  But of course you were not just a pretty face and a pair of dancing legs, there’s a story about you winning a big prize on a game show shortly after you moved to NY, can you tell me about that?

BF: When I was in the musical they gave us a test to see if showgirls could wear feathers and actually have a brain. There were silly questions such as “which is smarter a chicken or a mouse?” We all collaborated like crazy but when the results were printed in the NY Times along with our leggy photographs, I was singled out as having a perfect score. This did not make me popular in the dressing room, but the producers of the Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question saw the spread and asked me to come on the show. I said no, I wasn’t an expert on anything. But later I thought that if I were given a few months to memorize a ton of trivia about Shakespeare I’d give it a try. They agreed and I became a compendium of useless information about all things Shakespearean.

CB: So you won the sixty four thousand dollars?

BF: I did. That was the good news. The bad news was that I entrusted the funds to a friend to invest for me. It was the greatest financial lesson I’ve ever had. After that I decided to make my own mistakes, not have someone make them for me.

CB: How did you become Agent 99? Did you go after the part?

BF: One day during the time I was modeling, my agent said I should go to the set of a series the actor George C. Scott was shooting, to deliver one line in a disco scene. I didn’t want to act any more and resisted, but he talked me into it. While I was there, George’s wife, the actress Coleen Dewhurst, who was a mentor of mine, visited the set and invited me into George’s dressing room. He asked me to play his girlfriend in the next episode. Based on that performance the producers then cast me in an episode of another series of theirs. The character was an industrial spy. She had a Sassoon haircut, snazzy jumpsuit, and a sultry voice. When the producers saw the script for Get Smart they said, “That’s her! That’s 99!” No audition. Just luck. Right time, right place. I was back in show business.

CB: As “Agent 99” you very quickly became this sort of iconic TV personality. What was that like for you at the time to be recognized everywhere you went? Did it look anything like the kind of madness we see today with the media sort of scrutinizing everything you wore and who you dated and to what rehab you were being shipped off to recuperate?

BF: It’s a funny thing, when you’re shooting a series you’re isolated from the real world, especially in LA, where you’re mostly in your car and not on the streets where you might be noticed. The only time I got a sense of being recognized was on press tours. But even then it wasn’t ever intrusive. The media didn’t pry into our private lives as much in those years, and there certainly wasn’t the mania surrounding TV and film stars there is today. The cult of celebrity hadn’t yet become a national neurosis. I dodged the bullet for sure.

CB: Your role as Agent 99, or perhaps the way your personality shone through your role, enamored you to an entire generation of men. I’m tempted to say you were a sex symbol, but it was much more than that; men all over the world really fell in love with you from watching the show. Was that a strange phenomenon to deal with? Is it still a strange phenomenon to deal with?

BF: That’s funny. No, I never took that admiration personally. It belonged to “99,” a character created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks. She was savvy and kind and got to wear fabulous clothes, and I was lucky to inhabit her for a while, and to, even now, have people think I’m her and fondly smile at me.

CB: I admire your humility but I would hazard a guess that if it were not you, specifically, in the role of “Agent 99” she might never have been quite so savvy and memorable. How long did the show run and how did you feel when it came to a close?

BF: The show ran for five years. I wasn’t at all surprised when I got the call from a network executive that it had been dropped. A series has a life span; times change, tastes change; and to be honest, after five years I was perfectly happy to move on.

CB: After the show ended you went on to appear in a slew of TV series and movies? Was it hard to shake “Agent 99” or did you want to?

BF: When you sign on to a long running TV series you sort of accept that your character will be indelibly tattooed on you. I’d be an ingrate to complain about my “99-ness”. She made it possible for me to go on working for years after the series ended. I owe my freedom to explore other interests and my very fortunate lifestyle to her.

CB: As an actress can you share with us your most memorable role, or perhaps just your most memorable performance…was there one night in particular during all of that where you thought, this is it, this is as good as it will ever get?

BF: Wow. I have to go all the way back to college when I played Elena in Uncle Vanya. It was as if I were living a parallel life on a Russian estate, strolling in an orchard in gorgeous 19th century costumes or acting out the drama inside the country mansion. It was wildly romantic and transporting — helped, I’m sure, by the grand passion I developed for my leading man — that, alas, didn’t survive long when exposed to reality.

CB: I’ll do you a favor and not cheapen this interview by grilling you about all your other memorable romances (I’ll do that over dinner when we are alone.  You can trust me.) But I will say, while we are on the topic, that I read a book you wrote about ten years ago called “Living Alone and Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life.” Sounds like it could be the bible of our times. Can you tell me what inspired it and if you still feel the same way today?

BF: I kept meeting people who thought living on one’s own is a second rate life. I used to feel the same until I mastered it and grew to love it, so I wanted to share my experience and pass along some pointers. The truth is, we’re not alone, we just have rooms of our own and a lovely freedom to pursue friendships and develop our interests.

It’s interesting that 50% of people in major cities across the world live alone but you rarely read about it. It’s a revolution that still hasn’t been given its due. For the first time in history we have a choice—and that’s really something to celebrate.

CB: That makes me want to crack open a bottle of champagne and propose a toast to living alone, but maybe it’s best I just stick with this tea. ¡Viva la Revolución!

To wrap up, is it possible you might share with us the location to the fountain of youth? Just whisper it to me…okay, if you won’t do that just lie to us, tell us what it is you are doing that keeps you so damned young?

BF: How gallant! Seriously, to the extent that I’ve kept it together, the credit goes to a chart I came across about 35 years ago that showed the rate of aging with and without exercise. It was stunning! Instantly, I became an exercise junky, and have made it the top priority of my day for decades. It’s nothing heroic, just the minimum exertion for the maximum result, which seems to be a half hour of aerobics most days and weights a couple of times a week. It’s boring and I grumble a lot but I do it. Being a vegetarian probably helps too. Well, not strictly vegetarian, I eat fish.  Is that a fisharian?

CB: Waiter, can you bring me some fish! Lots and lots of fish.

Thank you Barbara.

Now, about those pictures…


 

Colin Broderick was raised Irish Catholic in the heart of Northern Ireland. In 1988, at the age of twenty, he moved to the Bronx to drink, work construction, and pursue his dream of becoming a writer. For the next twenty years, as he drank himself into oblivion: there were failed marriages, car wrecks, hospitals and jail cells. Few people who have been a slave to an addiction as vicious, destructive, and unrelenting as Broderick’s have lived to tell their tale. Broderick is the author of “Orangutan”, and has published articles in The Irish Echo, The Irish Voice, and The New York Times. His latest book, “That’s That” was released from Random House in April 2013.

 

  • W. B.

    Excellent interview: respectful and thoughtful. I was very disappointed in the interviews conducted with Ms. Feldon at the Archive of American Television, in which the interviewer seemed to have no sense of her contribution. Of course, Barbara was ever gracious with the vacuous fellow.

  • see the light

    Ms. Feldon comes across so intelligent and well spoken. So rare to see. I hope she decides to be a little more available to the public!

  • There was nothing like “Get Smart” on television and who didn’t think Barbara wasn’t a doll?