Born in a multicultural New York City neighborhood, comedian Don Adams joined the Marines upon the outbreak of World War II. After Guadalcanal, Adams saw little action due to a life-threatening bout of blackwater fever (malaria) that kept him out of commission until the end of the war. As a civilian, Adams tried at first to carve out a career as a professional artist, taking outside jobs to support himself and his family. Blessed with a gift for mimicry, Adams and a friend teamed up for a comedy act but response was minimal, and soon Adams was involved in the cartographic and engineering business.
Then in 1954, on a whim, he auditioned for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts; his routine went over, and he was on his way. Collaborating with his close friend Bill Dana, Adams developed a topnotch act full of "inside" showbiz references that fortunately never went over the heads of the audience. His best monologue was "The Defense Attorney," wherein Adams adopted the clipped speech cadence of actor William Powell. Though he would be seen in a variety of sketches during his nightclub years and his early-1960s stint as a regular on The Perry Como Show, it was the Powell imitation that scored highest. Adams would use this voice for the cartoon character of Tennessee Tuxedo in 1963, and that same year expanded on the impression in the role of inept house detective Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show.
The "spy cycle" of 1965 enabled Adams to refine the Byron Glick character into the magnificently self-confident but monumentally inept secret-agent Maxwell Smart on the hit TV sitcom Get Smart, which ran until 1970. In addition to providing Adams a conduit for his beloved movie parodies, the series also gave him an opportunity to direct.
In 1971, Adams moved onto another genre-spoof TV series, The Partners, in which he played police detective Lennie Crook. Hampered by weak scripts and a death-valley timeslot opposite All in the Family, The Partners perished after thirteen weeks. After this debacle, Adams found the going rough for a while, though he made a comfortable living with nightclub appearances and guest spots on such TV series as The Love Boat.
He made no fewer than three attempts to revive Get Smart between 1980 and 1994, one of which actually resulted in a (very short-lived) weekly Fox network sitcom. Adams is best known to children of the 1980s as the voice of cartoondom's bionic blockhead, Inspector Gadget. Don Adams was the brother of another comic actor, the late Richard Yarmy; Adams' cousin Robert Karvelas played secret agent Larrabee on Get Smart.