Question: Help out here, please. Wasn't it Maxwell Smart who popularized the catchphrase "Would you believe it?" I've got a bottle of single-barrel bourbon riding on this, so please come down on my side. Thanks. Dave C., Ocean Springs, Miss.
Televisionary: It was indeed Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Get Smart's CONTROL Agent 86, who brought that phrase into heavy use during the show's 1965-70 run on NBC, Dave, so enjoy your spirits. Should the person you've betting with require more info, however, I'm more than happy to oblige. (And I wouldn't be me if I didn't.)
The phrase came into play in the episode that sold the show, in which Max was held captive on a New York City garbage scow by the criminal he was sent to capture, Mr. Big (who was actually a dwarf). "At this moment seven Coast Guard cutters are converging on us. Would you believe it?" said Max. When Mr. Big refused to believe it, Max pared the lie back to six cutters, and then, finally, two cops in a rowboat. The audience loved it, and thus was a pop expression born.
It was Adams himself who urged series cocreators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to generate a few catchphrases for the show since he'd had success with them before. "I was sold on the idea after I discovered what it did for me on appearances with Perry Como a few years ago," Adams told TV Guide in 1966. "I was so unknown that I was practically anonymous until I persuaded Perry to let me answer his mild insults with a set comeback, 'You sure know how to hurt a guy.' The line didn't exactly make me a sensation overnight, but it did establish me as something of a personality on the show. I knew the gag had caught on when Bob Hope used it on the Academy Awards show."
At the time, other comics had their own trademark sayings, too Jack Benny with his incredulous "Well!" and Jack Paar with his "I kid you not" so it's not like Adams was arguing for something really off the wall. In fact, he had already tested "Would you believe it?" on audiences while playing a dumb house detective named Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show. And he admitted lifting the "hurt a guy" line and his very successful "Sorry about that" always delivered to CONTROL chief Thaddeus (Edward Platt) after one of Max's usual screwups from Joe Mikalos, who was Ernie Kovacs' right-hand man. "He applied them to such incongruous situations that he convulsed old pros in the business," Adams explained. "I figured if they were funny enough to get laughs in a hip crowd, they would strike a responsive chord with all types of audiences."
With all that to back up the concept, however, Adams had a tough time convincing his bosses it would work. "To be honest, I wasn't crazy about 'Would you believe it?' until I saw how the repetition of it underscored the asininity of Maxwell Smart, the dumbest secret agent of all time," Henry said at the time. "I'm glad to say that the sponsors got the point a lot faster."
An unintended victim of the show's popularity was Platt, who reportedly had to endure kids stomping on his feet at his local supermarket, just so they could give him a "Sorry about that, Chief!" He even had to put up with getting it from his own children, who never missed a chance to fire the line at him. Yet there was probably no one more grateful for such troubles than Platt, who loved his job so much he was known for coming to the set even on days he wasn't supposed to work to follow each episode's progress, watch daily footage and regularly congratulate the cast and crew for doing a good job. "I'm totally consumed with Get Smart," the actor admitted. Or, as producer Leonard Stern put it: "Ed literally basks in it."
Touching, and understandable given some of the jobs Platt suffered through earlier in his career. Take his first showbiz gig, hosting a Midland, Texas, kids' show called Uncle Eddie's Birthday Party more than a decade before landing Smart. "I had to pick up the cake and ice cream and blow up the balloons," he said of the experience. "Then it was a half hour of mayhem. I was the target for a lot of cake and ice cream. After the show I had to clean up the mess. I stuck for almost two years."
No wonder Platt was so honest when asked about his postseries plans. Whereas many a network costar risks looking ungrateful if not trying to in interviews, going on and on about branching out into other types of acting or getting behind the camera once the series that launched them stops weighing them down, Platt knew he had a good thing. "[I]f it ever goes off the air," he said. "I'll probably die a little."