Remember Barbara Feldon? Agent 99 in that ’60s TV spy spoof, Get Smart? Always stumbling through spy rings with her shrill-voiced sidekick Don Adams. Well, Feldon’s been out of the spy trade ever since she gave birth to twins in the show’s final season in 1970. But in real life, the childless actress is hardly about to retire to domesticity.
Actually, Feldon, 50, is still on TV, only this go-round she’s no klutz. Barbara currently hosts The 80’s Woman, a daily 20-minute interview program on Hearst/ABC’s DAYTIME cable channel. Now in its second year, the show is conversational in style with guests ranging from daughters of feminists to single mothers and baseball wives.
Prepping for each show with an “avalanche” of research, Feldon has carte blanche privilege to state her own opinions. “I represent the ’80s woman, too,” she says. “That means I can be right or wrong about what I say.” For example, Feldon is “pro choice on abortion. But, frankly, I don’t know if I could do it myself.”
Feldon, who campaigned hard for the ERA, finds The 80’s Woman a “perch for observation between my grandmother’s life and mine,” though what she perceives is not all that comforting. “I don’t sense that people believe in anything,” she says. “It’s more of a holding on and trying not to lose ground.”
Born Barbara Hall, she had a middle-class upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her father was an executive in the paper-box industry and her mother a housewife. When Barbara was 2 she’d dress up and pretend to be a princess. By first grade she knew she wanted to be an actress. A musician she wasn’t. “I played the triangle in the band and dinged three times,” she laughs.
In 1955 Barbara graduated from Carnegie Tech’s drama department and moved to New York. Finding work scarce, she got a job dancing in a Ziegfeld Follies revival. At the same time, she became a contestant on The $64,000 Question and won the title prize, with Shakespeare as her area of expertise (she crammed for three months). Feldon claims that her winnings were “mis-invested” (she won’t say by whom) and gone shortly thereafter.
Barbara married New York photographer’s rep Lucien Feldon in 1958 and helped him start an art gallery. In the process she lost 30 pounds and began modeling for designer Pauline Trigère, later gaining fame for her sexy growl on Top Brass hair cream commercials. (“I want a word with all you tigers…Grrr.”) That led to TV guest spots and her Get Smart hit in 1965.
The marriage was a casualty. Lucien didn’t move to California with her and they were divorced after nine years. “We don’t see each other now,” she says, “but I have very fine feelings for him.” After Get Smart’s demise, Barbara remained in California, living with TV producer Burt Nodella for 11 years. During this time Feldon’s career was stagnant. “I didn’t feel I was being challenged.” Attempting to shed her Agent 99 image, she did TV movies (A Vacation in Hell with Priscilla Barnes), Broadway (Past Tense with Laurence Luckinbill) and movies (best was 1975’s Smile about a beauty pageant). Four and a half years ago she moved to Manhattan (she and Nodella had split by mutual agreement), where she lives alone in an art-filled brownstone on the Upper East Side. She’d like to meet the right man, but if she doesn’t? “It’s part of the hand you’re dealt,” she shrugs. Still, her current beau is an L.A. writer and, she confesses, she wouldn’t mind seeing him move to New York. Feldon has only a few regrets. “I’ve missed something by not having children,” she admits. During her marriage, she made a conscious effort not to have them. “Work came first, and I couldn’t bear not to be with my child all the time if I had one.”
Today, though, her job is just a part of her life. Days off are spent taking singing lessons, going to museums and concerts, jogging through the park listening to poetry on her Walkman—and reading. A confessed noncook, Feldon admits, “my oven’s never worked and I’ve never bothered to get it fixed.” These days she also enjoys an easy truce with her Get Smart image. “I like being in a world that regards me in a friendly way,” she says. “There’s not a day when somebody doesn’t smile and say, ‘Oh, you’re Agent 99.’ ” But it’s Barbara Feldon, not 99, who smiles right back.