In Part 1 of this interview series with actress Barbara Feldon, we covered her new memoir, Getting Smarter, spirituality, UFOs and what it’s like when you discover you’re famous. Here, in Part 2, we continue, discussing the late great writer Buck Henry who co-created and wrote Feldon’s hit TV series, Get Smart, what Feldon’s first real-life kiss was like, her life’s fears and her favorite acting roles. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.
Jim Clash: My favorite movie is, The Graduate, the screenplay co-written, of course, by Buck Henry, who also co-wrote, Get Smart. What was Buck like?
Barbara Feldon: I respected his gift of humor, his astigmatic way of looking at life, the crooked way he saw things that was so wry and sweetly wicked. Beyond that, there was something about Buck that was intrinsically loveable. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Buck. He would visit the [Get Smart] set. During breaks, there would be long tables set up to eat. He’d be sitting there, not saying anything, while everybody else was talking.
You’d look over and see mashed potatoes dribbling out of the side of his mouth and down his chin. That doesn’t sound very appealing, but in the context of Buck it worked, because he was so unexpected, deliciously so. I saw him a few times in his last few years, and there was such a feeling of love and affection between us. He was a unique person.
Clash: We all remember our first kiss, at least I do. Mine was Kathy Coleman. Who was yours?
Feldon: Bobby Lowe was a very charming kid who lived in my neighborhood, which was slightly built-up farmland. A girlfriend of mine had a party while her parents were away. She was not allowed to do this – totally illicit, but also innocent [laughs]. I was probably 16, and I’d always had a crush on Bobby. He was at the party, too, and walked me home after.
There were no streetlights. It was just country roads. Right before we got to my house as we were saying goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek! It set off these fireworks in my whole being, the most magical feeling, and I’ll never forget it. It’s like when you’re brought to life sexually. A kiss on the mouth would come later. In those days, kissing was all you did, so it was an art form.
At that time, we had phones called “party lines,” where several people used the same phone line at once. The next morning, I was still so excited, and picked up the phone to call a friend. Bobby was already on the line, talking to another kid in the neighborhood about a girl, and how he was totally smitten with her. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s me!’ Then I found out in the course of their conversation that it was not me, but some other girl [laughs]. So it was my first thrilling kiss, and my first big disillusion, all within 24 hours. That’s life.
Clash: What are you afraid of, and how do you deal with fear?
Feldon: In my book [Getting Smarter], I deal with hypochondria, which I’ve had since I was a child. It happens much less frequently now, in my adult life, because I’ve resolved much of what was causing it.
I think hypochondria often happens from trauma in childhood, then becomes instituted in your brain. You’re kind of stuck with it for life. My technique [to mitigate it] is to acknowledge it, but don’t give it a story, just say this is a feeling you’ve had thousands of times and it’ll go away, drain out of you. Just don’t hook into it. It’s sort of a Buddhist technique.
Another fear of mine is not being able to protect myself against everything. I suppose exercise and eating well is a defense against bad things that can happen. But even with that, something like Covid can come along. Look at all of the innocent people who died because they didn’t even know it was there, in the air.
I don’t know. Can you live a fear-free life really? It’s more fear management. I used to have panic attacks all of the time, but rarely now. You recognize what it is, and that doesn’t seem to help at that moment [laughs], but you manage.
Clash: Of all of your acting roles, which was your favorite?
Feldon: You have to eliminate 99 first, because 99 was so much me. There’s 99, and there’s everything else. I loved doing sketch comedy. It was fun and rompy, stretched you to do different characters.
But my favorite role was probably in Michael Ritchie’s movie, Smile. I played this slightly over-the-hill former winner of a beauty pageant in Santa Rosa [California] who is now head of the pageant. She has this stiff hair that, if the wind blew, her body would blow away before her hair would. She wore skirts a little too short for her age.
She was just so full of hallmark good spirits about the beauty pageant. The thing is a comedy, a send-up of pageants, but a rather affectionate one. She has this phony veneer of giddy warmth, but is very cold to her husband. Underlying all of it is real anger. It was an ensemble movie with Bruce Dern.
It was so easy for me to play her, and yet she was so unlikeable. I thought, ‘How is it that you can play this so easily?’ But I knew exactly how, and I had absolute sympathy for her. Michael Ritchie told us that when her husband shoots her in the shoulder, he wanted everyone in the audience to stand up and cheer. I started to cry [when he said that] because I was so in sympathy with her. I just loved playing that role!