YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Spy Silliness to the Max

Would you believe that the '60s TV series 'Get Smart' would help inspire a film about a bumbling grammar teacher's exploits in espionage?


Growing up in Midland, Texas, the home of President George W. Bush, Douglas McGrath loved the unabashedly silly secret agent sitcom "Get Smart," which starred Don Adams as the totally inept Maxwell Smart and Barbara Feldon as his cool cohort, 99.

It is to "Get Smart" that McGrath tips his hat in his new film, "Company Man," which opens Friday. McGrath, 43, not only stars in the goofy comedy, he co-wrote and co-directed the very broad satire with Peter Askin.

"The movie is not a direct homage to it," explains McGrath, who received an Oscar nomination with Woody Allen for co-writing the 1994 comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" and wrote and directed the acclaimed 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma."

"But 'Get Smart' is a show both Peter and I were really fans of," McGrath says. "There is no love great enough for 'Get Smart.' It's so marvelous. The show and the lunatic genius of Don Adams. It is such a giddy, silly, wonderful thing."

Set in 1961, "Company Man" finds McGrath playing the ultimate nerd, Allen Quimp, a high school grammar teacher and driver's ed instructor with a pushy, status-conscious wife (Sigourney Weaver). Through a series of loony circumstances, Quimp becomes an international spy and is sent to Cuba by the CIA to help overthrow Fidel Castro (Anthony LaPaglia).

Alan Cumming also stars as a flamboyant Gen. Batista and John Turturro is a gung-ho spy. Woody Allen has a lengthy, unbilled cameo as the inept American ambassador to Cuba.

Comedy in Common

Prior to "Company Man," Askin had directed McGrath in the off-Broadway production of McGrath's one-person comedy, "Political Animal."

"We share a similar adolescent sense of humor," Askin says. "We make each other laugh fairly easily. He is unquestionably one of the three or four funniest people in the world. He can't help himself. He's just naturally funny."

"I used to write a humor column for the New Republic," McGrath says. "Every so often I would have ideas that didn't fit the column. So Peter and I talked about them and just in one of our talks about politics, the Bay of Pigs came up."

Perhaps the funniest thing about "Company Man" is the fact that all of the idiotic things Quimp does to overthrow Castro actually were attempted by the CIA.

"We have altered the real attempts slightly to fit the characters," McGrath says, "but they did try to lace Castro's water with LSD. They also sent a depilatory in a shoe polish with the hope that the fumes from the shoe polish would make his beard fall out."

With the basic outline of the story set, McGrath and Askin began to flesh out the lead character. "We thought, 'Who would that person be?,' " McGrath says. "It had to be someone who was not interested in violence. Then we thought he was a man of language and ideas and words, which brought us to grammar."

McGrath was once a grammar teacher himself, and he suffered, as Quimp does, from an uncontrollable desire to correct everyone's speech.

"All day long you notice how people are misspeaking," McGrath says. "I turned into the worst all of people, which is to say an improver--a helpful person. My invitations kind of dried up. People didn't want to return my calls because it was one tiresome lecture after the next [from me] about objective pronouns and dangling participles. But I couldn't help it. I almost had to find a deprogrammer!"

When it came time to cast the character of Quimp, says McGrath, "we couldn't find someone who had the right mix of nerdiness and the other irritating qualities that come with the character like I did. So we hired me."

Wooing Woody

Early in the casting phase, McGrath sent the script to Allen in hopes that he would play the American ambassador. "He said, 'Before I say I will read it, let me ask where it's shooting,' " McGrath recalls in a dead-on impression of Allen.

McGrath knew that the ultimate New Yorker wouldn't be interested in shooting his scenes in Puerto Rico, which substitutes for Cuba.

"I said we'll shoot your part in New York," McGrath says. "He read the script and he called right away."

Allen didn't even care that his salary for doing the low-budget production would be minimal. "For some reason, he has been exceedingly generous to me throughout my career," McGrath explains. "He said, 'I don't care about the money, but if I'm not going to be paid, then my deal is no billing.' We thought that was a perfectly fair deal."

Because McGrath would be in practically every scene, he and Askin decided early on to share directing duties. McGrath would help out on pre- and post-production, but Askin would be the director on the set.

Directing a screwball comedy, Askin says, was serious business. "You absolutely shouldn't try to be funny," Askin says. "We had such an extraordinary cast, they all took being silly very seriously. I think that's the only way you can do it. It's not going to appeal to everybody, because it's so silly and screwball."

"Company Man" was shot in less than 40 days. "It was breezy and quick," McGrath says, laughing. "But in some ways there are advantages to that. Because it has a madcap quality, having a kind of a full day of shooting obligations forces you to think kind of quickly. There is a certain kind of thrill to that."

Los Angeles Times Articles