Wednesday, 14 April 2021

$64,000 Feldon

Resting prone on a tiger-skin rug and purring about some hair product isn’t the accepted model to make your TV career take off.

Unless you’re Barbara Feldon.

She had been making commercials for Revlon in the 1960s when one featuring the aforementioned animal rug routine caught everyone’s attention—more for Feldon than the product. The next thing she knew, she had been cast as Agent 99 in Get Smart, one of the smartest TV shows of the mid-‘60s.

Like any bonefide actor, Feldon struggled for a while. Here’s a feature story from the Associated Press which hit the wire June 27, 1965. She had already been cast as the reality base of the show opposite Don Adams.

Aspiring Actress Finds Lots Can Happen On Tigerskin Rug
By Cynthia Lowry

AP Television-Radio Writer
NEW YORK (AP)—Barbara Feldon, who was thoroughly discouraged knocking on the front door of the acting profession, has sneaked in by the service entrance. All pretty much to her surprise.
Pretty, dark-haired Miss Feldon may currently be seen stretched out on a tigerskin rug, indulging in sexy growling and urging males to race to the nearest store and buy a certain brand of gentlemen's toiletries. It is a commercial which has caused considerable comment pro and con, largely from ladies. This pleases the sponsor—so much in fact, that Miss Feldon and her intimate, slightly tongue-in-cheek way with a sales talk is nailed down to a long exclusive commercial contact.
This in no way interferes with her budding career—at last—as an actress. She has been signed as a regular in NBC's forthcoming "Get Smart," a fall comedy series which spoofs the current rash of secret agent books, movies and television shows.
The costar assignment is only the last in a series of unexpected events that have dropped like gentle rain on Barbara since she left her native Pittsburgh for the big city in quest of a Broadway career.
Jobs were scarce when Barbara came to New York from her native Pittsburgh, but she picked up a job in the once - famous "Copa line," a nightclub famous for the pretty girls in its chorus.
This led to a showgirl part in the Beatrice Lillie revival of the "Ziegfeld Follies," which in turn led to a spot as a contestant on "The $64,000 Question." Barbara—expert on Shakespeare—survived almost three months and won $64,000 before she fell.
"People didn't think of her as an actress but as a freakish sort of thing," recalls her husband, then her best beau. She had offers for personal appearances in Las Vegas, but it blew her chances for a Broadway show because it had—well, destroyed her actress image. So she just sort of went into retirement. And she still hates to talk about it."
After a period of recovery she tentatively resumed her quest for acting jobs.
"The best I ever had were small parts in off-Broadway flops," she mourned. "And I found going around and sitting in sleazy offices was just too awful. I decided to give it up."
Barbara, nee Hall, meanwhile had met and married Lucien Feldon, a young fellow from Antwerp, Belgium, who was a successful but fed-up young advertising executive.
They chucked their respective careers and started a downtown art gallery, handling only abstract expressionist art. It was in a loft so they lived there as well.
"Our artists were interesting, but they were interested in strong social protest," she explained. "So most of their work was pretty strong meat for living room walls. Nothing sold."
For two years, the Feldons endured a very thin time in their Greenwich village loft. It was not all had: Barbara's weight dropped from a husky 145 pounds to a svelte 120—just right for cameras. Finally, hungry Lucien decided that the workaday world wasn't so bad after all and returned uptown as a representative of photographers—the kind that take artistic, unusual shots for the slick-paper women's magazines.
Then, at a party, Barbara met Gillis McGill, one of the leading photographers' models, who was immediately struck by Barbara's photographic potential.
"I didn't believe her," she recalled. "I had only been happy-snapped before—nothing like the things they do in a good studio—and looked awful. But Gillis called an agency, they got me a Job and all of a sudden I decided I could forget acting forever."
Barbara had always thought modeling "uncreative," but she learned about wearing clothes and applying makeup as a house model for the fashion designer Pauline Trigere. Then after six months she moved on to being a freelance photographer's model.
"I discovered high fashion modeling was fascinating," she continued. "Travel all over the world, and lots of money."
Eventually she was approached about a TV commercial.
"Nonsense," said Miss Feldon. "When I was acting, a woman in an agency told me that I'd never be able to sell a thing—that my delivery was too intense and too sexy."
The first offer was to sell a deodorant, and she tried it.
"I memorized the lines," she said. "That freed me from the cue cards. Then we improvised—with a bath towel. And it was the single, most valuable experience I've ever had."
It was a wildly successful commercial and kicked her off on a new tangent. She was signed by the cosmetics house. Then she decided she wanted to do something else in her spare time—panel shows, maybe.
"Nobody would take a chance on me, but I got a nervous small walk-on in an episode of 'East Side, West Side' about a year ago. That opened some doors. Then I got on 'Missing Links,' and stayed a year."
Last season she played guest roles in five or six TV series, including one as a funny, slightly nutty girl detective in "Mr. Broadway." That role may be the one happy circumstance of the whole, soon-canceled series. It led directly to "Get Smart" and the regular part. "Get Smart" is widely rumored to be next season's probable big hit.
"I'll be spending a lot of time in Hollywood, so I'm going to take a small apartment," she said. "I'm going to take my cat out with me for company. And my husband promises he'll fly out almost every weekend when I'm working.
"It does seem to be the total of a series of small coincidences, doesn't it?" she remarked.

What!?! Barbara Feldon was on a scandalised quiz show?

Yes, it’s true. She won $64,000 on June 25, 1957 (personality-rich Ed Sullivan was hosting that night). Three weeks later, she lost the $128,000 question. Her journey of wealth was covered by the wire services and newspaper columnists talked about it, accompanied by pictures of her in her show-girl outfit.

By mid-August 1958, federal investigators started sniffing around about claims of quiz show contestants being given answers in advance and told to gin up the suspense part of the game. The investigators started talking to winners. Let’s pick up Barbara Feldon’s story from the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, October 16, 1959.

Barbara Hall, City's Lone $64,000 Winner, Clams Up
Barbara Hall, former Ziegfeld Follies show girl who became Pittsburgh's lone $64,000 winner, has clammed up for the duration.
She said yesterday in New York:
"I don't want to spend any time in Washington . . . I'm trying to start a career in New York." She was referring to reports Congressional investigators would subpena "The $64,000 Question" winners in connection with the examination of rigged television quizzes. She hasn't heard from from Congressional process servers.
BARBARA, 26, tall, brunette, almond-eyed lovely, won $64,000 for answering questions about Shakespeare in June, 1957. A Carnegie Tech grad, she is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R. D. Hall Jr. Said Barbara:
"I don't want to say anything for the newspapers. I think they are giving the stories too much space."
Barbara since has married Lucien Feldon, former Belgian pilot. They recently opened an art gallery in Greenwich Village. They plan to exhibit works of art at the Pittsburgh Playhouse around Thanksgiving.
After she collected her money, Barbara said:
"I was only an average Shakespeare student in college—C plusses. But I studied 14 hours a day for this quiz. Anyone could have done it."
First time this writer met Barbara—shortly before it was announced she would appear on the quiz show—she was clutching a paperback edition of the Bard's "King Lear." She also mentioned at the time she was "scared to death" of classics.
SHE APPEARED ON the show after a magazine story mentioned she scored 100 per cent in an intelligence test given to six show girls In the 1957 Ziegfeld Follies. Entertainment Productions Inc., producers of the quiz, booked her.
Barbara wants to be a serious actress. After the Follies she appeared in a play that folded before it reached Broadway. Her booking agency now is trying to get her a niche as a television commercial hostess.
Said Barbara: "I'm not holding my breath."

Did she cheat? She told syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner in 1965: “The scandal didn’t rub off on me. It was more on ‘Twenty-One’ than ‘The $64,000 Question,’ anyhow. My friends used to joke about it, they would tease me about getting the answers in advance. It was all joking. But sometimes there is seriousness behind joking.”

That doesn’t quite answer the question. Maybe we should get Agent 99 on the case.


  1. That also reminded me of Patty Duke's involvement with " The 64,000 Dollar Challenge ". Also enjoyed Barbara's appearances on " Laugh In ". She seems to have really enjoyed the craft, but didn't take herself too seriously.

  2. For the commercial in question:

    As a bonus, Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) hawks Viceroy cigarettes!