Barbara Feldon was famous for commercials before she was on Get Smart
Image credit: The Everett Collection
Thanks to Barbara Feldon, television commercials became a new pipeline to acting jobs in Hollywood series during the '60s and '70s. Before Feldon became Agent 99 in Get Smart (1965), she had a much different role on TV.
Feldon's big break came in the form of a popular and much-parodied commercial for Top Brass, a hair pomade for men by Revlon. In the commercial, she laid on an animal print rug, purring at the audience. She became known as "Tiger Girl."
The Top Brass commercial caused a considerable amount of controversy and publicity, both good and bad. Her performance pleased the sponsors so much that they nailed down a long and exclusive contract with Feldon.
No one was better suited for the job, and the purr was on point.
Feldon's commercial work led her to a few small television roles: 12 O'Clock High, Flipper and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Before she starred in Get Smart, many critics were curious: Could Feldon escape her "Tiger Girl" image? Here's the thing: She didn't want to.
According to a 1965 interview with The Courier-Journal, Feldon's journey to become the Get Smart star wasn't easy. She and her husband struggled financially, and would have to go on diets when money became tight.
"When I was acting, a woman in an agency told me that I'd never be able to sell a thing and my delivery was too intense and too sexy," Feldon said.
Spoiler alert: She was wrong. Feldon would sell a lot of pomade for Top Brass. According to a 1967 interview with The Herald News, it was almost impossible for any commercial actor to land a leading role on a TV show. Yet, Feldon was different.
Her portrayal of Agent 99 was a favorite for many. The spy spoof was wacky but seemingly less wacky than Feldon selling pomade on a rug.
"I made more money working three days a year for Revlon than I did working 30 weeks at 13 hours a day during the first season of Get Smart," Feldon said. "Once I reported for a commercial in which they wanted to use only one of my eyes. All I had to do was close the eye and open it. I worked a half hour for a whole year and I collected $200 a week as the commercial was played."
Get Smart may not have been her biggest source of income, but it certainly couldn't have hurt. Feldon loved both worlds and valued the lessons she learned on both types of sets. She was a true Tiger Queen.
"My acting career has broken all the rules along the way," Feldon said in a 1966 interview with Democrat and Chronicle. "There's no telling where it will go from here, but I'm not forgetting the commercials. I have two careers going for me, acting and commercials, and I'm going to keep them both going as long as I can."