Barbara Feldon: Happiness Is Not About Fame, It’s About Good Friends

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview series with actress Barbara Feldon, we covered a lot of ground: her latest book, Getting Smarter; her wonderful yet doomed relationship with ex-husband Lucien Verdeaux; when she realized she had become famous; her first kiss; her favorite acting roles; spirituality and UFOs; the late, great writer Buck Henry, and more.

Here, in Part 3, we discuss Feldon’s first book, Living Alone And Loving It, her effect on audiences as Agent 99, happiness and what she might do to celebrate her 99th birthday. Following are edited excerpts from a recent phone conversation.

Jim Clash: Your 2002 book, Living Alone And Loving It, is very different from your recent, Getting Smarter. That first book is more a guide to people trying to live in similar single situations as yourself, as opposed to being a memoir.

Barbara Feldon: Yeah, I’ve been really gratified by some of the reactions. Interestingly, a lot of letters I’ve gotten over the years are from men who felt, somehow, that they’d failed in their relationships. Men have a little less facility, I think, or society gives them a little less leeway, for bonding. I may be wrong about that. But I do think the book has helped people who are struggling with living alone, especially those with low esteem. It’s not to say that it’s better being mated, just different.

To my mind, living alone – and, of course, I’m a little prejudiced because I’ve lived that way for so long – opens up life in a way that being engaged in a 24/7 relationship shuts down. Very often you’re limited to the interests of your partner. Maybe he/she says, “I want to go to India,” and you say, “I don’t think so.” It saps energy about doing it. When you’re living alone, you don’t have to run it by anyone. You can just do it. You’re not trying to please someone else. You can be more expansively yourself. On the other hand, if you have a partner who just wants to explore the world, that’s fabulous.

Clash: A friend wanted me to ask you what it’s like being able to make a difference in people’s lives in an audience you don’t know, have never met. Does putting a smile on their faces being in their living rooms once a week via television mean anything to you?

Feldon: I am very grateful for being given the opportunity to be part of something that had that effect. We were television. We weren’t movies. In those days, there wasn’t any crossover. Television is more like family to people, more accessible being shown in their homes. We weren’t on Mt. Olympus, you know, being worshipped [like in movies], and that made it more personal.

I didn’t write the series. I’ve done other things that did not have that effect. I really give credit to Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. But yes, I’m glad that people smile, or that occasionally they recognize me. For years, when I walk down the street, people have smiled. It’s such a nice thing that I really didn’t earn, but I’m very happy to have been the conveyor.

Clash: Did you realize at the peak of your career, when everything was clicking, that it couldn’t get any better than that?

Feldon: No, because that was before therapy. I was neurotic, insecure. If I watched dailies of Get Smart, I would think, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never work again.’ I was tormented [laughs]. My head was not straightened out yet, so I couldn’t really relish that.

But honestly, the great pleasures in life, for me anyway, were never performing. They were travel, books, writing. The biggest, of course, were dinners with friends, maybe just six people. I remember looking across the candlelight at them, having this wonderful conversation, and thinking, ‘This is perfect, this is a perfect moment.’

Clash: You just turned 90 this past March, celebrating with the jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway. What will you do to celebrate your 99th birthday?

Feldon: That would just be interesting, assuming it’s in my future, kind of a fun day. But, by that time, maybe nobody will remember anything anyway, about 99 [laughs].

Clash: Oh, I bet they will.

MORE FROM FORBESAgent 99’s First Kiss, Fear, Buck Henry, More
MORE FROM FORBESBarbara Feldon, At 90 Still Getting Smarter

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