Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bill Dana R.I.P.

Actor, comedian, and writer Bill Dana, who was best known for the character José Jiménez died at age 92 on June 15 2017.

Bill Dana was born William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts on October 5 1924. His father, a Hungarian immigrant, was a real estate developer. His mother, Dena, worked in a millinery shop. It was from his mother's first name that Mr. Dana derived his stage name. His older brother was composer Irving Szathmary, who would go on to compose the Get Smart theme. Bill Dana grew up in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood and was exposed to several different languages while he was growing up.

During World War II Bill Dana served in the United States Army with the 263rd Infantry Regiment, 66th Infantry Division. Following the war he attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts from which he graduated with a degree in speech and drama. Afterwards he worked as a page at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). He also formed a comedy team with Gene Wood and performed in night clubs in and around New York. He broke into writing for television with episodes of The Imogene Coca Show in 1954. He also began writing gags for various comics. Among them was Don Adams, for whom he developed the line "Would you believe...," which later became a catchphrase on Mr. Adams's show Get Smart.

In the late Fifties he wrote for The Steve Lawrence-Eydie Gorme Show and The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. It would be on a 1959 edition of The Steven Allen Plymouth Show that he made his debut as the character José Jiménez in a sketch in which José was an instructor of department store Santa Clauses. The character proved to be a hit and Bill Dana would spend the next decade playing José Jiménez. He appeared as the character on such shows as Swinging Spiketaculars, The New Steve Allen Show, The Red Skelton Hour, the animated short "I Want My Mummy" (1966), The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Batman, and The Hollywood Palace.  José Jiménez  was a recurring character on The Danny Thomas Show. From 1963 to 1965 Bill Dana starred as  José Jiménez on The Bill Dana Show.  Bill Dana portrayed José Jiménez  in various odd professions, including an animal trainer, a deep-sea diver, and even an astronaut. The Mercury astronauts themselves loved José Jiménez  and even named the character an honorary member of their team.

The National Hispanic Media Coalition, an advocacy group, even endorsed José Jiménez and invited Bill Dana to sit on their advisory board, which he did for the rest of his life. Today it might seem odd that a character now widely regarded as a stereotype would be embraced by some in the Latin community, but then it must be considered that José Jiménez was clean cut, hard working, sincere, and decent. In the Sixties José Jiménez offered a sharp contrast to such stereotypical characters of the era as the Frito Bandito and  Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez  (AKA "The Rat") in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). As the Sixties progressed, however, José increasingly became regarded as a negative stereotype and was even the target of protests. In 1970 Bill Dana stopped playing José Jiménez and even read the character's obituary at an event sponsored by the Congress of Mexican-American Unity in Los Angeles.

Despite the character's popularity, Bill Dana did more than play José Jiménez in the Sixties. He was the voice of the White Knight in the animated TV special Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?. He guest starred on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Get Smart, and Love, American Style. He wrote episodes of The New Steve Allen Show and The Bill Dana Show. He wrote the animated special Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, the animated short "I Want My Mummy", the comedy special Jose Jiminez Discovers America, and the comedy special Don Knotts' Nice Clean, Decent, Wholesome Hour.

In the Seventies Bill Dana wrote episodes of All in the Family, Bridget Loves Bernie, Chico and the Man, and Donnie and Marie. He was one of the writers on the Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb (1980). He guest starred on The Snoop Sisters, Police Woman, McMillan & Wife, Ellery Queen, Switch, The Practice, Rosetti and Ryan, Vega$, and Flying High. He appeared in the films Harrad Summer (1974). I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now? (1975), and The Nude Bomb (1980).

In the Eighties Bill Dana was a regular on the TV shows No Soap, Radio and Zorro and Son. He had a recurring role on The Golden Girls. He guest starred on the shows Here's Boomer, Fantasy Island, Too Close for Comfort, Sledge Hammer!, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He wrote episodes of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Matlock. In the Nineties he continued to appear on The Golden Girls. He guest starred on Lenny and Empty Nest. He appeared in the film Lena's Holiday (1991).

Regardless of how one feels about José Jiménez (I have to admit I have never been a fan), I think there is no denying that Bill Dana was a very talented man. He was a very good comedy writer. Not only did he provided Don Adams with a good deal of material (including the classic line "Would you believe..."), but he wrote of the best episodes of All in the Family ever ("Sammy's Visit", in which Sammy Davis Jr. guest starred). He also wrote quality material for everything from Chico and the Man to the Comedy Awards. On screen he played some very memorable characters, including Angelo on The Golden Girls, Mr. Fiscus on St. Elsewhere, and Mr. Plitzky on No Soap, Radio. While it seems likely that Bill Dana will always be remembered as José Jiménez, he did a good deal more.

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