Bill Dana in a publicity photo, 1964
(1924-10-05)October 5, 1924
Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||June 15, 2017(2017-06-15) (aged 92)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Alma mater||Emerson College (1950)|
|Occupation||Actor, comedian and screenwriter|
|Spouse(s)||Evelyn Shular Dana (1981-present)|
William Szathmary (October 5, 1924 – June 15, 2017), known professionally by his stage name Bill Dana, was an American comedian, actor, and screenwriter. He often appeared on television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, frequently in the guise of a heavily accented Bolivian character named José Jiménez. Dana often portrayed the Jiménez character as an astronaut.
Life and career
Dana was born as William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts. He was of Hungarian-Jewish descent. He took his stage name “Dana” after his mother’s first name “Dena” as he felt “Szathmary” was unpronounceable. The youngest of six children born to Joseph and Dena Szathmary, Dana benefited from the expertise of an older brother, Arthur, who was fluent in several languages and gave his sibling his second entry into foreign languages. The first was growing up in a polyglot neighborhood where Spanish and Italian were among the languages spoken and having a Hungarian immigrant for a father. His older brother was Irving Szathmary, composer of the Get Smart theme.
Dana began his career as a page at NBC‘s famous Studio 6B while performing comedy in nightclubs around New York with partner Gene Wood. In the 1950s, he performed on The Imogene Coca Show, The Danny Thomas Show and The Martha Raye Show, as well as writing for and producing The Spike Jones Show.
Dana’s career took a major turn when he began writing stand-up routines for the young comedian Don Adams, including the now well-known “Would you believe?” jokes popularized by Get Smart. From there, he was brought in as a writer for The Steve Allen Show, where he created the José Jiménez character for the show’s “Man in the Street” segments.
On an Ed Sullivan Show appearance, Dana related a story of how a woman recognized him on the street, but knew him only as José Jiménez, and asked what his real name was. Instead of his stage name, “Bill Dana”, he gave her his real name, “William Szathmary”. The woman rejoined: “Wow, no wonder you changed it to Jiménez!”
Dana had several comedy albums but only one that strictly featured the Jose Jimenez character. One of the cuts; “The Astronaut (Part 1 & 2)”…an interview from news reporter, writer and producer Don Hinkley…made it to the Billboard Top 40 charts at #19 in September 1961. Hinkley and Dana met as writers for the Allen show.
In 1961, Dana made the first of eight appearances on The Danny Thomas Show, playing Jimenez as a bumbling but endearing bellhop. The character was so well-received that it was spun off into his own NBC sitcom, The Bill Dana Show (1963–1965). Jiménez was still a bellhop, but now at a posh New York hotel. His snooty, irritable boss was played by Jonathan Harris. The cast also included Don Adams as a hopelessly inept house detective named Byron Glick; when the show was cancelled, Adams quickly used the Glick characterization as the basis for Maxwell Smart, and Get Smart premiered on NBC that fall.
Before appearing in front of a television camera for the first time on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, Dana had been a prolific comedy writer, an activity he continued into the 1980s, producing material for other actors on stage and screen. Dana co-wrote the script for the Get Smart theatrical film The Nude Bomb. His brother, Irving Szathmary, wrote the famous theme for the Get Smart television series.
In 1966, Dana wrote the animated TV-movie Alice in Wonderland (or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?), in which he also supplied the voice of The White Knight (using his José Jiménez voice). That same year, the Jiménez character was animated for the Paramount cartoon I Want My Mummy, written by Dana in collaboration with Howard Post.
In 1966, Dana appeared uncredited in episode 48 of Batman playing Jose Jimenez, opening the window in the wall Batman was climbing and talking with him.
In May 1967, Dana hosted his own late-night talk show, The Las Vegas Show, on the new United Network. Originated live from the Hotel Hacienda in Las Vegas, Nevada, the program was cancelled by the end of May when the United Network folded.
Joey Forman‘s 1968 parody album about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, called The Mashuganishi Yogi (“mashugana” meaning crazy or bizarre in Yiddish), was produced by Dana, and includes a cameo of Dana as Jiménez, as well as a cover appearance. The album is a mock news conference, an extended question-and-answer session. The ersatz Bolivian–accented Jiménez asks the ersatz Indian-accented Yogi: “Why do you talk so funny?”
In 1970, responding to changing times and sensitivities, Dana stopped portraying the José Jiménez character; however, he played the character again on the 1988 revival of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Dana wrote the script for possibly the best known episode of the hit situation comedy All in the Family, entitled “Sammy’s Visit”, which featured Sammy Davis Jr. In 1976, he appeared in the “A Doctor’s Doctor” episode of the NBC situation comedy The Practice as the hospital roommate of Danny Thomas‘s character Dr. Jules Bedford.
The José Jiménez character was part of several scenes in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. The government officials watch The Ed Sullivan Show before recruiting the Navy pilots. Sullivan is talking to Jiménez. (“Is that your crash helmet?” “Oh, I hope not!”) Later during medical testing, a large, Hispanic worker (played by NFL offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz) takes offense to Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) mimicking the Jiménez character. The hospital worker gets a measure of revenge later on when it comes time for Shepard to receive an enema.
Although his film appearances were few, Dana had roles in a few movies including The Busy Body (1967), Harrad Summer (1974), I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? (1975), and the aforementioned The Nude Bomb (1980). Dana would also have a recurring role on The Golden Girls as Sophia Petrillo‘s brother Angelo. He also played her father in a flashback. In addition, he played Wendell Balaban on Too Close for Comfort, as well as Howie Mandel‘s father on the series St. Elsewhere.
Dana reprised the role of Bernardo the servant on the CBS TV series Zorro and Son, but his performance was different from Gene Sheldon‘s silence on the 1950s live-action show. Both series were produced by Walt Disney Productions.
American Comedy Archives
Bill Dana was integral in creating the American Comedy Archives, a series of audiovisual interviews with such luminaries in the comedy world as Phyllis Diller, Dick Gregory, Don Knotts, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Tom Poston, Paul Rodriguez, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, and Jonathan Winters. The American Comedy Archives are housed at the Iwasaki Library at Emerson College, but transcripts of some interviews (Dana’s included) have been made available on the library website.