The Archive wishes a very happy birthday to comedy legend Bill Dana, born October 5, 1924 as William Szathmary in Quincy, MA. Bill Dana is best-known for his alter-ego, José Jiménez: a character he played from 1959 until 1969 which garnered him international attention. What few may recall is that Bill first gained prominence as a writer and producer for Steve Allen, Garry Moore, Milton Berle, Martha Raye and other comedy greats.
After graduating Emerson College in Boston in 1950 on the GI Bill, 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. Sidelined from performing due to an injury, his career career took a major turn when he began writing stand-up routines for the young comedian Don Adams. The two developed a character that would later premiere on The Bill Dana Show as “Byron Glick”, the bumbling hotel detective. Glick’s lines like “Would you believe” and “missed it by that much” were first tested in Adams’ stand-up act, and would later become popular catchphrases by Adams’ “Maxwell Smart” on Get Smart.
On writing for Don Adams:
In the mid-50s his career got underway as he performed on The Imogene Coca Show and wrote for The Martha Raye Show and the Spike Jones Show. A major turn came when Steve Allen hired him as a writer on The Steve Allen Show in 1956. working with Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Pat Harrington, Louis Nye, and many others.
On working with Steve Allen:
It was on The Steve Allen Show, in a bit with Pat Harrington in November, 1959 that Bill first introduced his character with “My name — José Jiménez.” In the clip below he describes how it came about:
On how he came up with José’s accent:
He starred in and produced The Bill Dana Show on NBC (1963-65). In this clip he discusses how he came to have his own show:
His comedy albums, as both José and as Bill Dana, were top-sellers in the 1960s. As “José” he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The first words from Earth to a man entering outer space were on May 5, 1961 from Deke Slayton to Alan Shepard in his Mercury –Redstone 3: “OK, José, you’re on your way!” which thereafter entered the national lexicon. Although Dana retired the character in 1969, he continues to defend Jose as comedy “with dignity” and a character that was good at heart and full of innocence which he described as a “combination Robin Hood and Bilko”.
Dana went on to write for many other television shows, including an episode of All in the Family which continues to rate by TV Guide as one of the Top 100 comedy episodes of all time – “Sammy’s Visit” featuring guest-star Sammy Davis, Jr.:
Dana is also known for his recurring role as “Uncle Angelo” on The Golden Girls, described in this clip:
In 2005, Dana co-founded the American Comedy Archives in effort to preserve the first-person stories of his fellow comedy pals, from Betty White to Jonathan Winters. He was honored by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters in 2006, and received the Great American Comedy Festival’s Comedy Legend Award in 2009.
On his advice to young comedians:
For Bill Dana’s complete 2007 interview, visit emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/bill-dana
For more information about Bill Dana, visit bill-dana.com