Comedian Bill Dana, Who Played the Character Jose Jimenez, Dies at 92
He became a 'mascot' for the Mercury astronauts, wrote jokes for Steve Allen and Don Adams and penned one of the funniest 'All in the Family' episodes.
Bill Dana, who created and starred as the earnest character at the center of the "My Name … Jose Jimenez" routine that made him one of America's most beloved comic performers of the 1960s, has died. He was 92.
Dana, who first appeared as Jimenez on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, where he also worked as an Emmy-nominated head writer, died Thursday at his home in Nashville, Emerson College announced.
He and a fellow alumnus founded the American Comedy Archives at the Boston school, fulfilling a lifelong goal to honor the study and appreciation of the comedic arts.
Dana contrived the trademark "Would You Believe?" line of jokes that Don Adams employed as a standup and on the TV series Get Smart and penned one of the funniest episodes in All in the Family history — the one from 1972 in which Sammy Davis Jr. plants a kiss on Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor).
The nation was introduced to Jimenez in a comedy sketch on Allen's variety show in November 1959. Struggling to speak English, Jimenez appeared in a Santa Claus outfit as an instructor at a school for wannabe Kris Kringles and interviewed by "Man on the Street" Pat Harrington Jr.
"I said, 'My name … Jose Jimenez,' and the [live] audience laughed," Dana, a Massachusetts native of Hungarian-Jewish descent, recalled in a 2007 interview with the Archive of American Television. "I remember thinking, 'This guy just said his name and everybody [went crazy] …'
"It was the most amazing, B-movie type of thing, because [after the show aired] the phones started ringing [with viewers asking], 'Who is this guy that wandered into the studio?'"
Dana said he got the idea for the character and the accent after talking with a Puerto Rican local while on vacation years earlier.
Dana/Jimenez then joined Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Kelly and Milton Berle as performers at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural gala in January 1961.
A few months later, Jimenez showed up as an elevator operator on CBS' The Danny Thomas Show. A handful of episodes on that sitcom led to NBC's The Bill Dana Show, in which the character worked as a bellhop at a ritzy New York hotel. Jimenez was so popular, NBC ordered 39 episodes without even shooting a pilot. (The series lasted two seasons, with Adams coming aboard as hotel detective Byron Glick the second year.)
On Garry Moore's variety program, Dana appeared as Jose the Astronaut, then recorded a comedy album with that material from a live show at the famed hungry i nightclub in San Francisco.
He sent a test pressing of the disc to the original seven Mercury astronauts — and they loved it. Alan Shepard took the code name "Jose," and Jimenez became the astronauts' "mascot," Dana said. When they weren’t working, the pilots hung out at Dana's house, and years later, he was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. (Footage of him as Jimenez on The Ed Sullivan Show can be seen in the 1983 film The Right Stuff.)
Jimenez also was a baseball player, a judo expert, a man on a ledge, a politician, an Olympic skier, a dancer, etc., and he even popped out of a window on Batman.
Though it seems hard to believe in this age of political correctness, Dana and his character were embraced by the Latino community. He was honored by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and worked, largely behind the scenes, as an activist. He gave up playing the character but later regretted that.
Jimenez "was a perfect example of a person that wanted to be assimilated into American culture, learn the language, always looked spiffy … not a bit of the racist stereotype about the unkempt Mexican," he said in a 2011 interview.
Dana was born William Szathmary on Oct. 5, 1924, in Quincy, Mass. He was the youngest of six children, and one of his older brothers, Irving, went on to compose the theme song for Adams' Get Smart. His father worked in real estate, and his mother was a milliner.
After serving in the infantry during World War II and then graduating from Emerson in 1950, Dana landed a job as a page at NBC in New York. He reunited with a college buddy, Gene Wood, and they formed a comedy act that played in supper clubs and on variety shows. (Wood later worked as the announcer for the Richard Dawson game show Family Feud.)
Sometime around 1952, Dana and Wood split up and Adams, who also would work on Allen's show, hired him as a joke writer.
"As a performer, I was always frightened to death until I got on stage, and then I wanted to stay there forever," Dana recalled in the TV Archive interview. "But I hated the fear of performing. Writing the stuff and then standing there, massaging the boxer's shoulders, saying, 'Go in there and get 'em!' … that was for me."
Dana produced variety shows for Berle and Spike Jones and wrote for Chico and the Man, Donny and Marie Osmond's variety hour and Matlock. He also reteamed with his pal Adams to help write The Nude Bomb (1980), marking the return of Maxwell Smart.
Dana, though, didn't give up acting. He starred as the faithful servant Bernardo on the short-lived series Zorro and Son and played Howie Mandel's father on St. Elsewhere and Estelle Getty's brother, the priest Angelo, on The Golden Girls.
Dana also owned an advertising agency with Adams and D.W. Silverstein (it represented the International House of Pancakes); was the head of a management company that counted Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass among its clients; and co-wrote the 1982 book The Laughter Prescription, about the healing power of comedy.
Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Evy.
Donations in his name may be made to the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College. Please contact [email protected] for details.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.