Dana, Bill (1924—)

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Dana, Bill (1924—)

In the heyday of the network era of broadcasting, writer, actor, and producer Bill Dana created a nationally recognized comic character who endured in the American consciousness for over a decade. When that character first uttered his signature phrase, "My name … Jose Jimenez," on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, he became one of the clearest representatives of a familiar American type. Portraying a Mexican immigrant on the bottom half of the social ladder, Dana's Jimenez worked at various times as an elevator operator and a bellboy. By today's standards, that portrayal, which included Jimenez's broken English and naive innocence, appears to many condescending at best. However, Jimenez was a singularly noble character, possessing goodness, wisdom, and sincerity, traits comparatively unusual in the history of American TV characters. Although he exhibited stereotypical racial characteristics common to the period, at the same time Jimenez displayed more positive tendencies. He was confused and clueless, but also resourceful and crafty; he had a stereotypically huge family back home, but he supported them faithfully through the sweat of his own brow; he worked as a salaried servant of the wealthier residents of the hotel, but he often proved kinder and smarter than his social superiors.

Like many film and television actors, the public identity of Bill Dana became inseparable from the celebrated persona he portrayed. What was unusual about Dana/Jimenez, however, was that he was able to escape the show on which he first appeared and to move fluidly, and often simultaneously, to an assortment of other venues. After Dana introduced Jimenez on The Steve Allen Show, the character resurfaced regularly over the next five years on The Spike Jones Show, The Danny Thomas Show, and The New Steve Allen Show, as well as becoming the principal character of The Bill Dana Show (NBC, 1963-1965). Through the 1960s, Dana also made guest appearances as Jimenez on a wide variety of contemporary TV series and featured the character in several comedy record albums. Dana (as Jimenez) even showed up briefly in the 1983 feature film, The Right Stuff.

By 1970, the ethnic humor and dialect comedy upon which Jose Jimenez depended was growing increasingly less fashionable. The fact that Dana was not himself Hispanic intensified developing claims that the character was a racist representation. As American television moved into the more politically conscious "relevance" era of the 1970s with shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Jimenez became a vestige of a bygone time and all but disappeared. Released from his signature creation, however, Dana would reemerge in other roles.

Born William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1924, Dana entered the television industry in 1950 as a page at NBC in New York City. Through the 1950s he performed in nightclubs and played bit parts on television shows. He worked as a production assistant on The Phil Silvers Show, wrote for The Milton Berle Show, and got his big break when he was hired as a writer on The Steve Allen Show in 1956. He moved up to head writer, earning an Emmy nomination for his work, and became a performer on the show in 1959.

Though his other achievements were eclipsed by the popularity of his Jose Jimenez, Dana also wrote and produced for the several shows in which Jimenez was featured, and, as a character actor of some note, he played guest roles on a number of series, including Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Batman. Dana's presence on American TV waned after the retirement of the Jose Jimenez character, though he did continue to play occasional parts in TV series into the 1970s. One of the brightest spots in his career came in 1972 when he wrote the classic episode of All in the Family in which Sammy Davis, Jr. visits the Bunker household.

In the 1980s, when Jose Jimenez had become a distant memory, Bill Dana moved into a new period of activity. Having appeared in Get Smart, he co-wrote and acted in The Nude Bomb (1980), a feature film based upon the TV comedy. He was in the principal cast of two network comedy series, No Soap, Radio (ABC, 1982) and Zorro and Son (CBS, 1983), but neither of these lasted longer than a few months. In 1988 and 1989, he also wrote for and appeared on a series of specials featuring the Smothers Brothers, who had appeared regularly on Steve Allen in 1961. During this decade, Dana was also reunited with many other of his co-stars from The Steve Allen Show, including Allen himself, Jayne Meadows, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston, all of whom played recurring guest roles with Dana on the hit medical drama St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988).

—Robert Thompson