My Name... José Jiménez. A tribute to comedy legend Bill Dana

June 19th, 2017
Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez

It is with a very heavy heart that I write this.

Bill Dana- Comedian, writer, producer, recording artist, author, 8th Mercury Astronaut ("out of a possible 7"), and beloved as his signature character, José Jiménez, passed away at his home in Nashville on Thursday, June 15th, 2017 with his wife Evy by his side. He was 92 years young.

Born William Szathmary in 1924 (the “caboose” in a family of six children in Quincy, MA, of Hungarian-Jewish descent) and growing up during The Great Depression, Bill watched his family struggle. He had "a morning and an afternoon paper route" to help out. Bill’s father Joseph once had to break apart a wooden coal bin to use as fuel to heat their house.

Bill first realized the power that humor could wield at a young age, when he was picked on by schoolchildren for his Jewish heritage. “You killed Christ”, the bullies taunted. Young Bill summoned the courage to shoot back, “No I didn’t... my mommy and daddy did. They live at 31 Mechanic Street!” A startled pause, then laughter. The first of many times comedy would save him.

As soon as he turned 18, Bill signed enlistment papers to serve in WWII, earning a Bronze Star Medal as a combat infantryman. After the war, he enrolled at Emerson College on the G.I. Bill. He began performing stand-up with fellow Emersonian Gene Wood as “Dana and Wood”. He changed his name (after his mother Dena) because, well, “Whoever heard of a Wood-en szathmary?”

On his early television appearances as "Dana & Wood":

After graduating with honors from Emerson College in 1950, Bill got a job like so many other aspiring writers of the day- as a page at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza while continuing to perform stand-up in New York City. One of Bill’s first jobs was to deliver messages to Milton Berle (whose show he would produce decades later.) He was landing gigs on The Martha Raye Show and The Imogene Coca Show. Coca would become an unofficial sponsor and champion of Bill’s. When she hosted gatherings at her apartment, Bill would sit, wide-eyed and mesmerized by the comedy legends who would drop by her salons to kibbitz and try out new material.

It was through manager Mace Neufeld that Bill first met a young comedian named Don Adams and fell in love with his voice and unique style. Bill wrote the memorable “Would you believe…?” jokes for Don that would prove the breakthrough for both of their careers, when Don performed on the original Tonight Show. Steve Allen sought out the writer in the wings that night, and Bill soon became head writer on The Steve Allen Show, sharing that legendary comedy stable with Don Hinckley, Pat HarringtonTom Poston, Dayton Allen, Gabe Dell, Arnie Sultan, and Marvin Worth. 

On his writing partnership with Don Adams:

Bill convinced his friend, Don Knotts, to do his 'Tranquilizer Salesman' sketch for Steve, which got him hired on the show. Bill also hired writing legends Buck HenrySam Denoff, and Bill Persky for the ABC incarnation of The Steve Allen Show.

Bill had grown up doing impressions from a very young age- his older brother Arthur (later a Princeton Professor) taught him five dialects before he was five years old. So when Bill wrote a sketch about a Latino Santa Claus School instructor, Steve insisted Bill perform it himself. On November 23, 1959 Bill first presented José Jimenez on The Steve Allen Show, forever changing the trajectory of his life. As Bill would love to say, “And the rest ... was Jistory!”

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The character literally rocketed to fame. Bill’s 1961 comedy album was the backdrop to the Space Race at its height. The Mercury 7 Astronauts would play the José routines as they prepared for their mission. Bill delighted to learn that the first words spoken to an American in space on May 5, 1961, were from Deke Slayton to Alan Shepard as he blasted off in his Mercury-Redstone 3: “Ok, José, you’re on your way!” which thereafter entered the national lexicon. (Later, In 1966, Bill was proudly named as America's first "Honorary Astronaut" by the Aerospace Society. In 1981, “José the Astronaut” was honored by inclusion in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and later enshrined at the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida.)

Bill cherished the character. More than an alter ego, Bill saw José as a fully-formed human being. When Danny Thomas offered him a role on The Danny Thomas Show, Bill embraced the opportunity to make José more of a flesh-and-blood character. Gaining even more exposure and popularity, Bill performed at the hungry i, the Ruban Bleu, the Blue Angel, the Bon Soir... even at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Gala. He recorded 8 best-selling comedy albums, made 17 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, 6 appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, guested on The Hollywood Palace, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hourand even did a “window cameo” on Batman. José/Bill were ubiquitous on 1960s television screens. His wide-eyed visage was pictured on everything from billboards to Playboy spreads.

Producer Sheldon Leonard placed an order for 26 episodes of a new show starring Bill without so much as a pilot. The Bill Dana Show debuted in 1963 on NBC, with music scored by Bill’s brother Irving Szathmary (a former arranger for the bandleader Paul Whiteman) and starring Jonathan Harris, Maggie Peterson and Don Adams (as “Byron Glick”, the bumbling hotel inspector.) Adams left to star in Get Smart with Bill’s blessing (brother Irving also scored that show’s famous theme). But just after two seasons, The Bill Dana Show was unceremoniously cancelled (by telegram), to the shock of its star and many fans, in 1965.

On The Bill Dana Show and the subsequent success of Don Adams on Get Smart:

Bill would continue to perform throughout the 1960s, sharing the stage with luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Ed Sullivan and a host of others who would play “straight man” to Jose.

At the height of the Civil Rights Era, the character he had birthed and nurtured, began to face criticism and became the object of scorn. Bill began receiving death threats over his portrayal of José. While some loved his clever use of malaprops, others saw the dialect distinction as a racial slur. Bill had a leadership role in the Latino awareness organization, LA CAUSA, and was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his character. One night in San Antonio he was receiving the IMAGE award (Involvement of Mexican Americans in Gainful Endeavor) while simultaneously a group across town picketed against the AT&T “jellow pages” ad he was featured in. To the very end, Bill maintained that José was a dignified, industrious everyman with a heart full of innocence -- anything but a stereotype. “It never was a caricature,” he said. “He’s not a Latin character. He’s a universal character.” But he was torn on how to proceed.

By 1969, the negativity because too much for him, and he publicly retired José by reading his obituary at a Congress of Mexican-American Unity fete in Los Angeles (a move he would later regret). Bill then moved to Maui with his wife Evy and turned his attention to raising awareness for other causes close to his heart. In 1970, he honored Earth Day by creating the first syndicated cartoon series devoted to the environment, “Ecolo/Jest” for The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, later published by his dear friend Leonard Stern.

Another longtime friend, Norman Lear, eased him out of semi-retirement, offering him the chance to pen an episode of his wildly popular show All in the Family. Bill wrote “Sammy’s Visit”, which earned him a Writers Guild Award and is consistently voted one of TV Guide's "Top 100 Television Episodes of All Time." He was so proud of how he conceived of a way to get the real Sammy Davis, Jr. into the fictional household of Archie Bunker, and set the scene for one of the greatest on-screen kisses of all time.

 

Bill would continue to perform, write, and produce many other television shows in the 1970s-90s--notably as the memorable “Uncle Angelo” on The Golden Girls.

As someone who battled severe depression throughout his life, Bill wanted to share the lessons he felt we could learn through the healing power of laughter. In 1982, he co-wrote The Laughter Prescription with Dr. Lawrence J. Peter. He felt so passionately about comedy as a kind of lifeboat for the soul, that he convinced his oldest friend, philanthropist Ted Cutler, to fund a new project at their alma mater, Emerson College. In 2005 the pair founded The American Comedy Archives to establish a way to study, honor, and preserve the stories from comedy legends. On why he values humor as a subject of such deserved-attention, Bill told me, "Laughter is the greatest healer, the greatest survival mechanism God ever gave us. The same stuff that gets you depressed is the same stuff that's going to give you joy. So- Amuse it or Lose it!"

On founding The American Comedy Archives:

I had the honor of co-producing the Comedy Archives with Bill. I traveled on the road with him for years, interviewing all the friends he had made throughout his career- Bea Arthur, Shecky Greene, Charles Grodin, Hugh Hefner, Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters, and over 60 more. I was awed by this octegenarian's energy, enthusiasm, and quick wit. My grandmother used to say “in the ocean, I’m ageless.” For Bill, time seemingly stood still anytime he had the floor. Whether at The Improv or Leisure World, or even in the cab to the hotel- he delighted in getting laughs and ALWAYS did, no matter who was in the room. Anywhere he was, laughter followed.

He embraced everyone proximate to him as family. There are so many of us lucky enough to have gotten to know him as "UB" (Uncle Billy). Just a few weeks ago, I was in Nashville with him and Evy, working on his autobiography. He had TOO many ideas, too many jokes, so much so that we decided to make a facebook page for his “No News Network” where he was just beginning to weave his never-ending creativity into hashtag-worthy posts: “And now.. No news: Congressional activity suggests in 2017 whatever hits the fan will still not be distributed evenly.” He was so excited by all the newfound ways to communicate with his fans, and he orchestrated this picture to emphasize that he had a lot more to do:

And he sure did. His mind never slowed or stalled, and he never stopped writing. At 80, he went on the road with five other legends of comedy (Shelley Berman, Irwin Corey, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl) billed as “The Comedians.” At 92, he was writing his autobiography and had plans to produce more Comedy interviews with Emerson College. He had so much more life than just one lifetime.

Bill is survived by his best friend and cherished wife, Evelyn (Evy) Shular Dana of Walden’s Creek, Tennessee, and the author of this inferior tribute, who will always think of him as "Uncle Bill."

-Jenni Matz, Director, The Interviews

 

QUOTES:

"Bill Dana, as dear and caring as he was funny. And my GOD- he was funny!" - Norman Lear

"Bill was always there for me in the early days of my career with a smile and a joke. A loving, sensitive, funny and brilliant friend. - Herb Alpert

"He was one of the kindest, sweetest, smartest people I've ever known and it's very difficult to imagine life without him." - Kix Brooks

Everybody in the world loved Bill Dana. Bill was not just a comedian. He was a philosopher. He was funny, but he was also super-bright. He bridged the culture gap. He popularized Mexican-American relations- as a result of Bill, a lot of people were communicating on a level they hadn’t before. He was political without being in politics. When you heard “My name… José Jimenez”-- everybody put their hands down. Whatever tension existed.. vanished. I wish he was around now to solve the immigration problem! He will be missed.” -George Schlatter 

"When I was a little kid, I remember seeing José Jiménez on The Ed Sullivan Show and falling in love with him. There was a such a joy and an innocence to him-- extremely funny and unlike anyone I'd ever seen. I connected with him on a deep level. I somehow became aware that he was a character played by a man whose name was really Bill Dana. That's one of the very first times in my life I was floored. Many, Many years later, I walked into an autograph show and across the room, directly in front of me sat a man with a nametag on that said 'Bill Dana'. As I walked toward him, I had a crystal-clear realization that I could draw a straight line from seeing him as a child, to me becoming Pee-wee Herman. What an amazing honor to have then had the pleasure to become friends with Bill. He was a true legend. A maverick. And one of the very nicest people in show business. He was clever and smart. Hilarious. Sweet. Happy. In love. Genuine, and one-of-a-kind! I knoew he knew how much I admired him, was influenced by him, and loved him. Now you know too. I'm gonna miss him a lot."- Paul Reubens

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