Would you believe: Bill Dana’s contribution to Get Smart

Bill Dana as José Jiménez.

Bill Dana as José Jiménez.

Sometimes a mere word – or a few – can create something big. Thus was the case with a joke formula written by comedian and noted screenwriter Bill Dana in the early 1960s.

Dana passed away on June 15 at the age of 92.

Born William Szathmary on Oct. 5, 1924, Dana was best recognized as the thick-accented immigrant character José Jiménez. Dana also had a hand in Get Smart’s success -and in influencing the popular vernacular of the late 1960s. However, his efforts came long before Get Smart or even his own show, The Bill Dana Show, were conceived.

In the early 1950s, Dana had started out as an NBC page and performed in New York nightclubs with partner Gene Wood. After the Wood/Dana partnership ran its course, Dana set his focus on writing material.

Around this time the talent agency representing Dana, NRB Associates, expressed interest in stand-up comedian Don Adams, who had just made an appearance on the Garry Moore Show. They directed Adams to work with Dana, who would write material for him.

Adams was sent to a swank 20th floor duplex apartment on Central Park West. There he found Dana, who was decked out in a smoking jacket. Adams would learn, after Dana’s unemployment check dropped on the floor during the course of the meeting, the posh digs didn’t belong to his new partner. The smoking jacket wasn’t Dana’s either. Dana had been house sitting for Imogene Coca, who was known as Sid Caesar’s partner on Your Show of Shows.

The two would eventually expand on Adams’ depiction of a detective with an exaggerated

The cast of The Bill Dana Show, including Don Adams, Maggie Peterson, Jonathan Harris and Bill Dana.

The cast of The Bill Dana Show, including Don Adams, Maggie Peterson, Jonathan Harris and Bill Dana.

William Powell voice. “The Voice” found its way into other routines – notably as a defense attorney and a football coach.

Adams had some hesitation about using the nails-on-chalkboard voice but Dana encouraged it.

“That character, when you said the words, they just pierced right through you. It was a comedy writer’s dream,” said Dana in a 2001 documentary, Inside TVLand: Get Smart.

“Bill Dana said to me, you know, that voice is funny,” said Adams. “I said, I hate that voice. Bill Dana said, no, no, no, it’s funny. Use it.”

Dana would later defend use of The Voice when producer Sheldon Leonard wanted to “release” Don Adams from The Bill Dana Show.

Their other enduring collaboration, scrawled on a piece of yellow legal paper, was one Dana would later lacquer and frame: The Would You Believe gag.

The routine was a take off on the British in India themed movies of the 1930s, including The Lives of a Bengal Lancer  and Gunga Din, In it, Lieutenant Faversham confronts villain Mohammed Sidney Kahn:

Faversham: Not so fast, smarty Kahn. You think you’ve got me, but I have you surrounded by the entire mounted Seventeenth Bengal Lancers.
Kahn: I don’t believe that.
Faversham: Would you believe the First Bengal Lancers?
Kahn: No.
Faversham: How about Gunga Din on a donkey?

The Voice originally wasn’t used in this gag. Instead, Adams used his Cary Grant impersonation for Faversham’s lines.

Dana and Adams, circa 2001 with the original Would You Believe gag.

Dana and Adams, circa 2001 with the original Would You Believe gag.

The routine replayed itself in other acts, other shows and would find a place on The Bill Dana Show. Get Smart had a solid collection of these over the years. The joke was so strong that it became one of the elements most commonly associated with Get Smart, in addition to the Shoephone, the opening door sequence and Maxwell Smart’s voice. It’s assumed it was always there – even though it wasn’t used in every episode.

Moving forward, Dana took up the reins as a writer on The Steve Allen Show and created his own character for Allen’s Man in the Street segments – José Jiménez. These segments included a pantheon of other comedians: Don Knots, Pat Harrington Jr., Tom Poston and Louis Nye.

Dana’s Jiménez would eventually make the variety show rounds (including a take on the Ed Sullivan Show) and net a few comedy albums.

The character became a hit and in 1961 Dana made several guest appearances on the The Danny Thomas Show with José serving as an elevator operator. Riding the tide of popularity, NBC gave Dana his own show which ran from 1963 to 1965.

José Jiménez and Byron Glick ponder their fate in "Blood for Two Turnips."

José Jiménez and Byron Glick ponder their fate in “Blood for Two Turnips.”

In The Bill Dana Show, José was employed as a bellhop at the swank Park Central Hotel. Much to the annoyance of hotel manger Mr. Phillips (played by Jonathan Harris), José would either find himself in some predicament or engage in a daydream sequence ala shades of Walter Mitty.

Gary Crosby played fellow bellhop Eddie for the first season. Joining the cast later in the series were Don Adams as house detective Byron Glick and Maggie Peterson as Susie the waitress.

The Jiménez/Glick episodes produced some of the funniest bits in the series. However, that was infrequent. Adams appeared in only 15 of the show’s 42 episodes.

Nevertheless, it was the Glick character that would survive. After The Bill Dana Show was canceled, Adams, still under contract with NBC, found a future with Get Smart.
Dana actually appeared in two episodes of Get Smart.

His first stint was a cameo in the third season episode “Super Sonic Boom.” In that episode, Max and 99 are gaslighted in to believing they’ve been smuggled into Argentina. Once they escape Kaos by crawling out of a sewer, Max approaches a man on the street played by Dana and addresses him in Spanish. Dana responds by saying he doesn’t speak Spanish.

Dana’s second appearance, which he was paid SAG minimum for, was in the fifth season episode “Ice Station Siegfried.”

In this episode he fills in for Don Adams, portraying CIA Agent Quigley. In DVD commentary, Dana remarked that the character was José Jiménez without the accent -and longer sideburns.

“Don and I were like brothers. It was just one of those situations where he was under the weather… a lot of personal stuff going on at the same time. He wasn’t feeling well,” said Dana.

Dana was also one of the writers of the The Nude Bomb (1980), which he had a role in as fashion designer Jonathan Levinson Seigle.

As for José Jiménez, his last TV appearance was in a 1966 episode of Batman. The character was laid to rest in 1970 with Dana actually holding a mock funeral for José on Sunset Boulevard. This character really wouldn’t fly today.

This is only snippet of what can be noted about Bill Dana. It’s also worth pointing out that his brother Irving Szathmary composed the Get Smart theme. Dana’s other brother Al Szathmary served as Don Adams’ stand-in on Get Smart.

Bill Dana with Barbara Feldon in Ice Station Siegfried.

Bill Dana with Barbara Feldon in Ice Station Siegfried.

From page to screen: Get Smart marks 50 years

Maxwell Smart answers his shoephone for the first time on Sept. 18, 1965. Would you believe for the second time?

Fifty years ago this week a few of spyfi’s noted 60s TV shows were birthed – I Spy, The Wild Wild West and Get Smart.
It was on Sept. 18, 1965 that viewers may have tuned into NBC and found themselves watching the beginning of a black and white show, which starts off with a tuxedoed man sitting at concert next to his elegantly dressed and perfectly coiffed date. Then a phone rings. People stare. He excuses himself and takes the call in the nearest closet, where it’s revealed that the ringing is coming from a phone in, of all places, his shoe.
We learn from that one-sided conversation this character is a spy. We’re clued in early on that he’s an awkward person, since he can’t help but get stuck in the closet before driving off to his assignment. What we don’t learn is what happened to that woman he left back in the concert hall, but that’s just how Get Smart rolls.

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in Get Smart's pilot episode.

The seeds to Smart were planted by Dan Melnick, a partner in the New York-based production firm of Talent Associates. The other partner in Talent Associates was David Susskind.
With spies galore on screen, Melnick felt the world was ready for James Bond and the like to be parodied.
Melnick initially approached Mike Nichols to work on the project, but the logistics didn’t work out.
He then contacted his pal Mel Brooks and, following that, brought Buck Henry into the fold. He pitched the idea to ABC, which gave Talent Associates the funds for a screenplay.
“We wrote this take off on spy stories. We figured the people running our country were completely inept and we’d show the world,” Brooks noted in an audio commentary of the pilot.
The group worked out the nuts and bolts of the show, namely that their version of James Bond should be named Maxwell Smart – because he wasn’t smart.

Prior to netting the role of Maxwell Smart, Don Adams played Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show. The rest of the cast included Maggie Mancuso, Jonathan Harris and Bill Dana.

“We…gave him, as his most sterling quality, a remarkable lack of insight,” said Henry, as stated in The Life and Times of Maxwell Smart.
Since secret agents of the day were all about code numbers, they gave Smart the number 86 – the signal bartenders use to cut off service to drunks.
It took Brooks and Henry three and a half months to write the script – a processes mostly worked out over Henry’s pool table.
“We could have done it in a week, but we loved playing pool,” said Brooks.
Getting Smart from page to screen was a bit of a process, part of which was meeting the desires of the network. At some point in that process ABC suggested adding a dog to the cast – and a mother.
Brooks’ opposition to Max having a mother, in most writings about Get Smart’s back story, has been well stated. He and Henry did relent on the matter of a dog – only they made sure this dog would be the antitheses of Lassie.
ABC’s head of programming, Edgar Scherick, didn’t find the script funny. Some reports have quoted him as calling the script “un-American,” however, he denied that statement. Still, ABC gave Smart a no-go.
“ABC commissioned this pilot. Somebody looked at it and said, no, it’s creepy. It’s not funny. It’s basically un-American,” Henry noted in an audio commentary of the pilot.
Some may respond to that with a well earned, “Seriously?” However, lately I don’t think today’s social conscious is so different. That script revolved around a terrorist plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty. In our post- 9-11 world, Americans may have a hard time immediately grasping that concept as funny. Given how our current culture is so eager to be offended, I’ve also wondered if the idea of a spy satire would have been spiked entirely.
ABC’s good opinion really didn’t matter. Talent Associates, which had brought in Leonard Stern to head its west cost operation, moved on – specifically to NBC.
There were some minor tweaks NBC wanted – and one rather significant change. Earlier in the process, when the team presented the show to ABC, Tom Poston was named to play the lead. NBC, however, had an actor they wanted to play Smart: Don Adams.
Adams was under contract with NBC after the sitcom he had co-starred in, The Bill Dana Show, was canceled. As the story goes, Adams had a year to pick and choose a pilot – and was waiting for a possible Sheldon Leonard produced project. Instead he was asked if he’d consider a script about a bumbling James Bond. He was initially hesitant. When he found out Brooks and Henry were the writers, he agreed to do it without even reading the script.
Adams brought elements from his stand-up routine to the mix, specifically his exaggerated impression of actor William Powell and the “Would you believe” gag, which had been created by writer Bill Dana. While the part wasn’t originally intended for Adams, Henry has described the casting as serendipitous and Brooks called it a wonderful marriage.
“I think the energy behind it all…the jet engine… was Don Adams, who really believed in what he was doing,” said Brooks. “He could work from morning to night and never quit.”

A pre-99 Barbara Feldon pitching Top Brass hair cream.

The part of Smart’s femme fatale, the never-named Agent 99, was written with actress Barbara Feldon in mind. Prior to spots on such shows as The Man From Uncle, Mr. Broadway and the Talent Associates produced series East Side/West Side, Feldon garnered fame for crawling on a tiger skin rug to pitch Top Brass hair cream.
Chosen to play 86 and 99’s boss, The Chief, was character actor and opera singer Ed Platt. One of his most memorable pre-Get Smart roles was as James Dean’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without A Cause. He also had roles in Written on the Wind and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The pilot was not created with a logo or opening. Leonard Stern later added the noted opening and closing sequence with the multiple doors Max walked through. That scene itself has been parodied a number of times and is as iconic as the shoephone.
As for that shoephone, Brooks noted in DVD commentary that he thought a bizarre place for anyone to have a secret telephone was in the heel of a shoe.
“That was the first time a phone went off in an audience,” said Brooks, in reference to the pilot’s opening scene.
Henry said, as stated in DVD commentary, it was ironic that the show started with a phone ringing in an audience.
“Now of course there’s nothing unusual about this,” said Henry. “Then, this was a remarkable instance of strangeness.”
This was actually a simplified glimpse of what went into the premiere of Get Smart. There’s a lot more to digest on the matter and more insights can be found in my reference guide. Also, the DVD box set features two rounds of wonderful audio commentary on the pilot from Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.

It's the old snap your fingers and turn a black and white show into color trick. Prior to Get Smart's first episode, Don Adams hosted NBC's fall preview show, "A Secret Agent's Dilemma, or A Clear Case of Mind Over Mata Hari."

Also premiering on NBC the night of Sept. 18 was another iconic 60s sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie. That show, along with the other shows in NBC’s fall lineup were featured in a TV special, A Secret Agent’s Dilemma, or A Clear Case of Mind Over Mata Hari. Airing Sept. 6, 1965, this was the first appearance of Maxwell Smart on TV.
So what was the world like when Get Smart aired? Perhaps it was as confusing and turbulent as it is today. The country was both in the midst of changing social norms and engaged in a war.
In a nutshell, here’s what kept people glued to the news in the month prior to Get Smart’s premiere:
• The war in Vietnam had escalated and the American ground war was underway. On Sept. 11, 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division of the United States Army arrived in Vietnam. During this period President Lyndon Johnson, signed a law penalizing the burning of draft cards with up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
• The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 was ongoing. The day of Get Smart’s airing, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin invited the leaders of India and Pakistan to meet in the Soviet Union to negotiate.
• In Iraq, Prime Minister Arif Abd ar-Razzaq’s attempted coup fails.
• Hurricane Betsy hit the New Orleans area with winds reaching 145 mph. There were 76 deaths and $1.42 billion in damage.
In non-scary news:
• Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, featuring “Like a Rolling Stone.”
• The fourth and final period of the Second Vatican Council opened.
• Gemini 5, with a crew of Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, was launched.
September inches us closer to the World Series. Here’s what was going on in sports around this time:
• Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs.
• On the night Get Smart aired, Mickey Mantle played his 2,000th game at Yankee stadium.
Born in September of 1965 were: President of Syria Bashar al-Assad, boxer Lennox Lewis, actress Marlee Matlin, musician Moby and actor Charlie Sheen.

86 and 99 tune into radio station KAOS for a special broadcast.