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
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?
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.
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.
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.