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Born William Szathmary in Quincy, Mass., Dana had a gift for language. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he was often an interpreter, Dana tried his hand at comedy, as as a writer for The Spike Jones Show and a comic that had gotten a new TV show: Don Adams and Get Smart. Dana provided Maxwell Smart’s famous “Would you believe...?” gag (and his brother, Irving Szathmary, wrote the Get Smart theme music). As a writer for The Steve Allen Show, Dana used his language skills to create a character he performed himself, going on camera for the first time. Just his self introduction got a laugh: “My name: José Jiménez” he said in a halting, exaggerated accent, which he claimed was Bolivian. Rather than dismissing the act as politically incorrect, the Latino community embraced Dana’s character, and he was honored by the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Jiménez “was a perfect example of a person that wanted to be assimilated into American culture, learn the language, always looked spiffy,” Dana said later, “not a bit of the racist stereotype about the unkempt Mexican.” He performed on The Imogene Coca Show, The Danny Thomas Show and The Martha Raye Show, and very quickly, The Bill Dana Show, of which NBC ordered 39 episodes without having him make a pilot.
The José Jiménez character was so popular, astronaut Alan Shepard took the code name “José” and Dana became the Mercury Space Program’s “mascot.” Dana was so intertwined with the space program, astronauts would hang around his house, and he was even inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. After his show folded and guest invitations dried up, Dana continued work as a writer, scripting perhaps the best-known episode of All in the Family in 1972: the black singer Sammy Davis Jr. kisses a very surprised bigot Archie Bunker on the cheek, resulting in the longest sustained laughter from the show’s audience in the entire run of the series. It was so long, in fact, that a big chunk of the laugher had to be cut to fit the episode into its time slot. Dana used his fame — and earnings — to help create the American Comedy Archives, housing interviews with comics, including Phyllis Diller, Dick Gregory, Don Knotts, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Tom Poston, Paul Rodriguez, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, Jonathan Winters, and himself. It’s housed at Emerson College in Boston. “As a performer, I was always frightened to death until I got on stage, and then I wanted to stay there forever,” Dana once said. “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.” He died at his home in Nashville on June 15, at 92.
Dana as Jiménez in a 1964 publicity shot.
From This is True for 18 June 2017
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