Bill Dana, comedian who came to regret the success of Jose Jimenez character, dies at 92
Comedy writer and performer Bill Dana, who won stardom but stroked anger with his broken-English-spewing character Jose Jimenez, has died.
Dana died at his home in Nashville at age 92, according to Emerson College, his alma mater.
Early in his career, Dana wrote jokes for Don Adams and Steve Allen, serving as head writer of Allen’s show and a member of the performing troupe.
Born William Szathmary and a Massachusetts native of Hungarian-Jewish descent, Dana first appeared as Mexican immigrant Jimenez in a 1959 edition of “The Steve Allen Show.” It was for one of the show’s “Man on the Street” interviews conducted by fellow cast member Pat Harrington Jr.
Introducing himself in mangled English, Jose Jimenez cracked up the studio audience and convinced Dana that he had a hit on his hands.
He did. “My name ... Jose ... Jimenez” was soon a national catchphrase.
Though he defended the character as “a perfect example of a person that wanted to be assimilated into American culture, learn the language, always looked spiffy,” he retired the role in 1970 when he decided it was playing into racial stereotypes and embraced by people he though were intolerant.
“It was people I met in this country who would tell me ‘Boy, shore love it when you play the dumb Mexican’ that made me want to drop the character,” Dana told the Los Angeles Times in a 1970 interview.
He later declared the character “officially dead” and wrote an obituary for Jose Jimenez, which he read at a Latino civil rights meeting in Los Angeles.
But for years, the character became a frequent guest in America’s living rooms. On Garry Moore’s variety program, Dana appeared as Jose the Astronaut when the space race was heating up. Being interviewed for his planned mission, Jose, understandably wary, was asked what he planned to do while in space.
Wearing a fretful expression, he replied, “I plan to cry a lot.”
In another exchange, Jose’s interviewer noted that he was all suited up for the voyage. “And what is that called, the crash helmet?”
Jose: “Oh, I hope not.”
Adopted by the original seven Mercury astronauts, Dana and his alter ego became part of U.S space history on May 5, 1961, thanks to the first words spoken after Alan Shepard’s liftoff from fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton on the ground: “OK, Jose, you’re on your way.”
The character soon won Dana his own sitcom, “The Bill Dana Show,” which aired on NBC from 1963-65. A goodhearted naif, Jose was a bellhop at a New York hotel. (Don Adams played the house detective, which paved the way for his 1965-70 spy sitcom, “Get Smart”.)
Dana recorded eight bestselling comedy albums and made many TV appearances while continuing behind the scenes as a comedy writer. (He wrote the classic “Sammy’s Visit” episode of “All in the Family,” which featured Sammy Davis Jr. kissing bigoted Archie Bunker on the cheek.)
Dana also ran a talent management company and an advertising agency.
Looking back on his formative years in comedy for a 1998 interview with the Associated Press, Dana said, “America was so uptight sexually you couldn’t show a close-up of the stork on ‘Zoo Parade.’ We were blessed with having to get our laughs out of pure comedy, pure in the sense of universality.”
Then he was asked to share a favorite joke. From Dana:
“Steve Allen is questioning Jose Jimenez and says, ‘I understand you own a ranch.’
“‘Yes, the name of my ranch is the Bar Nine Circle Z Rocking O Flying W Lazy O Crazy Two Happy Seven Bar 17 Parallelogram Four Octagon Nine Trapezoid Six Ranch.’
“‘Well, do you have many cattle?’
“‘No. Not many survive the branding.’”
Dana, who died June 15, is survived by his wife, Evelyn Shular.
A Los Angeles Times staff writer contributed to this report.
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