Remembering Bill Dana


 

Well, we lost another great one. , whose real name was William Szathmary, left us this week at 92 years old. Many of you may not be familiar with his name, but he changed the game on TV with his endearing character José Jiménez, a lovely, gentle man, who was supposedly a confused newcomer to this country. He had a thick Spanish accent, and was actually embraced by the Latino community in his time, but in today’s P.C. world, he would probably have met with criticism.

Bill began performing while at Emerson College in Boston where he graduated in 1950. Another Emerson comic! What was with that school that it turned out so many famous comedians?

He first introduced the character of José Jiménez back in 1959, even before some of you were born, on NBC’s The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, which was one of the wildest, and funniest talk shows ever to hit TV. If you don’t know who Steve Allen was, Google him. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Bill had his own show, The Bill Dana Show from 1963-1965 where his José Jiménez character played a confused, daydreaming bellhop. His tag line was “My name.…José Jiménez.” It loses something in print, but when you heard him say it would be indelibly etched into your consciousness. The whole country was saying it. It was classic.

Bill also wrote for his frequent collaborator Don Adams on Get Smart where he wrote the famous “Would you believe?” bit, that to me is on a par with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” He also wrote on Norman Lear’s All in the Family, another show that changed the game on TV. He also appeared as an astronaut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I first had the pleasure of meeting “Uncle Bill” as he called himself when he wrote to me, back in 2004, one night in a diner when I was hanging out with Jackie Mason, which I did a lot in those days, and many days before that as well. I was thrilled to meet him as I had been a fan of his for years. At the time, he was about 78 and was still so funny. We hit it off right away and exchanged information, but I never really expected him to keep in touch the way he did.

I wrote about our meeting in my Comedy Matters column I was writing at the time, and after I sent it to him, he became a fan of the column and would write to me spontaneously from time to time, always referring to himself as “Uncle Bill.”

Back in February of 2008, I had invited him to an event in my honor which I think was at The . This is the e-mail I received back, which I told him I would probably read at the event:

Jeff, Thanks for the invite. Unfortunately that night I am entertaining at Buckingham Palace (barandgrille) otherwise I would have been there believe me. Whatever honor you’re getting I’m sure you’ve earned it unless of course you haven’t, and this is all just a spin off from knowing people close to friends of Jackie Mason. Whatever the reason, should you read this at the award event, please mention that I am available for brief and close encounters of any kind and that my Aunt Mary Szathmary owned the restaurant on 2nd Avenue where Hymie the waiter worked.
This couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Unless, of course, Joe Zero were still around.

With great awe.

Uncle Bill Dana

And when I wrote back and thanked him, telling him I was honored to receive his message from such a great comedy legend he wrote back:

Aw, shucks. T’warnt nothin. Again, congratulations on an honor well deserved. xxUB

In May of that year, he read a column I wrote mentioning my comedy partner at the time, a funny, beautiful girl named Sonya Gignac and he wrote this message to me:

Jeff, Wonder if there is a connection: just after VE Day, my infantry division The 66th, was stationed in Saint Victoret staging area just outside Marseilles. Being conversant in French I was assigned as interpreter to a Colonel. I called the two of us The CWC or Counter Whore Corps since enterprising young ladies had gone into the business of spreading happiness and clap in great abundance and our assignment was to help regulate the various factors involved in these brief encounters. Among the places which housed places of pleasure and consequences to which I was assigned was a little town called Gignac. Wonderful people. Vive la France! Uncle Bill

Then in April of 2009, when I announced that I was accepted to show my animated films at the Cannes Film Festival I got this message from Uncle Bill:

Hey, Jeff, Bill Dana checking in. Thanks for the newsy email. Some activity should that be of interest: On April 18th, I’m the Grand Marshall of the annual Doo Dah Parade in Ocean City New Jersey. Then I’m going to Norfolk, Nebraska, Johnny Carson’s hometown to get their Comedy Legend award. So I’ve only got a few weeks to become a legend. You do the best you can under the circumstances.
If you see Jackie M tell him I forgive him. No reason except it’ll make him nervous.
Meanwhile stay well. Shalom aloha, Uncle Bill

Then about 5 1/2 years ago at holiday-time, I got this lovely message from Bill and his wife of 36 years, Evy.

Happy Holiday Jeffrey from Evy and Bill the Danas of Nashville. See you when it’s warm. Feliz Cumpleanos and Chappy Channukah. Uncle Bill

So I wrote back wishing him the same and telling him I was supposed to be getting a talk show on the Dish Network. One of the millions of things promised to me over the years that never actually happened. And a couple of days later, this Jewish man who made comedy history by speaking with a Spanish accent wrote:

Jeffeleh, Dish will be a good place to start. From there you can work up to PlatterNet and from there only The Food Channel knows. In any event I’ll think of something to plug. Happy Whatever! Uncle Bill

Bill was a true gentleman in the old world style, something you don’t see anymore and I was truly honored to know him. R.I.P. Bill Dana you will be missed!

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Jeffrey Gurian is a comedy writer, comedian, author, producer, comedy connoisseur, comedy journalist, and an all around bon vivant. You can find him on red carpets, at comedy events across the country and hosting Comedy Matters TV. He’s the author of the book Make ‘Em Laugh with an intro by Chris Rock”. You've seen him on Comedy Central's Kroll Show and he's a regular on SiriusXM's Bennington Show and it's predecessor the Ron and Fez Show. He's also A BIG BELIEVER in Happiness and Love.