BILL DANA WAS AN ENORMOUS COMEDY TALENT – BOTH ON AND OFF CAMERA – FOR OVER A HALF CENTURY. HE WAS MY 1st “ESCORT” TO THE COMEDY STAGE.
Back in 1959, Bill Dana was head writer for NBC’s “Steve Allen Plymouth Show.” He had developed a shy, lovable character by the name of Jose Jimenez and Steve brought him out onstage. His wide-eyed innocence along with his sweet, honest characterization and cute-as-a-button voice and accent made him an instant sensation. Just about all he could get out of his mouth was, “My name, Jose Jimenez” – and the audience roared with laughter and approval. Jose became a regular on Steve’s TV shows and a new comedy career was born – with decades of TV and nightclub appearances, comedy albums and even his own network TV sitcom.
Sadly, his character would probably not be accepted in today’s overly politically correct environment – but the truth is that even Latinos of the day loved Jose Jimenez. He was sweet, kind-hearted and always with the purest of intentions. Audiences didn’t like Jose – they loved him.
Aside from his iconic Jose Jimenez character, Dana had an expansive career in various endeavors, but most famously as a writer, (including the classic “Sammy’s Visit” episode of the legendary sitcom, “All in the Family,” where Sammy Davis Jr. kisses Archie Bunker.)
As a youngster who was enamored with the world of comedy, I was one of Bill Dana’s biggest fans. I had been working part-time since the age of 12, so I was able to save up money to buy every one of his record albums. I played them for my friends – along with every relative and guest who walked through my parents’ door. I memorized every one of his routines – and that’s what prompted some of my very first forays onto the comedy stage. I appeared in talent shows and produced school variety shows, where I became known for lip-syncing Spike Jones records – and for performing Bill Dana’s “Jose Jimenez” routines.
Fade Out /Fade In: Hollywood in the mid-1970s: I finally got to meet Bill Dana when I was working for the great Henry Mancini. Larry Shayne, (Henry’s then-partner), Bill Dana, brilliant composer Patrick Williams and a few others were trying to help Martha Raye’s daughter, Melodye Raye, launch a singing career. We showcased her at a San Fernando Valley nightclub. She did fine but her career never really reached critical mass – and she eventually changed her name back to her birth name, Melodye Condos, after an estrangement from her mother.
Bill was so nice during our interactions, but I was frankly a bit shy about letting him know how profound an influence he had been on me and my career – such as it was. (At that time I had taken a break from singing, was in business end of the music business and hadn’t yet been performing comedy in L.A.)
Fade Out / Fade In: Hollywood in the late 1970s – 1980s: By now, I was regularly performing comedy onstage and in TV sitcoms. One day, while visiting my agent’s office, in walked – you guessed it – Bill Dana. It turns out Bill was a fellow client.
By this time, my new-in-town shyness was a distant memory and, when we were re-introduced, I reminded him of our earlier encounter and we started chatting. I expressed to him how very funny I thought he was and just how much he meant to me. He was rather stunned and perhaps even a bit doubtful of my sincerity. So, I challenged him.
I said, “Even all these years later, Bill, I’ll bet you I can remember any of your classic Jose Jimenez routines. Test me. Name the routine and I’ll be your straight man.” And he did. Of course, he picked his classic astronaut routine. We performed it flawlessly in the office. Other clients started gathering – and laughing.
That’s when he challenged me. He picked one of his more obscure (but hilarious) routines – “Jose, the Dude Rancher” – and, this time, he wanted to hear me as Jose. Yes, you can bet I knew that routine. So there I was with Bill Dana playing straight-man to my portrayal of his character, Jose Jimenez – and he busted out laughing at his own routine.
That prompted me to blurt out, in the midst of this surreal dream-come-true, “See? I TOLD you you were funny!”
And that he was. Hilarious, in fact.
Thank you, Billy, for your enormous gift of all that kindness, love and laughter – and for your friendship which I will treasure always.
BILL DANA (William Szathmary)
5 October 1924 – 15 June 2017