Bill Dana, a television writer, actor, producer and stand-up comedian whose routine as the bumbling immigrant and sometime-spaceman José Jiménez made him one of the most popular comics of the 1960s and a favorite of NASA’s first astronauts, died June 15 at his home in Nashville. He was 92.
His wife, Evy Dana, announced his death but did not disclose the cause.
Mr. Dana, the son of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, built his career on making mostly gentle fun of outsiders. His material was often mined from the malapropisms uttered by those who were new to the English language, and from the idioms of native speakers — as in the satirical ’60s spy series “Get Smart,” which featured a recurring “would you believe” bit that Mr. Dana had previously written for the show’s star, comedian Don Adams.
“At this very moment, this warehouse is being surrounded by 100 cops with Doberman pinschers,” Adams tells one villain in a movie spinoff. “Would you believe it?”
“I find that hard to believe,” he’s told, prompting Adams to respond: “Would you believe 10 security guards and a bloodhound? How about a Boy Scout with rabies?”
Mr. Dana’s writing credits included an episode of “All in the Family,” in which the black, Jewish entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. meets the series’s bigoted protagonist, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). “You being colored, well, I know you had no choice in that,” Bunker tells Davis. “But whatever made you turn Jew?”
Mr. Dana, who came to write the episode in part through his friendship with producer Norman Lear, crafted an ending that featured Davis kissing Bunker on the cheek — a surprise that TV Guide hailed as one of the greatest moments in television history.
Yet Mr. Dana remains best known for Jiménez, whose gentle earnestness, halting sentences and apparent lack of common sense — which some critics said played to ethnic stereotypes — burst onto television in 1959 on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show.”
The character appeared in a sketch about training Santa Claus impersonators for the Christmas season, and introduced himself with a line that became a catchphrase: “My name … José Jiménez.” His duties, he explained with a poster, included teaching new Santas the phrase “Jo Jo Jo.”
When Santa season ended, Mr. Dana’s character worked as an elevator operator and then a daydreaming bellhop in “The Bill Dana Show” on NBC from 1963 to 1965. The cast also included future “Lost in Space” star Jonathan Harris as the hotel manager and a hapless detective played by Adams, Mr. Dana’s frequent collaborator.
Jiménez shot to new heights when he donned space gear, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before a purported trip to Mars. Asked what he planned to do to entertain himself, Mr. Dana responded: “I plan to cry a lot.”
The bit was a hit with NASA’s Mercury astronauts, who named Mr. Dana’s Jiménez character an honorary eighth member of the group. Moments after Alan Shepard’s rocket blasted off in 1961, making him the first American in space, the first words from Mission Control were a reference to his love for the bit: “Okay, José, you’re on your way.”
William Szathmary was born in Quincy, Mass., on Oct. 5, 1924, the youngest of six children. His father owned a beach hotel that burned down and worked as a door-to-door salesman as the family struggled through the Depression; his mother ran a hat shop. A brother, Irving Szathmary, had a successful musical career and composed the theme for “Get Smart.”
Bill Szathmary served as an Army infantryman during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. He began performing as a comic while at Emerson College in Boston, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in speech and drama.
He soon adopted the surname Dana and, with classmate Gene Wood, who later announced “Family Feud” and other game shows, performed at New York nightclubs.
Survivors include his wife of 36 years, the former Evelyn Shular of Walden’s Creek, Tenn.
Mr. Dana capitalized on his Jiménez character in the 1960s, performing on a record with the Flintstones and in a Paramount cartoon, but he decided to kill off the character at the end of the decade by reading a fictional obituary onstage.
“It was a character that brought him so much joy, and that was embraced by the Hispanic community in the early ’60s,” said Jenni Matz, a television archivist who is working on a documentary of Mr. Dana. “But then as the civil rights movement progressed, he became aware that it was being portrayed in a negative way, as a stereotype. This was the opposite of what he was trying to do.”
Mr. Dana, who often pointed to honors from the National Hispanic Media Coalition as a sign that the character was well-received in the Latino community, later said he regretted his decision to stop performing as Jiménez. He began reprising the role at public appearances beginning in the 1980s, alongside film and television work that included a recurring role on “The Golden Girls.”
It was a character whose country of origin Mr. Dana intentionally left vague. “It never was a caricature,” he once told the Archive of American Television. “He’s not a Latin character, he’s a universal character.”