Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re looking at The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965, NBC), the two-season star vehicle for Bill Dana as his José Jiménez character, first introduced in 1959 on Steve Allen’s show. There José became a smash hit, launching appearances on many of the comedy-variety shows of the day and rocketing (pun intended) Dana to stardom with a standup career, best immortalized on the 1961 record, The Astronaut, a bit originally used on Garry Moore’s show in 1960. The following year, he made his sitcom debut as a recurring character on The Danny Thomas Show, guest starring three times during the series’ eighth and ninth season before stepping up his appearances to five in Ten (1962-’63), when Thomas was hoping to phase himself out and find a way to spin-off other characters, specifically Sid Melton and Pat Carroll as the Halpers. As it turned out, that plan was a no-go, but the Danny Thomas/Sheldon Leonard machine began working on a series for Dana’s José, and NBC picked it up in 1963 for a straight 26-episode commitment (no pilot). More than just a vote of confidence for the Thomas/Leonard team, which at that time had shows for Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith, Joey Bishop, and Dick Van Dyke, the network’s faith in Dana was a testament to the enormous popularity of José, an iconic figure even in the 1960s.
But a controversial one too. That is, José debuted during the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans, and by 1968, when all minorities were seeking greater representation and cultural sensitivity, Latin American groups began protesting the very idea of this character, whose exaggerated accent was as much the joke as his utter naïveté, bordering on stupidity. Naturally, some members of this community were offended by a depiction of a Latino character that was perceived to be unfavorable, while the prospect of a Hungarian Jewish comic playing him only made matters worse. It’s hard to say how much of this sentiment, which likely strikes audiences of 2020 as mainstream, was shared throughout the 1960s, but I have found articles as early as 1960 that raise the concern, for José, it’s rightfully established, is a caricature. Dana’s argument then was that, yes, José is a caricature, but a lovable one embraced by the people in question. To that point, he is right — there were groups that lauded José for existing and Dana himself became something of an activist for the Latino cause as a result. So, I think a discussion of the positive/negative implications of José is, like our look at Amos ‘n’ Andy, a subject that requires more time, for there are good arguments on both sides, and any contemporary perspective that ignores the context of that era is not entirely helpful. However, it’s sort of beyond the scope of our interest here — I can’t tell you what a fictional character does or does not represent… only how it influences my perception of the quality of the sitcoms we’re studying.
On that note, I think that when Dana described José in 1960 as a caricature, he was absolutely right, and the core problem this blog has is that the latter is absurdly one-dimensional and not buyable as a human being, particularly when he begins popping up in 1961 on The Danny Thomas Show, which had previously been lauded for its fairly sincere characterizations. Setting aside what a lack of nuance means for a Latino on 1960s TV, there’s the technical issue of what it’s like to see anyone on this series be a one-joke stock type who gets thrown easy laugh lines while unsubtle attempts at sympathy only manage to keep him subjugated as a surface figure to whom the show condescends (like in a Season Ten episode where José studies to become an American citizen — so saccharine you’ll need to visit your dentist). This wasn’t so much a problem when he only existed in five-minute sketches where he just had to say funny things in a funny voice, but when asked to participate in a situation comedy, populated by characters who must have enough depth to propel story while also being realistic enough to keep us invested in them week to week, José Jiménez sticks out like a sore thumb: an underdeveloped gag stretched too thin in a world where no character can ever be that thin, stretched or not. Accordingly, you’ll notice that few of Dana’s appearances on Danny Thomas made my lists — the only ones I highlighted were two of his five episodes from Season Ten, as the idea of José anchoring his own series crept closer to reality. Of those two episodes, there’s really only one — his last appearance — that I believe comes close to imbuing in the role enough humanity to make José feel sort of like an actual person. And even that’s qualified. So, going into The Bill Dana Show — watching it seriously for the first time before this post — I was primed for trouble…
But, you know what? The Bill Dana Show does an admirable job of finding a way to make José viable on a weekly basis, courtesy of a premise that maybe isn’t conducive to greatness, but at least mitigates potential pitfalls, and an ensemble that cushions José’s lack of dimensionality by making him seem more human, all the while offering great comic personalities who would go on to shape better, more important efforts but are also a delight here. For starters, the series — shot the Desilu way, with multiple cameras in front of a live audience, like most Thomas/Leonard efforts — decided that it needed to be a workplace sitcom, consciously avoiding what could have been a sticky situation by casting José’s family, other ethnic characters who probably would have been forced to match him in style. By keeping him in a professional environment — as a bellhop at a posh New York hotel — he remains special and doesn’t come packaged to anything but his own characterization. As for the chosen setting, this is something that’s come up before: as workplaces go, I find hotels to be unideal, forcing more premise-based narrative particulars than typical offices, for it’s easy to get bogged down in gimmicky story, while avoiding the kind of character development necessary to sustain a series. Part of the issue is that the hotel design seldom allows for domestic scenes — you know, like we get on Mary Tyler Moore or Taxi, or even Gilligan’s Island, where their own private huts are personal spaces in an otherwise communal world — and so everything feels impersonal, strictly for the gags. (It’s fine when it’s Fawlty Towers and only 12 weeks, but for an American series that hopes to reach 100, it’s a much harder play.) Nevertheless, it’s a setting that shuts out José’s home life, likely for the better, and redirects focus to the weekly story and the others surrounding him.
Speaking of which, The Bill Dana Show, which was Executive Produced by Leonard, produced by former Danny Thomas head writer Howard Leeds (who basically served that function for much of Season One), and had many early scripts by Danny Thomas’ Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart, most deserves credit for its ensemble, which wasn’t huge, but accomplished a lot. In fact, it’s so smart it actually deserves likening to Frasier, which as we saw, took an exaggerated character in Frasier Crane, who was defined as pompous in relation to those around him on Cheers, and allowed him to become a worthy emotional center by placing him right between two regulars who would represent poles: Martin, who would reinforce Frasier’s extremes by way of contrast, and Niles, who would make Frasier seem more normal in comparison. This kept Frasier’s big characterization, and source of comedy, while making him a stable force capable of anchoring a cast. That’s exactly what happens on Bill Dana with its two other main characters; Gary Crosby (son of Bing) is the other bellhop, a bland all-American fella who doesn’t make it beyond the first season, but nevertheless serves as the frame of reference allowing Dana’s José to keep the boldness of his established persona, and Jonathan Harris (that’s right: the actor who would become best known as Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost In Space, in a role not dissimilar) is their boss, an extremely fussy, highly animated chap named Mr. Phillips, who brings José down to earth by being as extreme and not-so-realistic, which keeps the lead character from standing out negatively, since this broad comic style is coloring both characters in the central relationship, and therefore permeating the show itself. At the same time, even though both José and Mr. Phillips are larger than life, their complicated antagonistic relationship is underscored by affection, which is reiterated over and over again, and the paternal bond that forms with time eventually succeeds at doing what Danny Thomas couldn’t do for José when he was just a recurring character: make him a deservedly sympathetic figure, with earned emotional moments that don’t feel false and opportunistic. In other words, José becomes humanized.
Now, the first season is touch and go. It takes a while for the above to develop, as meanwhile, it’s clear that Crosby isn’t utilizable in story. In Season Two — when Jack Elinson took over as head writer (after Danny Thomas ended, he and his partner, Charles Stewart, split; Stewart took Joey Bishop as Elinson took Bill Dana) — Crosby was replaced by Maggie Peterson as a waitress who serves the same “straight man” function of making José pop and also brings in some sex appeal, which is necessary even in shows that are ostensibly sexless. (Just ask Sherwood Schwartz.) And while the José/Phillips relationship becomes more able to supply the show some emotional relevance, outside of José’s fantasy sequences that tend to be gimmicky and joke-driven (like the one merely built to give Dana a chance to recreate his and Don Hinkley’s Astronaut bit), the second year also commits to featuring a former recurring player in a more regular capacity. I’m speaking now of Don Adams, who in the fall of 1965, the same season that Harris became immortal for Lost In Space, debuted as Maxwell Smart in the classic comedy Get Smart. He appeared approximately four times in Bill Dana‘s first season, playing, like Harris, an early iteration of his more famous role, but under the guise of Byron Glick, the house detective. (Incidentally, Dana claims credit for the “Would you believe…?” gag that would become Smart’s hallmark.) Adams was critically well-received and the show’s second year was designed, with Dana’s encouragement, around showcasing Glick as much as possible, signing him for approximately half of the 16 episodes that would comprise its abbreviated output. This is great. Glick, much like Smart, fills the screen with his buoyant energy, so much so that he shrinks José and also makes him feel less absurd — again, more like an actual person. Truthfully, they’re not unalike — both playing extreme caricatures with unusual voices — and yet, surprisingly, instead of being TOO MUCH to handle, they make a good team, with Adams bringing outrageous laughs and Dana supplying, by this time, motivated heart.
That’s not to say that what the show presents is in any way realistic or believable without the suspension of significant disbelief. No, this isn’t Danny Thomas or Dick Van Dyke or even Joey Bishop — this is a louder, more farcical show, and if it were any decade other than the ’60s, which embraced this kind of broad, escapist comedy, Adams’ more frequent inclusion on the series would probably be as much a hindrance as a boon. Yet this is the era of premise-based silliness, and appropriately, the second season becomes even more idea-driven than before, but with some truly funny notions and above-average writing from many of the ’60s’ great scribes. (Marshall/Belson, Fox/Elinson, Locke/Rapp, Keller/Merrill, Persky/Denoff all wrote for the series along with those aforementioned.) To wit, even though I still think the character work leaves a lot to be desired, specifically given how they’re used in story, for pure comedy and the cultivation of humorous ideas with personalities able to support them, The Bill Dana Show is fun, and if it’s possible for a viewer to overlook the added baggage of his character’s ethnicity and the burden of representation attached, I’d call it a joyful show that deserved a wider audience. Interestingly, it wasn’t — contrary to legend — complaints from Latino groups that got the series cancelled. It was the ratings; up against Lassie in its first year and Ed Sullivan in its second, Bill Dana wasn’t even able to make a dent. (It couldn’t crack the annual Top 50!) What’s more, it was part of a solid NBC lineup with two hit shows (Disney and Bonanza), which proved that viewers were actively avoiding Bill Dana, particularly when it was sandwiched between those hits in the fall of 1964 and created a Nielsen valley that was eventually filled when NBC replaced it in January 1965 with Branded, a Western… thereby freeing Harris and Adams.
As for why the show never caught on despite decent reviews and a general appreciation for Dana’s José character, it’s possible the changing sentiment regarding cultural sensitivity played a role, but I also think, fundamentally, for as much effort went in to humanizing José and supplying him a world where he could be likable and amusing, the simple fact is that, for all intents and purposes, people knew him as a caricature born from the sketch world. And that’s really hard to sustain for 25 minutes a week… However, the show has Dr. Zachary Smith and Maxwell Smart in regular supply — and they’re just as funny as they were on their shows. Additionally, I call José Jiménez’s use a victory for The Bill Dana Show, all things considered, because never again or elsewhere is that persona able to come as close to being a true character, a proxy-human who can live in story. And based on how he existed even on The Danny Thomas Show, the writers over here deserve a lot of credit for, well, not making it a disaster. More than that, they created a handful of very comic half-hours. So, I’m eager to share a list of favorites with you, although I have to say, of the 42 produced installments — 30 of which were commercially released on VHS back in the ’90s — I have only seen 35. (For the record, I’m missing “The Poker Game,” “The Masquerade Party,” “The Party In Suite 15,” “Jose, The Matchmaker,” “The Suggestion Box,” “Beauty And The Bellhop,” and “Jose, The Old Man.” Do you have them? I’d love to see — but be careful, sometimes they’re mislabeled.) Because I’m missing 1/7th of the series’ run, I don’t feel comfortable doing traditional coverage, so instead, I’ll give you a no-frills bullet point list, just like we did with Amos ‘n’ Andy.
- Episode 6: “The Bank Hold-Up” (11/03/63) – debut of Don Adams as Glick
- Episode 14: “A Tip For Uncle Sam” (01/19/64) – imaginative premise for José
- Episode 25: “Master Of Disguise” (04/19/64) – best Glick show from Season One
- Episode 27: “Blood From Two Turnips” (09/20/64) – heightened comic energy
- Episode 28: “Danny Thomas, I Love You” (09/27/64) – Thomas guest stars
- Episode 29: “Laughing Gas” (10/04/64) – funniest premise in the entire series
- Episode 36: “We’ll Get You For This” (12/06/64) – José and Glick in drag is fun
Then I’d honorably mention the other amusing entries with Adams’ Glick character, “Mr. Phillips’ Watch,” “The Hot Dog Caper,” “What Elephant?,” “Jose, The Flower Thief,” “Tonsils For Two,” and “Glick, The Strongman,” along with those with value for José and/or Phillips, such as “The Hypnotist,” “The Hiring Of Jose,” “Jose On The Ledge,” “Phillips, The Lover,” and “The Court Jester.” Also, I’ll mention “Jose, The Astronaut” just because it’s designed to contain Dana’s Astronaut bit, a José hallmark.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for Dobie Gillis!