How the forgotten Bill Dana Show bred beloved characters for Lost in Space and Get Smart
Jonathan Harris and Don Adams honed their onscreen personas on this buried sitcom.
Image: The Everett Collection
Think back to the great characters of 1960s television. Picture Jonathan Harris playing a bossy, theatrical snoot, spouting insults like, "Where there's a nincom, there's always a poop!" Imagine Don Adams as a bumbling, clueless crime-solver in a suit.
Of course, the two characters that immediately come to mind are the scenery-chewing Dr. Zachary Smith of Lost in Space and the lovably inept Maxwell Smart of Get Smart. But those descriptions equally apply to hotel manager Mr. Phillips and hotel detective Byron Glick, both of The Bill Dana Show. From 1963–65, Harris and Adams also played those characters. The two rising stars were essentially testing out the character traits that would make them famous later that decade — and they were often doing so onscreen together.
The Bill Dana Show sits unnoticed as the nexus linking together several successful Sixties sitcoms. As already mentioned, Harris and Adams would later essentially play the same characters on Lost in Space and Get Smart, respectively. Harris explained years later, in an interview with the Television Academy, that he had crafted the character himself. "I decided that he's humorless," Harris said. "[That he] was capable of outrage." He could just as easily have been talking about Dr. Smith.
Meanwhile, as Maggie Peterson was portraying Charlene Darling on The Andy Griffith Show, she was also appearing as hotel waitress Susie on The Bill Dana Show.
That was not the only connection to Mayberry. Both The Bill Dana Show and The Andy Griffith Show were technically spin-offs of The Danny Thomas Show. Both were produced by Sheldon Leonard. Both had theme songs composed by Earle Hagan.
With these combined talents, The Bill Dana Show earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Program, losing out to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Bill Dana himself grew to be so famous, he made a "window cameo" on Batman, just as Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. did. Speaking of Sammy Davis Jr., Dana would later pen the All in the Family episode "Sammy's Visit," featuring a guest appearance from the Rat Pack icon.
So why is this sitcom so forgotten? That has a lot to do with Dana himself, or at least his character. The show centered around the comedian's character José Jiménez, a dim-witted Latin American stereotype. Dana created his José Jiménez persona at the end of the 1950s, making appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the aforementioned Danny Thomas Show.
Not only has the character obviously not aged well, but Hispanic groups also protested the character at the time. Dana came to regret the character. At the close of the Sixties, the actor would make a mea culpa appearance at a Latino civil rights meeting in Los Angeles and read an obituary that he wrote for his fictional creation. "José Jiménez is dead," Dana announced. He milked that for all it was worth, staging a funeral for José on Sunset Boulevard.
And while it's fascinating to see Harris and Adams testing out their future Lost in Space and Get Smart personas, especially in scenes together, the fact of the matter is that you can find all the redeeming elements of this show improved elsewhere. Some things are best kept as an interesting footnote.