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. 

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Sooner 4 months ago
I always thought that Maggie Peterson was a really good actress and wonder why she never got more parts and a longer lasting career. She was really cute and had a great persona.

Also, it's a really sorry comment on society now, that PC bullying has 1984'ed fun shows like Bill Dana's, to the memory hole. What a sorry bunch of people in our society that can't just enjoy a laugh at a silly character. There are tons of dimwitted white characters all through the history of TV, yet no one makes those characters or shows disappear.
JoeSHill 4 months ago
Totally Ironic that these two actors would shortly become top Primetime TV stars in Fall 1965 and achieve superior iconic celebrity, all through a short-lived NBC sitcom that ran 42 episodes before "GET SMART!" and "LOST IN SPACE" made their debuts in Fall 1965, and this is an amazing feat! Don Addams and Jonathan Harris would later work together again on an episode of "GET SMART!" when it was in its final TV season on CBS in the 1969-70 TV season after its first four seasons on NBC.
Wiseguy JoeSHill 4 months ago
No exclamation point in the title "Get Smart."
AEDC49 4 months ago
I see MeTV has finally gotten around to mentioning what I already wrote them about years ago, among much else for other shows to show to make more variety etc!, as far as the Bill Dana show goes with Jonathan Harris & Don Adams It actually is well done by their 2 characters in show! Using the lame excuse about being politically correct is just that to not show another great show! Remember when a certain character on TAXI was also considered offensive to many! Andy Kaufman's Character etc! most new ARE Offensive in all ways and by just plain being lousily down! I remember the show new and just followed the overall well done show and it comes across as a funny show that should have a run! Remember when black actors started saying all the of color things and it was considered OK & Funny things about blacks and all other races for just an example, that would be considered offensive by todays over sensitive not opened minded people with there politically correct stiff backs! But using the excuse the show shouldn't be aired is a waste of the historical value of it from that time period done as it was etc!
SteveThames 4 months ago
So I guess the Beverly hillbillies is racist to whites; alright then; I’d still like to see an episode, didn’t know about max & dr smith on it
cperrynaples 4 months ago
Don Adams and Bill Dana were very close friends! Dana understudied for Adams in the "Ice Station Seigfreid" episode and he also appeared in The Nude Bomb!
UTZAAKE cperrynaples 4 months ago
"Sorry, fella. Don't speak Spanish. Boy, you're in the wrong neighborhood." (Bill Dana, Get Smart, "Supersonic Boom" S03E06 21:14-21:28) https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x556fyc
Delmo 4 months ago
Sometimes political correctness sucks.
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Bessie CelticTwilight 4 months ago
Preach all about your self-righteous claim to being justified in censoring anything that predates the Shmobama administration that you and the rest of the hopelessly indoctrinated snowflakes have been brainwashed into thinking that it's your civic duty to find offensive, therefore giving you the right to censor it or ban it using your own personal standards to govern what everyone else can or can't watch. You're in for a big disappointment if you think that you're really going to paint over. tear down, pull up, or put under sixty feet of concrete anything in American popular entertainment that so-called "progressives" find offensive that predates 2008.
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Wiseguy Bessie 4 months ago
You DID read the part where Bill Dana apologized for the role "AT THE CLOSE OF THE SIXTIES"? Keep your stupid politics out of this.
Bessie Wiseguy 4 months ago
Bill Dana was a flaming liberal who did indeed retire the character, so why not make the show available for those who may want to see it, even if it's for historical reasons? Most viewers who are up tight about it are not, in the main, viewers of MeTV, anyway, and the show isn't even available on good-quality home video from a legitimate source.
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