June 19, 2017
Bill Dana was a successful writer, author, cartoonist, producer, recording artist, inventor, and stand-up comedian. Many will remember him as “José Jiménez,” a classic character he created on The Steve Allen Show and continued to perform throughout his career.
Bill volunteered for the Army at age 18, and later earned a Bronze Star Medal in WWII as a combat infantryman. After graduating from Emerson College on the GI Bill, he entered show business, beginning his career as an NBC page at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. His career took a major turn when he began writing for comedian Don Adams, including penning the famous “Would You Believe?” jokes. Hired as a writer on the original Tonight Show, Bill eventually became head writer on The Steve Allen Show, hiring a legendary stable of comedy writers: Buck Henry, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff. His creation of the popular José Jiménez character in 1959 resulted in his own NBC series, The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965).
His comedy albums, as both José and Bill Dana, were top-sellers. He helped launch the careers of comedic greats such as Don Knotts, Jackie Mason, and Jim Nabors. A major career highlight was writing the All in the Family episode, “Sammy’s Visit,” featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.- consistently rated in TV Guide’s “Top 100 Television Episodes of All Time” and for which he received a Writers Guild Award.
Adopted by the original seven Mercury astronauts, Dana became part of U.S space history on May 5, 1961 when the first words from planet Earth spoken by Deke Slayton to Alan Shepard blasting into space were, “OK, José, you’re on your way!” Bill was proudly named America’s first “Honorary Astronaut” by the Aerospace Society, and is honored by inclusion in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Appearances at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, The London Palladium, and a show-stopping performance at the John F. Kennedy Inaugural Gala are just some career highlights. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Pacific Pioneer Broadcaster Association, the Boston Comedy Festival, the American Comedy Festival, and Emerson College, among others.
The National Hispanic Media Coalition endorsed the José Jiménez character and Bill continued to serve on their Advisory Board throughout his life. In 1970, he honored Earth Day by creating America’s first syndicated cartoon panel devoted to the environment, Ecolo/Jest. Bill continued to work in film and television through the ‘90s, including producing The Milton Berle Show, writing Alice in Wonderland (1966) and appearing on numerous television shows—notably as “Uncle Angelo” on The Golden Girls.
In 2005, Bill and his dear friend, philanthropist, Emerson Trustee Emeritus, and fellow Emerson alumnus, the late Ted Cutler, founded the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College, fulfilling a lifelong goal to honor the study and appreciation of the comedic arts.
Bill is survived by his best friend and cherished wife Evelyn Shular Dana of Walden’s Creek, Tennessee.
Donations may be made in memory of Bill to the American Comedy Archives at Emerson College. Please contact: Robert_Fleming@emerson.edu.
DANA, Bill (William Szathmary)
Born: 10/5/1924, Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Died: 6/15/2017, Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.A.
Bill Dana’s western – actor:
Zorro and Son (TV) – 1983 (Bernardo)