Iwasaki Library

Biography of Bill Dana

Bill Dana

Bill Dana demonstrates the origin of a character he wrote for Don Adams. Interviewed June 5, 2005 in Los Angeles, CA.

Born William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1924, Emerson graduate Bill Dana (Class of 1950) is one of the best-loved funnymen in America. He wrote himself into show business history in 1959 with the immortal line, "My name: José Jimenéz," and the rest, as they say, is "Jistory."

Bill Dana is a comedian, writer, author, producer, and composer. He was part of the comedy team Dana and Wood (with fellow Emerson alum Gene Wood) appearing on television and in comedy nightclubs. The team split, and Bill continued as a solo performer. Bill was part of the sixties peer group with Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, and Phyllis Diller, performing at such comedy clubs as the hungry i, the Bon Soir, the Blue Angel, etc. He began writing material for other stand-up comedians, including Don Adams, and then became head writer for The Steve Allen Show (1956–1960).

Bill's credits include the starring role on The Bill Dana Show (1963–1965) for which he was also writer and producer; appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Martha Raye Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Hollywood Palace, and a recurring role as "Uncle Angelo" on The Golden Girls, among many other film and television roles.

José Jimenéz was already a national phenomenon when Neil Simon, then a staff member at The Garry Moore Show, asked whether Jimenéz had ever been an astronaut. That appearance was followed by the Kapp recording “José the Astronaut.” Its “Light Stuff for the Right Stuff guys” historic timing was such that Dana’s reluctant space adventurer was adopted as the official eighth Mercury astronaut ("out of a possible seven"). On May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 1961, the first words spoken from the ground to an American entering space were, "Okay José, you're on your way." Having become a part of the extended astronaut family, Bill serves currently on the advisory board of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and is on the Nominations Committee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. José is acknowledged in The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and enshrined at the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida. Bill has more than a dozen comedy albums to his credit and continues his present-day multimedia activities.

Bill Dana wrote the multi-Emmy winning All in the Family episode “Sammy Davis Visits Archie Bunker” for Emerson alumnus Norman Lear, which is #12 in the TV Guide Best 100 Episodes in the history of television. The Laughter Prescription (Ballantine,1983), co-authored with the late Dr. Laurence Peter, was the first book of its nature following Norman Cousin's Anatomy of an Illness. Long active in the Latino cause, Bill was honored by the prestigious National Hispanic Media Coalition with its first Impact Award and is on its advisory board.

In January 2006, Bill was honored by the Pacific Broadcast Pioneers of Radio and Television with a lifetime achievement award. He was recently profiled by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the San Francisco Performing Arts Library in their respective interview series.

Bill is a decorated combat infantry veteran of WWII. He is married to Evelyn Shular Dana of Walden's Creek, Tennessee, his inspiration and partner in life and business. At 80-plus, Bill Dana is still performing and is a firm believer in the healing power of laughter.

—By Jenni Matz with Bill Dana