Born William Szathmary, Bill Dana (1924 - 2017) was a comedy writer, performer and producer raised in a Jewish-Hungarian household in a multicultural neighborhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. At the age of eighteen, Dana volunteered to serve as a combat infantryman in World War II, returning home with a Bronze Star medal. Upon graduating from Emerson College in 1950, he soon began working as a page for NBC in New York. Meanwhile, he and fellow Emerson alum Gene Wood had formed the comedy team Dana and Wood, making appearances on television shows and in clubs. From then on, Dana would enjoy a long career as a comedian—regularly touring and appearing on popular TV variety shows as well as releasing several comedy albums over the years—and a successful comedy writer. Among his numerous credits, he served as the head writer on The Steve Allen Show from 1956 - 1960, which occasionally required his writing all the material for the weekly program.
Dana's comic gift would lead to his producing several episodes of The Milton Berle Show and The Spike Jones Show, yet he always played many roles behind the scenes. A champion of young comedians, he is credited for shepherding the first television appearance of Lenny Bruce and launching the TV careers of Don Knotts, Jackie Mason and Jim Nabors. He also provided memorable material and a catchphrase or two to Don Adams which would enter the pop culture lexicon via the TV show Get Smart (Dana's brother, Irving Szathmary, provided the show's iconic theme music).
Of all his performances and accomplishments, Dana remains most remembered for one character: the naive, earnest and deeply accented man of many occupations, José Jiménez. His instant success with audiences led to spots on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Tonight Show and The Hollywood Palace, among many others. Eventually, Dana's popular persona had his own television series The Bill Dana Show which ran from 1963 - 1965. Of Jiménez' many erstwhile professions, perhaps the most celebrated was his astronaut routine; the original Mercury Seven astronauts were all big fans.
Despite Jiménez' Mexican-sounding accent and name, Dana never revealed his ethnic origins and often defended the character for his universality, as well as his humanity and his kindness. He felt that Jiménez was simply a hardworking immigrant trying to assimilate. However, by the 70s, the character had accumulated an assortment of fans and detractors. After accusations of negative stereotyping and Dana's own realization that many were misinterpreting his characterization to the detriment of a whole culture, Dana finally layed him to rest—reading Jiménez' obituary at a Congress of Mexican-American Unity event—abruptly ending his appearances on shows, albums and commercials.
In addition to running a talent management company and an advertising agency, and writing a book The Laughter Prescription with Dr. Laurence J. Peter, Dana continued his television work well into the 90s—even taking the occasional dramatic role—making appearances on shows such as Too Close for Comfort, St. Elsewhere and The Golden Girls. Among his accolades is a Writer’s Guild Award for “Sammy’s Visit,” an episode of All in the Family he wrote for Norman Lear which famously featured Sammy Davis, Jr.—playing himself—dropping in on Archie Bunker.
In 2005, Dana and philanthropist Ted Cutler started the American Comedy Archives—manuscripts, photographs and an oral history collection devoted to exploring the nature of comedy as an American art form—housed at their alma mater. Further enhancing this collection, Dana and filmmaker Jenni Matz traveled the country recording interviews with many of Dana’s colleagues and friends including Norman Lear, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner and Betty White. The Bill Dana Oral History Collection is now digitized and available online. – Brittany Gravely
ABOUT THE COLLECTION
The Bill Dana Film Collection came to the Harvard Film Archive in 2005 and includes 35mm pre-print film elements and 35mm projection prints for the entire run of The Bill Dana Show. Bill Dana’s papers are housed at Emerson College as part of the Comedy Archives and can be accessed here.