Bill Dana ’50, a popular comedy writer and performer from the 1950s into the ‘80s, and the driving force behind Emerson College’s American Comedy Archives, died Thursday, June 15, at his Nashville, Tennessee home. He was 92.
Dana, a World War II veteran, began his entertainment career at NBC delivering messages to Milton Berle, whose show he would one day produce. He went on to write jokes for comedians Don Adams and Steve Allen. It was on The Steve Allen Show that he created the popular character José Jiménez, which eventually led to his own NBC series, The Bill Dana Show, from 1963-1965.
In 2005, following a long career in comedy, Dana – with support from his oldest friend, philanthropist, Emerson Trustee Emeritus, and fellow alumnus, the late Ted Cutler – spearheaded the American Comedy Archives, a collection of interviews with legendary performers, writers, and producers in the business.
Earlier this year, Dana helped announce a partnership with the Television Academy Foundation – the nonprofit arm of the organization behind the Emmy Awards – to digitize Emerson’s comedy collection.
“He was deeply proud of the archives, and rightly so,” Emerson College President Lee Pelton said in a letter to the community. “It is a wonderful legacy to his love of all things comedy.”
Born William Szathmary, Dana was the youngest of six children born to Hungarian-Jewish parents in 1924. He grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, during the Great Depression and at 18, volunteered to fight in World War II, earning a Bronze Star Medal as a combat infantryman. He attended Emerson College on the GI Bill.
Dana began writing and performing comedy while at Emerson, and following graduation, got a job as an NBC page at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He did a standup act with fellow alumnus Gene Wood, a routine that eventually landed him an appearance on The Martha Raye Show, where another Emerson alumnus, Norman Lear, was a writer. His skills as a comedy writer led him to write for Adams and The Steve Allen Show, where he rose to head writer.
He made several appearances on hit TV shows over the course of four decades, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Smothers Brothers, The Milton Berle Show, St. Elsewhere, and The Golden Girls. In the 1970s, he won a Writer’s Guild Award for “Sammy’s Visit,” an episode of All in the Family he wrote for Lear.
Dana recorded eight best-selling comedy albums, as both himself and José Jiménez, and launched the careers of comics the likes of Don Knotts, Jackie Mason, and Jim Nabors.
In 1982, Dana became an author. Having battled depression throughout his life, he co-wrote The Laughter Prescription with Dr. Laurence J. Peter, about the healing properties of comedy.
Emerson College honored Dana with the Alumni Achievement Award in 1990. He also received Lifetime Achivement Awards from the Pacific Pioneer Broadcaster Association, the Boston Comedy Festival, and the Great American Comedy Festival, among others.
In 2005, Dana and Cutler launched the American Comedy Archives. Dana and Jenni Matz (now director of the Television Academy’s Archive of American Television who worked for Emerson at the time and helped develop the Comedy Archives) hit the road from 2005 to 2007, recording in-depth oral histories of Dana’s colleagues and friends in the comedy world. The archives eventually grew to hold interviews with greats such as Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Betty White, and of course, Lear and Dana himself.
Eventually the archives will be integrated into the Archive of American Television’s digitized collection, where anyone can access the stories of the people who made us laugh.
At the age of 90, Dana began writing his autobiography, and was planning to conduct more comedy interviews with Emerson. On why he thinks humor deserves such attention, Dana said, “Laughter is the greatest healer, the greatest surviv[al] mechanism God ever gave us. The same stuff that gets you depressed is the same stuff that’s going to give you joy. Amuse it, or Lose it.”
Dana leaves his wife of 36 years and his best friend, Evelyn (Evy) Shular Dana.
Donations in Dana’s name may be made to the American Comedy Archives. Contact Bob Fleming, executive director, Iwasaki Library, at Robert_fleming@emerson.edu.