Bill Dana, the comedian who pretended to be an astronaut and became a fan of America’s original astronauts, has died. Dana was 92.
Dana was born William Szathmary on Oct. 5, 1924, into a Hungarian Jewish family in Quincy, Mass., adopting a variation on his mother’s name for his stage name because he felt Szathmary was too difficult to pronounce (for a modern example of same: see Louis Szekeley becoming Louis CK). A WWII vet who earned a Bronze Star in combat as an infantryman, Dana enrolled at Emerson College on the G.I. Bill. He graduated from Emerson College in 1950 before starting his entertainment career as an NBC page, back before the Emerson to comedy show-biz route became rote.
If you saw him during the 1960s, you likely saw him as his comedic alter-ego, José Jiménez. Dana as Jiménez debuted on The Steve Allen Show (where he also was the show’s head writer) and made numerous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (most famously as an astronaut during the Space Race), as well as cameos in several other shows, from variety to sitcoms, from animation to Batman.
He even had his own show for two years on NBC, The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965), which included Don Adams in its cast. José, however, would fall out of favor by decade’s end. Later in his career, he played a recurring character on St. Elsewhere (as father to Howie Mandel’s character) and The Golden Girls (as Uncle Angelo).
What you didn’t see Dana do on camera was perhaps even more compelling.
Among his many writing credits: The classic “Sammy’s Visit” episode of All in the Family featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.; and the feature film for Get Smart, The Nude Bomb. As for the latter, would you believe Dana had written jokes for Don Adams when both were much younger, while Dana’s brother, Irving Szathmary, wrote the music for Get Smart? You should believe, because yes.
The first words spoken to Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard as he blasted off into space? “Ok, José, you’re on your way!”
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum would formally include “José the Astronaut” in 1981; you can also find him in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
In 1982, Dana co-wrote the nonfiction book, The Laughter Prescription, and in 2005, he convinced philanthropist Ted Cutler (who also died earlier this year) to fund The American Comedy Archives at their alma mater, Emerson College.
Donations may be made to the American Comedy Archives in his memory by contacting Executive Director, Iwasaki Library Bob Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org.