Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky; January 18, 1913 – March 3, 1987) was a celebrated American actor, singer, dancer, and comedian. His best known performances featured physical comedy, idiosyncratic pantomimes, and rapid-fire nonsense songs.
Kaye starred in 17 movies, notably The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and — perhaps his most accomplished performance — The Court Jester (1956). His films were extremely popular, especially his bravura performances of patter songs and children's favorites such as The Inch Worm and The Ugly Duckling. He was the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his many years of work with the organization.
David Daniel Kaminsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Jacob and Clara Nemerovsky Kaminsky and their two sons, Larry and Mac, left Ekaterinoslav two years before his birth; he was the only one of their sons born in the United States. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in East New York, Brooklyn, where he began entertaining his young classmates with songs and jokes, before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School, but he never graduated. His mother died when he was in his early teens. Clara enjoyed the impressions and humor of her youngest son and always had words of encouragement for them; her death was a great loss for young Danny.
Not long after his mother's death, Danny and his best friend ran away to Florida. Danny sang while his friend Louis played the guitar; the pair eked out a living like this for a while. When Danny did return to New York, his father did not pressure him to return to school or to get a job, giving his son the chance to mature and discover his own abilities. Danny said he had wanted to become a surgeon as a young boy, but there was no chance of the family being able to afford a medical school education for him. He held a succession of jobs after leaving school: a soda jerk, insurance investigator, office clerk. Most of them ended with him being fired. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the insurance company $40,000. The dentist who had hired him to look after his office during his lunch hour did the same when he found Danny using his drill to create designs in the office woodwork. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt.
Kaminsky's first break came in 1933 when he was asked to become one of the "Three Terpsichoreans", a vaudeville dance act. He opened with them in Utica, New York using the name Danny Kaye for the first time. The act toured the United States, then signed on to perform in the Orient with the show La Vie Paree. The troupe left for six months in the Far East on February 8, 1934. While the group was in Osaka, Japan, a hurricane hit the city. The hotel Kaye and his colleagues stayed in suffered heavy damage; a piece of the hotel's cornice was hurled into Kaye's room by the strong wind, nearly killing him. By performance time that evening, the city was still in the grip of the storm. There was no power and the audience had become understandably restless and nervous. To keep everyone calm, Kaye went on stage, his face lit by a flashlight, and sang every song he could recall as loudly as he was able. The experience of trying to entertain audiences who did not speak English is what brought him to the pantomimes, gestures, songs and facial expressions which eventually made him famous. Sometimes it was necessary just to try to get a meal. Kaye's daughter, Dena, tells a story her father related about being at a restaurant in China and trying to order chicken. Kaye flapped his arms and clucked, giving the waiter his best imitation of a chicken. The waiter nodded his understanding, bringing Kaye two eggs. His interest in cooking began on the tour.
When he returned to the United States, jobs were in short supply; Kaye struggled for bookings. One of the jobs was working in a burlesque revue with fan dancer Sally Rand. After the dancer dropped one of her fans while trying to chase away a fly, Kaye was hired to be in charge of the fans so they were always held in front of her.
"Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint you can at it."
If you're not cooking with joy, happiness and love, you're not cooking well.
Danny Kaye was one of the original owners of the Seattle Mariners professional baseball team.
Danny Kaye made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short titled Moon Over Manhattan. In 1937 he signed with New York–based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Kaye usually played a manic, dark-haired, fast-talking Russian in these low-budget shorts, opposite young hopefuls June Allyson or Imogene Coca. The Kaye series ended abruptly when the studio shut down permanently in 1938. He was still working in the Catskills at times in 1937, using the name Danny Kolbin. Kaye's next venture was a short-lived Broadway show, where Sylvia Fine was the pianist, lyricist and composer. The Straw Hat Revue opened on September 29, 1939 and closed after ten weeks, but it was long enough for critics to take notice of Danny Kaye's work in it. The glowing reviews brought an offer for both Kaye and his new bride, Sylvia, to work at La Martinique, an upscale New York City nightclub. Kaye performed with Sylvia as his accompanist. This is where playwright Moss Hart saw Danny in action, which led to his being cast in Hart's Lady in the Dark.
Kaye scored a personal triumph in 1941, in the hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark. His show-stopping number was "Tchaikovsky", by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a whole string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, seemingly without taking a breath. By the next Broadway season, he was the star of his own show about a young man who is drafted called Let's Face It!.
His feature film debut was in producer Samuel Goldwyn's Technicolor 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! (1930). Kaye's rubber face and fast patter were an instant hit, and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in almost immediately by compiling three of Kaye's old Educational Pictures shorts into a makeshift feature, The Birth of a Star (1945).
Kaye starred in a radio program of his own, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS in 1945–1946. It had a stellar cast (including Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, and Big Band leader Harry James), and was scripted by radio notable Goodman Ace and respected playwright-director Abe Burrows. The radio program's popularity rose quickly. Before Kaye had been on the air a year, he tied with Jimmy Durante for fifth place in the Radio Daily popularity poll. Kaye was asked to participate in a USO tour following the end of World War II. It meant he would be absent from his radio show for close to two months at the beginning of the season. Kaye's friends filled in for him, with a different guest host each week. Kaye was the first actor to visit Tokyo; it was his first time there after touring there some ten years before with the vaudeville troupe. When Kaye asked to be released from his radio contract in mid 1946, he agreed not to accept another regular radio show for one year and also to limit his guest appearances on the radio programs of others. Many of the show's episodes survive today, and are notable for Kaye's opening "signature" patter.
"Git gat gittle, giddle-di-ap, giddle-de-tommy, riddle de biddle de roop, da-reep, fa-san, skeedle de woo-da, fiddle de wada, reep!"
Kaye was sufficiently popular that he inspired imitations:
The 1946 Warner Bros. cartoon Book Revue had a lengthy sequence with Daffy Duck impersonating Kaye singing "Carolina in the Morning" with the Russian accent that Kaye would affect from time to time.
Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer's 1953 song "Lobachevsky" was based on a number that Kaye had done, about the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, again with the affected Russian accent. Lehrer mentioned Kaye in the opening monologue, citing him as an "idol since childbirth."
Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, also fashioned a short-lived superhero title, Funnyman, taking inspiration from Kaye's public persona.
Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s, and is well known for his roles in films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, Knock on Wood (1954), White Christmas (1954, in a role originally intended for Fred Astaire, then Donald O'Connor),The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958). Kaye starred in two pictures based on biographies, Hans Christian Andersen (1952) about the Danish story-teller, and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols. His wife, writer/lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many of the witty, tongue-twisting songs Danny Kaye became famous for. She was also an associate producer. Some of Kaye's films included the theme of doubles, two people who look identical (both played by Danny Kaye) being mistaken for each other, to comic effect.
While his wife wrote Kaye's material, there was much of it that was unwritten, springing from the mind of Danny Kaye, often while he was performing. Kaye had one character he never shared with the public; Kaplan, the owner of an Akron, Ohio rubber company, came to life only for family and friends. His wife, Sylvia, described the Kaplan character:
"He doesn't have any first name. Even his wife calls him just Kaplan. He's an illiterate pompous character who advertises his philanthropies. Jack Benny or Dore Schary might say, "Kaplan, why do you hate unions so?" If Danny feels like doing Kaplan that night, he might be off on Kaplan for two hours."
When he appeared at the London Palladium music hall in 1948, he "roused the Royal family to shrieks of laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned English variety into an American preserve." Life magazine described his reception as "worshipful hysteria" and noted that the royal family, for the first time in history, left the royal box to see the show from the front row of the orchestra. He later related that he had no idea of the familial connections when the Marquess of Milford Haven introduced himself after one of the shows and said he would like his cousins to see Kaye perform. Kaye also later stated that he never returned to the venue because there was no way to re-create the magic of that time. Kaye had an invitation to return to London for a Royal Variety Performance in November of the same year. When the invitation arrived, Kaye was busy at work on The Inspector General (which had a working title of Happy Times for a while). Warners stopped work on the film to allow their star to attend.
He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The program was broadcast only on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony would come later. During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played "Buttons" in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In 1953, Kaye started his own production company, Dena Pictures, named for his daughter. Knock on Wood was the first film produced by his firm. The firm expanded into television in 1960 under the name Belmont Television.
Kaye entered the world of television in 1956 through the CBS show See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye combined his 50,000 mile, ten country tour as UNICEF ambassador with music and humor. His first solo effort was in 1960 with an hour-long special produced by Sylvia and sponsored by General Motors; there were similar specials in 1961 and 1962. He hosted his own variety hour on CBS television, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967, which won four Emmy awards and a Peabody award. During this period, beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the annual CBS telecasts of MGM's The Wizard of Oz. Kaye also did a stint as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program. Kaye later served as a guest panelist on that show. He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.
In the 1970s Kaye tore a ligament in his leg during the run of the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, but went on with the show, appearing with his leg in a cast and cavorting on stage from a wheelchair. He had done much the same on his television show in 1964 when his right leg and foot were seriously burned from an at-home cooking accident. The camera shots were planned so television viewers did not see Kaye in his wheelchair.
In 1976, he played the role of Mister Geppetto in a television musical adaptation of Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan in the title role. Kaye also portrayed Captain Hook opposite Mia Farrow in a musical version of Peter Pan featuring songs written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. It was shown on NBC-TV in December, 1976 as part of The Hallmark Hall Of Fame series. He guest-starred much later in his career in episodes of The Muppet Show, The Cosby Show and in the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone.
In many of his movies, as well as on stage, Kaye proved to be a very able actor, singer, dancer and comedian. He showed quite a different and serious side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death in 1987, Kaye demonstrated his ability to conduct an orchestra during a comical, but technically sound, series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising. Kaye received two Academy Awards: an honorary award in 1955, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Screen Actors Guild Annual Award in 1982.
Kaye was enamored of music. While he often claimed an inability to read music, he was quite the conductor, and was said to have perfect pitch. Kaye's ability with an orchestra was brought up by Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After Kaye's guest appearance, Mitropoulos remarked, "Here is a man who is not musically trained, who cannot even read music, and he gets more out of my orchestra than I ever have." Kaye was often invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers and was the conductor of the all-city marching band at the season opener of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1984. Over the course of his career he raised over US$5,000,000 in support of musicians pension funds.
In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982 (EPCOT Center at the time), both of which were aired on prime-time American television.
In his later years he took to entertaining at home as chef – he had a special stove installed in his patio – and specialized in Chinese and Italian cooking. The specialized stove Kaye used for his Chinese dishes was fitted with special metal rings for the burners to allow the heat from them to be highly concentrated. Kaye needed to install a trough with circulating ice water so he could use the burners. Kaye also taught Chinese cooking classes at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant in the 1970s. The theater and demonstration kitchen underneath the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him.
Danny referred to his kitchen as "Ying's Thing". While filming The Madwoman of Chaillot in France, he phoned home to ask his family if they would like to eat at "Ying's Thing" that evening; Kaye then flew home for dinner. Not all of his efforts in the kitchen turned out well. After flying to San Francisco for a recipe for sourdough bread, he came home and spent hours preparing loaves. When his daughter asked about the bread, Kaye tried showing her by hitting the bread on the kitchen table. His bread was hard enough to chip it. Kaye approached his kitchen work with enthusiasm, making his own sausages and other items needed for his cuisine. His work as a chef earned him the "Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" cuilinary award; Kaye was the only non-professional to achieve this honor.
Like many in the film business, Danny was an aviation enthusiast. He became seriously interested in learning how to fly in 1959. An enthusiastic and accomplished golfer, Kaye gave up golf in favor of flying. When Kaye went for his first written pilot's exam, he brought a liverwurst sandwich in case he was there for hours. The first plane Kaye owned was a Piper Aztec. Kaye got his first license as a private pilot of multi-engine aircraft, not getting certified for operating a single engine plane until six years later. He was an accomplished pilot, rated for airplanes ranging from single engine light aircraft to multi-engine jets. Kaye held a commercial pilot's license and had flown every type of aircraft except military planes. A vice-president of Learjet, Kaye owned and operated a Learjet 24. He supported many flying projects. In 1968, he was Honorary Chairman of the Las Vegas International Exposition of Flight, a major show that utilized most facets of the city’s entertainment industry while presenting a major air show. The operational show chairman was well-known aviation figure, Lynn Garrison. Kaye flew his own plane to 65 cities in five days on a mission designed to help UNICEF.
Danny Kaye was very fond of the legendary arranger Vic Schoen. Schoen had arranged for him on White Christmas, The Court Jester, and albums and concerts with the Andrews Sisters. In the 1960s Vic Schoen was working on a show in Las Vegas with Shirley Temple. He was injured in a car accident. When Danny Kaye heard about the accident, he immediately flew his own plane to McCarran Airport to pick up Schoen and bring him back to Los Angeles to guarantee the best medical attention.
Kaye was part-owner of baseball's Seattle Mariners along with his partner Lester Smith from 1977 to 1981. Prior to that, the lifelong fan of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers recorded a song called "The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song (Oh really? No, O'Malley!)", describing a fictitious encounter with the San Francisco Giants, which was a hit during the real-life pennant chase of 1962. That song is included on Baseball's Greatest Hits compact discs. A good friend of Leo Durocher, he would often travel with the team. In addition to being an owner, Kaye had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game.
He also had a longstanding interest in medicine and was permitted to observe surgery on several occasions. He was an honorary member of the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Throughout his life, Kaye donated to various charities. Working alongside UNICEF's Halloween fundraiser founder, Ward Simon Kimball Jr., the actor educated the public on impoverished children in deplorable living conditions overseas and assisted in the distribution of donated goods and funds. His involvement with UNICEF came about in a very unusual way. Kaye was flying home from an appearance in London in 1949 when one of the plane's four engines lost its propeller and caught fire. The problem was initially thought to be serious enough that it might need to make an ocean landing; life jackets and life rafts were made ready. The plane was able to head back over 500 miles to make a landing in Shannon, Ireland. On the way back to Shannon, the head of the Children's Fund, Maurice Pate, had the seat next to Danny Kaye and spoke at length to him about the need for recognition for the Fund. Their discussion continued on the flight from Shannon to New York; it was the beginning of the actor's long association with UNICEF.
Kaye died of a heart attack in March 1987, following a bout with hepatitis. Kaye had quadruple bypass heart surgery in February 1983; he contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion he received at that time. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. He is interred in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flower pot, musical notes, and a glove. Kaye's name, birth and death dates are inscribed on the glove. The United Nations held a memorial tribute to him at their New York headquarters.
Kaye and his wife, Sylvia, both grew up in Brooklyn, living only a few blocks apart, but they did not meet until they were both working on an off-Broadway show in 1939. Sylvia was an audition pianist at the time. Danny and Sylvia discovered that the dentist whose office he had been hired to watch was Sylvia's father, Samuel Fine. They were married on January 3, 1940. Kaye, working in Florida at the time, proposed on the telephone; the couple were married in Fort Lauderdale. Their daughter, Dena, was born on December 17, 1946.
Both Kaye and his wife raised their daughter without any parental hopes or aspirations for her future. Kaye said in a 1954 interview, "Whatever she wants to be she will be without interference from her mother nor from me." When she was very young, Dena did not like seeing her father perform because she did not understand that people were supposed to laugh at what he did.
During World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated rumors that Kaye dodged the draft by manufacturing a medical condition to gain 4-F status and exemption from military service. FBI files show he was also under investigation for supposed links with Communist groups. The allegations were never substantiated, and he was never charged with any associated crime.
After Kaye and his wife became estranged, he was allegedly involved with a succession of women, though he and Fine never divorced. The best-known of these women was actress Eve Arden.
There are persistent rumors that Kaye was either homosexual or bisexual, and some sources claim that Kaye and Laurence Olivier had a ten-year relationship in the 1950s while Olivier was still married to Vivien Leigh. A biography of Leigh states that the alleged relationship caused her to have a breakdown. The alleged relationship has been denied by Olivier's official biographer, Terry Coleman. Joan Plowright, Olivier's widow, has dealt with the matter in different ways on different occasions: she deflected the question (but alluded to Olivier's "demons") in a BBC interview. However, in her memoirs Plowright denies that there had been an affair between the two men. Producer Perry Lafferty reported: "People would ask me, 'Is he gay? Is he gay?' I never saw anything to substantiate that in all the time I was with him.” Kaye’s final girlfriend, Marlene Sorosky, reported that he told her, "I've never had a homosexual experience in my life. I've never had any kind of gay relationship. I've had opportunities, but I never did anything about them."
While appearing in the musical "Two By Two" (1970-71), he broke his leg and played the role of Noah in a wheelchair since he did not use understudies.
Interred at Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York, USA.
Toured Australia in the mid-'50s as Cinderella's friend Buttons in a pantomime version of "Cinderella".
Died of hepatitis and internal bleeding, the result of a transfusion of contaminated blood during bypass heart surgery four years earlier.
Star of CBS Radio's "The Danny Kaye Show" (1945-1946).
Was the first choice of producers to star in the Broadway musical "The Music Man."
Was named as "King of Brooklyn" at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival in 1986
According to daughter Dena Kaye, for the rest of his life, whenever someone would recognize him in public, they would run up to him and recite the "pellet with the poison . . . " speech from The Court Jester (1956).
In 1953, received a Special Tony Award for heading a variety bill at the Palace Theater.
He had a passion for Chinese cooking and built a kitchen in his house. For years, he invited people (some of them great celebrities like Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Cary Grant, John Denver, and Itzhak Perlman) and he would show them what his cooking genius was about. Qualified guests, like French chef Paul Bocuse, said they were really amazed by Kaye's cooking ability.
His father, Jacob Kaminski; his mother, Clar; and his two older brothers, Mack and Larry, emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 1910. Jacob had to work two years before he could pay off those steamer tickets. Three years after this journey, their third and last child was born, and the only one born in America: David Daniel, or as his parents called him: Duvidelleh.
Served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.
Herbert Bonis was his manager for 35 years.
He was a very talented storyteller, although he had trouble mimicking a woman's voice.
Biography in "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives," Volume Two, 1986-1990, pp. 472-475. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Originally considered for the leading role in "It Should Happen to You" (1954).
On April 21,1954, he was appointed UNICEF's Ambassador at Large, and made a 40,000 mile good-will trip, which resulted in the short, Assignment Children.
The stage musical "The Kid from Brooklyn," which chronicled Kaye's life, implied a tempestuous affair with his radio co-star Eve Arden and, at the very least, a dalliance with Laurence Olivier.
While he was world famous for his comic acting ability, his last film appearance, Skokie (1981) (TV), in which he portrayed a Holocaust survivor protesting a planned march by Neo-Nazis, was one of only two dramatic film roles he played - the other was the role of the Ragpicker in the 1969 film The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), starring Katharine Hepburn.
He was a liberal Democrat who opposed the Hollywood blacklist.
He awarded 3 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6125 Hollywood Boulevard; for Motion Pictures at 6563 Hollywood Boulevard; and for Radio at 6101 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra at New York's Carnegie Hall (10th March 1958) with his feet! This being a benefit concert, of course.
Was considered by producer Hal B. Wallis for the lead role in Visit to a Small Planet (1960) at the same time with Alec Guinness and Jerry Lewis, the last one eventually getting the role.
In an article in Look magazine he related that once while flying over Kansas he correctly diagnosed a pain in his right side as appendicitis. He landed at the nearest airfield and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He said he was told that a delay of even a half hour might have resulted in the appendix rupturing.
Shirley MacLaine claims she had romance with Danny Kaye in her 2011 memoir, "I'm Over That And Other Confessions.".
His first pilot's license reportedly was for "multi-engine aircraft". He did not get his license for single-engine aircraft until years later. Eventually he was even rated and licensed to fly the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet.