One of the greatest American entertainers of the twentieth century, Danny Kaye (b. Brooklyn, NY, January 18, 1913; d. Los Angeles, March 3, 1987) had a unique range of talents, from dance and popular song to tongue-twisters, funny accents, and impersonation, from a deep appreciation of classical music to rubber-faced mugging. He was one of those rare comedians who could make an audience explode with laughter simply by walking on to the stage, and yet, as some of his later film roles revealed, he could as easily elicit tears.
In 1910 the father, mother, and two older brothers of David Daniel Kaminsky emigrated from the Ukraine to the United States, where he was born three years later. “Duvidelleh,” as he was known to his family, attended public schools in East New York, but never graduated from high school; at thirteen he dropped out to go to work at a radio station, and a little later tried his hand as a tummler in the hotels of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. At twenty he joined a dancing act, but it was soon clear – after he lost his balance to uproarious laughter at his first performance – that he was a born solo comedian.
In the mid-1930s Danny Kaye was making short comedy films (Moon Over Manhattan 1935, Dime a Dance 1937 with Imogene Coca and June Allyson) with New York-based production outfits, usually playing a manic Russian with a heavy accent. He made his Broadway debut in 1939 in The Straw Hat Revue, but his fame was clinched two years later in the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin hit Lady in the Dark: in a show-stopping patter song called “Tchaikovsky” Kaye breathlessly rattled off the names of fifty-odd Russian composers in thirty-nine seconds.
Meanwhile Danny Kaye had married an old friend from school, Sylvia Fine, in 1940. She was a rehearsal pianist at the time, but later became a successful lyricist, gaining two Oscar® nominations, for lyrics to “The Moon is Blue” in 1953 and “The Five Pennies” in 1959, both from self-titled movies starring her husband. In the ’40s and ’50s she wrote much of Kaye’s material and took a strong hand in steering his career. They had a daughter, Dena, and remained married for forty-seven years, until his death. (Kaye had an extended affair with Eve Arden in the 1940s, and it is widely rumored, if just as widely denied, that he later had a ten-year liaison with Sir Laurence Olivier.)
During the years of World War II, Danny Kaye performed in night clubs and on Broadway, raising money to support the troops overseas. He made his feature film debut in 1944 in the Samuel Goldwyn Technicolor comedy Up in Arms; Goldwyn, uncomfortable with Kaye’s ethnic Jewish appearance, practically ordered him to get a nose job. Kaye refused, and a compromise was found: the dark hair of the “mad Russian” was bleached to a neon red. It remained so until it gradually went white in the ’70s.
Danny Kaye was an instant box-office smash; a rival producer even got hold of three of his old New York shorts and compiled them into the feature-length The Birth of a Star (1945). Seven new films in the next five years included the unforgettable The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and The Inspector General (1949). The ’50s saw the release of twelve more, among them Hans Christian Andersen (1952, not exactly a comedy), White Christmas (1954) with Bing Crosby, Knock on Wood (1954), The Court Jester (1955, “The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”), Merry Andrew (1958), and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols.
Although his screen career had begun to wane, in the next couple of decades Kaye remained a beloved fixture in the comedy world. He had his own television variety show from 1963 to 1967, winning an Emmy® in its first season, and guest starred on The Muppet Show, The Twilight Zone, and Cosby. On Broadway with Madeline Kahn in 1970 he starred as Noah in the Richard Rodgers musical Two By Two; at one point he injured his leg but continued the run in a wheelchair, clowning and ad-libbing – often, it was said, to the annoyance of his fellow actors. One of his last performances, for which he earned rave reviews, was a serious one, as a Holocaust survivor in the made-for-television movie Skokie (1981).
In addition to his many hobbies and passions (classical music, baseball, aviation, Chinese cooking, medicine), Danny Kaye was deeply involved with fundraising for charities, particularly UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and musicians’ pension funds. His antics as an orchestral conductor (leading “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” with a flyswatter, for instance) delighted fans worldwide and raised an estimated ten million dollars over roughly thirty years. He won a special Academy Award® in 1954 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1981 for his charity work.
Kaye was an original co-owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team from 1977 to 1981. Among his honors are his own asteroid (6546) and a stage musical, The Kid From Brooklyn.
Danny Kaye underwent heart bypass surgery in 1984 and, as the result of a contaminated blood transfusion, contracted the hepatitis that would kill him three years later. He is buried in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, where the bench over his grave is decorated with symbols of the things he loved: a bat, baseball, and glove, an airplane, a piano, and the United Nations insignia.