Nationality: American. Born: David Daniel Kominski (some sources say Kaminski) in Brooklyn, New York, 18 January 1913. Education: Attended Thomas Jefferson High School, Brooklyn. Family: Married Sylvia Fine, 1940, one daughter. Career: Singer and comic after leaving school: worked on radio station WBBC, Brooklyn, and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskill Mountains, New York; 1933–39—toured with dancing act of Dave Harvey and Kathleen Young, and later as a single act, with material often written by Sylvia Fine; 1939—Broadway debut in The Straw Hat Revue ; 1940—nightclub act at La Martinique, New York; 1940–41—parts in Lady in the Dark and Let's Face It on Broadway; performed for war bond rallies, and in camps and hospitals overseas during World War II; 1944—feature film debut in Up in Arms for Samuel Goldwyn; 1945—inaugurated popular radio show; 1948—began regular seasons at London Palladium; 1953—co-founder, with Sylvia Fine, Dena Productions; 1954—started his work for the United Nations Children's Fund; 1960—formed Belmont Television Company, and appeared on The Danny Kaye Show , 1963–67. Awards: Special Academy Award, 1954; Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, 1982; Member of French Legion of Honor, 1986. Died: Of a heart attack, in Los Angeles, 3 March 1987.
Dime a Dance (Christie—short)
Getting an Eyeful (Christie—short); Cupid Takes a Holiday (Watson—short); Money on Your Life (Watson—short)
Night Shift (Kanin—short)
Up in Arms (Nugent) (as Danny Weems); The Birth of a Star ( The Danny Kaye Story ) (Pollard—compilation of Kaye's shorts)
Wonder Man (Humberstone) (as Buzzy Bellew/Edwin Dingle)
The Kid from Brooklyn (McLeod) (as Burleigh Sullivan)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (McLeod) (title role); A Song Is Born (Hawks) (as Professor Hobart Frisbee); Bob Hope Reports to the Nation (USO short) (appearance)
It's a Great Feeling (Butler) (as guest); The Inspector General (Koster) (as Georgi)
Bernard Shaw's Village (Frieze—short); On the Riviera (Walter Lang) (as Henri Duran/Jack Martin)
Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor) (title role)
Knock on Wood (Panama and Frank) (as Jerry); Hula from Hollywood (Staub—short); White Christmas (Curtiz) (as Phil Davis); Assignment Children (short for UNICEF)
The Court Jester (Panama and Frank) (as Hawkins)
Merry Andrew (Kidd) (as Andrew Larabee); Me and the Colonel (Glenville) (as S. I. Jacobowsky)
The Five Pennies (Shavelson) (as Red Nichols)
On the Double (Shavelson) (as Pfc. Ernest Williams/Gen. Sir Lawrence Mackenzie-Smith)
The Man from the Diners' Club (Tashlin) (as Ernie Klenk)
The Madwoman of Chaillot (Forbes) (as Ragpicker)
Pied Piper (short for UNICEF)
Skokie (Wise—for TV) (as Max Feldman)
Freedland, Michael, The Secret Life of Danny Kaye , London, 1985.
Gottfried, Martin, Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye , New York, 1994.
Current Biography 1952 , New York, 1952.
Baker, P., "Kaye Dreams Are Hard to Capture on Film," in Films and Filming (London), December 1955.
Buckley, M., "Danny Kaye," in Films in Review (New York), May 1973.
Ecran (Paris), April 1979.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 4 March 1987.
Obituary, in Films and Filming (London), April 1987.
Stars (Mariembourg), Summer 1995.
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The films of Danny Kaye comprise only one aspect of his overall career as a comedian. Kaye's initial rise to fame came on the stage, in various revues and on Broadway. He also was extremely successful on the New York nightclub circuit. Reportedly, it was in one of these nightclubs that Sam Goldwyn caught Kaye's act and offered him a film contract. This was not his first contact with the motion picture business. In the late 1930s he appeared in a few two-reelers for Educational Pictures which were not particularly entertaining or successful. In 1941 he turned down an MGM contract, choosing instead to continue working before live audiences. By the time Kaye decided to accept Sam Goldwyn's offer, he already had established himself as one of the hottest young comedians in New York, and he came to Hollywood as a star before he made his first feature.
Because of Kaye's success on the stage, Goldwyn spared no expense in launching his film career. His early films were lavish in their settings and featured extravagant musical numbers. Kaye's own routines were tailor-written for him by his wife and creative partner, Sylvia Fine. With their complicated patter and witty lyrics, her songs complemented his style of comedy. Kaye had become famous for his verbal acrobatics and foreign double-talk. He specialized in such tongue twisters and rhymes as "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true," from The Court Jester . Other examples include "The Lobby Number" in Kay's feature debut, Up in Arms , in which he sings to a crowd in a theater lobby; and Wonder Man , in which he uses an opera to sing out the clues of a murder.
In many of his films Kaye was cast in dual roles, sometimes playing twins or lookalikes (as in Wonder Man and On the Double ). Other times he played characters with multiple personalities (as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ). Generally speaking, one side of Kaye's character would be weak and helpless while the other would be strong and resourceful. During the course of the film, Kaye would learn to blend the two personalities in order to become a better individual.
In 1953 Kaye and his wife formed their own production company, Dena Productions. Together with the writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, they produced three pictures. One of these, The Court Jester , is not only Kaye's finest film but one of the all-time-classic screen comedies. Its $4-million budget made it the most expensive comedy up to that time. Kaye also was capable of playing the graceful romantic, as he so capably did in White Christmas , where his soft singing voice was utilized so effectively. It is a shame that he was not allowed to play such roles more often.
Kaye also proved to be an equally fine dramatic actor. In the television movie Skokie , he offered a powerful performance as a concentration camp survivor who has settled in Middle America, and who sets out to thwart an attempt by neo-Nazis to hold a street demonstration. Earlier, in The Five Pennies , he was effective in the role of jazz musician Red Nichols.
Kaye also was noted for his many offstage and offscreen charitable endeavors, most specifically his varied activities on behalf of UNICEF.
—Linda Obalil, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg