Danny Kaye

Active - 1933 - 1997  |   Born - Jan 18, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York, United States  |   Died - Mar 3, 1987   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

Inimitable, multi-talented entertainer Danny Kaye first gained fame on Broadway by upstaging the great Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark in 1941 with an unforgettable rendition of the "Tchaikovsky," in which he rapidly fired off the names of 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds. Born David Daniel Kaminski, a garment worker's son in Brooklyn, New York, Kaye left school at age 13 to work as a mischievous busboy in the popular "borscht belt" resorts of the Catskill Mountains. While endeavoring to break into vaudeville and nightclub acts as a singer and dancer, Kaye also occasionally worked as a soda jerk and an insurance salesman. In 1939, he made his Broadway debut in Straw Hat Revue with Imogene Coca. Following the run of Lady in the Dark, he began making a series of educational films during the '30s. In 1943, he signed a movie contract with producer Sam Goldwyn, and became a star when he appeared in Up in Arms (1944). A talented mimic, physical comedian, singer and dancer, he was unlike any performer who had come before him. Kaye specialized in playing multiple roles or personalities in such films as Wonder Man (1945), The Kid From Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), and On the Riviera (1951). Probably his best films are The Court Jester (1956), which contains the unforgettable "pellet with the poison's in the vestle with the pestle" routine, based on similar but less effective bits in earlier films, and White Christmas (1954). His wife, composer-lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote most of his best gags and patter numbers throughout his career. Though tremendously popular during the mid-'40s through the '50s -- most particularly in Great Britain, where played to record-breaking crowds in the Palladium in 1948 and 1949 (he even made personal visits to Buckingham Palace) -- his bright star began to wane in the late 1950s when he began spending most of his time working for UNICEF, and traveling the world-over to entertain impoverished children. In the early to mid-'60s, he starred in The Danny Kaye Show, a comedy-variety television series for which he won an Emmy in 1964. He also found time to conduct symphony orchestras and appear in Two by Two on Broadway. In 1955, Kaye was awarded an honorary Oscar; the Motion Picture Academy also awarded him the Jean Hersholt Award in 1982 for his selfless work with UNICEF.

Movie Highlights

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  • Left school at 13 to work the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskill Mountains.
  • Made his Broadway debut in the 1939 musical Straw Hat Revue.
  • First big-screen appearance was in the 1944 comedic musical Up in Arms.
  • Was one of the original owners of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.
  • When UNICEF received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, Kaye was selected to accept it due to his extensive support of the organization.
  • Performed in a wheelchair for several months during the run of Broadway musical Two by Two (1970-71) after breaking his leg.
  • Was an accomplished pilot, certified to fly jumbo jets.