American entertainer and humanitarian
Born January 6, 1914 in Dearborn, Michigan of Lebanese immigrant parents, the fifth of nine children. His birthname was Amos Muzyad Yahkoob, a name which was obviously sidelined for one more amenable to American ears and tongues. He worked for a time as Amos Jacobs before settling on the stage name Danny Thomas.
His initial efforts as an entertainer was as a singer on radio (1934) before becoming a night club emcee and stand-up comedian (1936 and following). His brand of humor tended to be storytelling rather than snappy one liners. They were usually sentimental stories which crossed cultural boundaries and ended with a final line which rescued the story from being simply maudlin and raised it into irony.
During WW II Thomas toured overseas (both solo and with Marlene Dietrich) to entertain the troops. He performed with Fanny Brice on radio and entered the film industry. He landed a role in Joe Pasternak's film The Unfinished Dance (1947), I'll See You in my Dreams (1951) with Doris Day, and the title role in the remake of the 1927 classic The Jazz Singer, (1952). This film also featured the debut of a young female singer named Peggy Lee.
Thomas left the film biz following The Jazz Singer in 1952 with a small but solid body of work. He had also tired of life on the nightclub circuit and was seeking an entrance into the new medium of TV. He appeared in NBC's Four Star Review along with Ed Wynne, Jimmy Durante and Jack Carson. The format was rapid, featuring 3 minute sketches which were not Thomas' preferred vehicle. The second season saw Ed Wynne as the sole survivor, and a format change parading a series of headliners. The show was retitled as the All Star Review.
Make Room For Daddy
Still intent on successfully breaking in to TV, Thomas was shopped to the fledgling ABC Television Network as part of a deal which brought the highly sought after Ray Bolger to the network. ABC was far less than thrilled to have Thomas' talents, being familiar with his flop with the Four Star Review. Rather than put Thomas into another variety show, the network insisted he become part of a sitcom. Along with producer Lou Edelman and writer Mel Shavelson, Thomas created the concept of a show featuring the life and trials of Danny Williams, a traveling singer-comic. The show was named Make Room For Daddy, and was based on Thomas' own experiences when his wife and children would literally have to 'make room for Daddy' upon his return home from a series of engagements on the road. The name for the project was advanced by Thomas' own wife.
The show debuted in 1953 and was chosen as Best New Show for the 52-53 season. Initially the cast included Thomas as Danny Williams, Jean Hagan as his stay at home wife Margaret, Sherry Jackson as his 11 year old daughter Terry, and Rusty Hamer as his 6 year old son Rusty. Make Room For Daddy also included a large ensemble of characters including Hans Conried (as Uncle Tonoose), Annette Funicello, Pat Harrington, Jr., Sid Melton, and Jesse White along with a host of others.
The show, while being a great success, endured several evolutions during its run. Jean Hagen left the series in 1956 to return to films and the stage, earning her the distinction as being the first actor 'killed off' during a sitcom. Thomas continued with the show, being rewritten as a widower raising the kids on his own. He was joined by a number of prospective replacement wives. The final episode of 1956 saw him propose to Marjorie Lord, who along with child actress Angela Cartwright (playing Lord's daughter) would join the program as regulars.
In 1957 ABC found a new head in Robert Kintner. Kintner wasn't supportive of the show and it moved to CBS, being renamed The Danny Thomas Show. The show was slipped into the schedule to replace I Love Lucy, a daunting set of shoes to fill. To its credit, the show climbed to the top 10 and stayed there until its end in 1964. The program ended when the cast members departed en masse to pursue other creative interests. In its long run the show earned 4 Emmy Awards and was nominated for an additional 10 more.
During Make Room For Daddys first season in 1953, a former tough guy actor named Sheldon Leonard was brought aboard mid-season as director. Leonard eventually became executive producer of the show. He and Thomas formed a partnership, creating Thomas-Leonard Productions. Together they were responsible for the success of a stable of highly successful shows including The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Bill Dana Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. The partnership endured until 1965 when Leonard left to develop the series I Spy. Danny Thomas continued alone in development and production of programs. He created The Danny Thomas Hour, an anthology series for NBC. Thomas joined with Aaron Spelling in creating The Mod Squad. Thomas made a bid to acquire Desilu Studios from Lucille Ball in 1967, but failed in that attempt. He continued to operate and develop programming under his company Danny Thomas Productions.
Thomas enjoyed a brief return in 1970, starring in Make Room For Granddaddy. The show was a reprisal of his Make Room For Daddy role with the children now grown and Thomas becoming a grandfather. The show featured many of the original cast as well as a veritable whos-who of performers nurtured by Thomas in his long career.
Some of the innovations created by Danny Thomas was his practice of 'warming up' the audience with his stand-up routines before filming the live show. This practice has become a standard for many programs. The Andy Griffith Show was the first spinoff show, originally being part of a 1960 episode of The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas was personally responsible for casting Mary Tyler Moore as Rob Petrie's wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Danny Thomas enjoyed a sterling reputation in his career. Part of his legacy was the protection of 2 writers who had been 'blacklisted' during the 50s. He continued to use them under assumed names, allowing them to work and survive in an era of difficulty for many in the entertainment industry.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Alongside Danny Thomas' considerable accomplishments as an actor and producer stand his creation in 1962 of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He founded the hospital in fulfillment of a vow he had made early in his career. Struggling to become established in the entertainment business while supporting a young and growing family, he had prayed to Saint Jude Thaddeus (patron saint of hopeless causes) for assistance. Soon afterward, he found stable employment and started his climb to eventually become a major producer.
The hospital pursues a two pronged mission: to provide cures as well as prevention of pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Part of the hospital's legacy is its policy to not deny treatment to any child due to race, religion, or the family's ability to pay. The hospital has treated patients from all 50 states as well as from more than 70 foreign nations. It treats some 4,900 patients per year, most on an outpatient basis, though maintaining a 60 bed unit for those requiring more intensive hospitalization during treatment. The hospital is primarily financed by ALSAC, the fundraising arm also created by Thomas with the express purpose of raising money for hospital programs. The hospital hosts a broad spectrum of research into various diseases and the technologies needed to combat them. The hospital also receives funds from federal grants (mainly via National Institute of Health and the National Cancer Institute), insurance and investments. In 1966 a researcher associated with St. Jude's named Peter Doherty, PhD was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. His research is in the area of the human immune system and immunology.
St. Jude's has five affiliate hospitals in its system. They are as follows:
- St. Jude Midwest Affiliate, Peoria, Illinois
- LSU Health Sciences Center, Shreveport, Louisiana
- Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- St. Jude Tri-Cities Affiliate, Johnson City, Tennessee
- Huntsville Women's and Children's Hospital, Huntsville, Alabama
He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1983 for his groundbreaking work in forming St. Jude's, and worked tirelessly on behalf of the hospital until his death in 1991.
Danny Thomas married Rose Marie Casaniti on January 15, 1936. Their family produced two daughters and one son.
Daughter Margaret (later Marlo Thomas) became an actress/producer/director, following in her famous father's footsteps. She is married to TV personality Phil Donahue.
Their second daughter was named Terre Thomas. She became associated with St. Jude's, filling her father's role in support of the hospital. She remains involved with the hospital in a number of capacities, and is also a songwriter and singer.
Son Tony Thomas became a producer and was in part responsible for a huge array of successful shows such as Soap and The Golden Girls.
Danny Thomas died in Los Angeles on February 6, 1991 of heart failure. He is, along with his wife Rose Marie, interred in a crypt on the grounds of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
1988 Side by Side, Actor
1980 Celebrity Commercials and Bloopers, Actor
1979 Samurai Executive, Producer
1979 The Return of the Mod Squad, Executive Producer
1978 Three on a Date, Actor / Executive Producer
1975 Satan's Triangle, Producer
1974 Shivaree on Delancey Street, Actor
1973 Remember When, Executive Producer
1972 Second Chance, Executive Producer
1971 Journey Back to Oz, Actor: The Tin Man
1970 The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again, Executive Producer
1969 The Ballad of Andy Crocker, Executive Producer
1969 The Pigeon, Executive Producer
1969 The Monk, Executive Producer
1969 The Over-the-Hill Gang, Executive Producer
1969 Black Brigade, Producer
1968 Executive Producer
1967 Executive Producer
1966 Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title, Actor
1964 Looking for Love, Actor: Himself
1961 Executive Producer
1960 Executive Producer
1960 Road to Lebanon, Actor
1953 The Jazz Singer, Actor: Jerry Golding
1951 I'll See You in My Dreams, Actor: Gus Kahn
1951 Call Me Mister, Actor: Stanley
1948 The Big City, Actor: Cantor David Irwin Feldman
1947 The Unfinished Dance, Actor: Mr. Paneros