Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminski on January 18, 1913
, New York
. He was the third son of a Ukrainian
, and the only one to be born in the United States
He attended school until the age of 13, at which point he ran off to Florida where he became a busker, singing on the streets to earn money. By 1933, he had changed his name to Danny Kaye and traveled to the Catskills where he worked for a radio station and then did comedic performances at summer hotels and camps before joining the dance team of Dave Harvey and Kathleen Young. The next year he traveled to the Orient, where he learned professional performance, including dancing, singing, scat, and mime.
Chamberlain in Munich, unfortunately, upstaged his London debut, and by 1938 he had returned to the U.S. where he met Sylvia Fine. Fine was a comedy writer whose style suited Kaye's talents superbly. During that summer, she wrote the routines Anatole of Paris, Stanivslasky, and Pavlova, among others, and they became a team.
Danny Kaye made his Broadway debut in the Straw Hat Review in 1939, but it wasn't until the next year that he was cast for the musical production Lady in the Dark for which he gained both acclaim and notice from agents. Moss Hart, who wrote Lady in the Dark and had spotted Kaye performing at the nightclub The Martinique, had written an 11-minute part for Kaye of a photographer who had mastered the art of tongue twisters. His next part was the lead role in Let's Face It, a show about army life. Also, in 1940, he and Fine were married.
He continued performing in nightclub acts and on Broadway, as well as supporting overseas troops during WWII, until he was signed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1943, who had been trying to get Kaye to sign for the previous two years. Kaye's first starring role, Up In Arms, was released in 1944 and he was almost an instant hit with movie audiences.
In December 1946, Dena Kaye was born. She was to be their only child.
After several more movies, including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he took his one-man show to the Palladium in London in 1948. Life Magazine described his success as "worshipful hysteria" and not only did the Royal Family go to his show, but sat not in the royal box but the first row of the orchestra, for the first time in history.
His next dozen movies included The Inspector General, Hans Christian Andersen, White Christmas with Bing Crosby, and The Court Jester. One of his most well known routines is from the last. I know I will likely remember for a very long time that the vessel with the pestle holds the pellet with the poison and the chalice from the palace holds the brew that is true. But the chalice from the palace has broken! So it's the flagon with the dragon holds the pellet with the poison and the vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true. And now, we drink!
Beginning in 1954, he began an association that would last the rest of his life with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Employing his hobby as a pilot, which he enjoyed immensely, he logged thousands of hours in flight for UNICEF. He was a strong advocate for social responsibility and was so dedicated that in the span of only 5 days he flew to over 60 cities. A decade later, when UNICEF was to receive the 1965 Nobel Prize, Kaye was chosen to receive the award on behalf of the organization. Kaye also later received his own award for his work with UNICEF, the B'nai B'rith. After receiving a standing ovation he requested the audience to remain on their feet. He proceeded to sing Happy Birthday at the end of which he asked why everybody was "standing up like fools."
During this time, in the mid 1960's, he starred in his own musical variety show, The Danny Kaye Show. In it's first season, the program won an Emmy. He closed out the decade as the ragpicker in The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1969.
He returned to Broadway for the show Two By Two. He had a fall early on and appeared for the rest of the show's run using a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair.
Another aspect of his career was his conduction of orchestras. Although he claimed that he was unable to read a note of music and often had a comedic flair in this as in his other work, his conducting was praised. Some of his hijinks included him lying on his back on the podium and conducting with his feet or for Flight of the Bumblebee exchanging his baton for a flyswatter. In 1981 he received a Peabody Award, in part due to a PBS broadcast, Live From Lincoln Center: An Evening with Danny Kaye and the New York Philharmonic.
The latter part of his career consisted primarily of TV appearances, mostly on retrospective and remembrance programs. In 1976 he was a guest on The Muppet Show doing several skits, including one as the uncle of the Swedish Chef. His final movie role was in 1981 in the TV movie Skokie, in which he played a concentration camp survivor and earned rave reviews.
On March 3, 1987, Danny Kaye died of a heart attack at the age of 74 in Los Angeles, California. Interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, he is survived by both his wife and daughter and leaves behind a rich legacy both in the world of entertainment and as a dedicated UNICEF ambassador. One of his personal quotes was, "Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint you can at it."