Remembering the Multi-Talented Actor & Humanitarian Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954)

Every once in a while it will dawn on me that I barely know anything about a certain actor or actress even though I’ve heard their name a million times and probably should be more familiar with them.

That happened to me again recently, this time in regard to actor Danny Kaye. All I really knew about him was that he starred in the movie White Christmas (1954), which is the only movie of his that I had seen up until this week. I don’t know why, but I always hate having to admit that about someone, even though it certainly wasn’t intentional!

After reading a blog post by speaker Barry Bradford titled Unexpected Movie Teams, I set out to watch the movie On the Riviera (1951), which starred Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney. It was in part because I figured it was about time I got to know more about Danny Kaye, but it really had more to do with the fact that I am a big fan of Gene Tierney.

I can’t say that the movie as a whole left that much of an impression on me, but Danny Kaye’s versatile performance and the things I learned about him while watching the DVD’s special feature called “A Portrait of Danny Kaye,” caused me to gain a new found respect and admiration for him. I had no idea he was such an interesting, multi-faceted person who certainly lived up to the quote below!

Here are just a few of the things I learned about Danny Kaye that proved that he really knew how to live life to the fullest.

Quote by Danny Kaye

  • He was an actor, singer, dancer, and comedian who held unique talents such as reciting tongue-twisting songs and monologues, performing the art of pantomime, talking in foreign accents, playing dual roles, etc.
  • He starred on Broadway, in films, in television, and on the international stage, becoming a huge hit when he performed at The London Palladium in 1948.
  • He loved the game of baseball, and although he remained a lifelong Dodgers fan, he became a part-owner of the Seattle Mariners in 1977.
  • He held a commercial pilot’s license and was rated to fly airplanes ranging from single-engine light aircraft to multi-engine jets.
  • He was a master of Chinese cooking and built a special kitchen in his house complete with a multi-wok stove, often entertaining celebrities who at one time included professional French chefs.
  • He conducted world famous orchestras including the New York Philharmonic even though he could not read a note of music. Former conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos once said, “Here is a man who is not musically trained, who cannot even read music, and he gets more out of my orchestra than I have.”
  • He volunteered with the charitable organization UNICEF, serving as the goodwill ambassador from 1954 until his death. For his many charitable works, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982 and was posthumously presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

I found this quote on his official website that sums up how I felt upon discovering the details of his very full life, “If Danny Kaye had not been born,” a Hollywood writer once observed, “no one could possibly have invented him. It would have been stretching credibility far past the breaking point”.

In what turned to out to be a total coincidence, I noticed on another website earlier today that it just happens to be the 27th anniversary of his death, which occurred on March 3, 1987. So it seemed only fitting that I put together this post as a tribute to him, with the intention of becoming more familiar with his life and work both on and off the screen.

If you are a fan of Danny Kaye, what do you admire most about him? What is your favorite Danny Kaye movie?

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6 Responses
  1. Kellee says:

    I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Danny Kaye. The man was a multi-talented genius. When I was a kid, I found him to be hilarious in such a charming way via all his movie roles. By high school I saw him on The Cosby Show so I did a bit more research on him and discovered what kind and compassionate work he did with UNICEF, especially passionate with children’s charities. I admire his versatility in interests (I have plans to get my pilot’s license too!) but his physical comedy and lightning speed linguistics are unparalleled!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kellee! That’s great that you’ve known about and have been enjoying his talents since you were young. I’m glad I finally discovered for myself what a unique entertainer and person he was.

  2. Thank you very much for mentioning my blog!

    I actually do a 90 minute presentation on Danny Kaye. He was a complex man, not easy to live with, but easy for audiences to love. His skill set as a performer is almost unimaginable! He could dance with Vera Ellen – often considered one of the best technical dancers in the history of movies – and look graceful and elegant. That despite the fact he had no formal dance training whatsoever! He can sing duets with Louis Armstrong, being the Crosby, and Beverly Sills and sound absolutely wonderful. His skill at physical comedy and nonsense accents was matched only by Sid Caesar. I cannot think of anyone in show business before or since who could do would Danny Kaye did.

    His work with UNICEF is of monumental importance. First, he raised fabulous sums of money to help the most imperiled children in the world. Secondly, he did so over several decades – not just the kind of celebrity who latches onto a hot cause and then disappears. Third, he was the first true celebrity representative of a specific charity. Today we can think of many celebrities who are associated with a particular cause. Sean Penn and Haiti. Kristin Chenoweth and animals. George Clooney and Darfur. I admire and respect each of them for their work, but, as a historian, I think it is important to remember that Danny Kaye was the first.

    • Ginny says:

      You’re welcome Barry! Thank you for sharing your post. Your presentation sounds like it would be fascinating. I’m really looking forward to exploring more of his work now that I know more about his exceptional talents and his wonderful heart for children.

  3. Norine Marquette says:

    Hi ! I found your website while searching for “interesting info about old-time movie stars”. About Danny Kaye, I saw him in quite a few movies in the early 1950’s when I was a little kid. He was terrific in “White Christmas” and another movie in which he was outstanding was (hope I recall the title correctly) ” Hans Christian Andersen”. The movie really showcased his diverse talents and I think all ages enjoyed it.

    Norine

  4. Ginny says:

    Hi Norine! Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I love White Christmas but have yet to see Hans Christian Andersen. It looks like it would be a charming movie, especially because of how wonderful Danny Kaye was with children in real life. I will have to watch it someday.

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