THOMAS, DANNY

U.S. Comedian/Actor

Danny Thomas was one of television's most beloved and enduring entertainers. His comedic talents were surpassed only by his shrewd production activities and his well-known philanthropy. Thomas began his career as the stand-up comic Amos Jacobs, developing his story-telling shtick into a familiar routine of lengthy narratives peppered with a blend of Irish, Yiddish, Lebanese and Italian witticisms. Quite often these routines tended toward sentimentality, only to be rescued in the end by what Thomas called the "treacle cutter," a one-liner designed to elevate the maudlin bathos into irony.

Like many early television comics, Thomas developed his routines touring in a variety of clubs. Restricted mostly to his home environs of the midwest, he secured a three year deal at Chicago's 5100 club where he was spotted by the powerful head of the William Morris Agency. "Uncle" Abe Lastfogel was to become Danny's mentor, overseeing his New York nightclub appearances, arranging a USO tour for him with Marlene Dietrich and landing him a part on Fanny Brice's radio show. By 1945, he was declared "best newcomer in radio" by the trade papers and Joe Pasternak cast him in his film, The Unfinished Dance. Refusing the advice of three different studio heads to surgically alter his trademark nose, Thomas' film career was short-lived, but fairly respectable. In the early 195os, he left the film industry to good reviews for his title role appearance in the 1951 Warner Brothers release of The Jazz Singer, and his co-starring role in the Doris Day vehicle I'll See You in My Dreams.

Meanwhile, tired of the nightclub circuit, Thomas was anxiously pursuing a television series. His first television appearance was on NBC's Four Star Review, where he co-starred with Jimmy Durante, Jack Carson and Ed Wynn. The variety show format, with its fast-paced three minute sketches was ill-suited to Danny's comedic style which depended upon expository monologues and lengthy narratives. For the series' second season, the network ordered a format change wherein the four rotating hosts were replaced by a procession of headliners. With all but Ed Wynn's departure, the program became the All Star Revue.

Thomas obtained his own program when agent Abe Lastfogel pressured fledgling network ABC into accepting Thomas as part of their terms for acquiring the much-coveted Ray Bolger. ABC, familiar with Thomas' previously ill-received television performances, insisted upon a sitcom, and it was during a prolonged brainstorming session with producer Lou Edleman and writer Mel Shavelson, that Thomas inadvertently came up with the autobiographical premise that was to become Make Room for Daddy. As the three worked futilely into the night, Thomas grew impatient and pleaded that he simply wanted a series so that he could stay put with his family for awhile. The result was, Make Room for Daddy, a show which revolved around the absentee-father dilemmas of a traveling singer-comic "Danny Williams." The title was suggested by Thomas' real-life wife, Rose-Marie, who during Danny's frequent tours, allowed their children to sleep with her. Upon her husband's return, the children would have to empty dresser drawers and leave the master bed to, quite literally, "make room for Daddy."

Incorporating Thomas' singing and story-telling talents, the program was a blend of domestic comedy and variety program (during Danny's fictionalized "nightclub engagements"). It became one of television's most successful comedies, winning numerous awards, including best new show for the 1952-53 season. Despite its success, the program underwent a number of transformations, most notably when Jean Hagen, who played the part of wife Margaret, left the series to attend to her film and stage career. For the fourth season, Danny played a widower, and a succession of guest-stars appeared as potential replacement wives. In the 1956 season finale, Danny proposed to guest-star Marjorie Lord who, along with child star Angela Cartwright, joined the Williams' family for the program's remaining seven years. The start of the 1957 television season also saw the program on a new network (CBS) when ABC president (and Hagen ally) Robert Kintner, lost interest in the series. The newly titled Danny Thomas Show slid into the spot formally occupied by CBS's mega-hit I Love Lucy, where it remained in the top ten until voluntarily leaving the network when the performers sought new avenues of creative expression.

While starring in Make Room for Daddy, Thomas met Sheldon Leonard, a former gangster-type actor with aspirations for directing. Leonard took over as director for the program midway into its first season, eventually becoming executive producer. Together, Thomas and Leonard established Thomas-Leonard Productions, a powerhouse production company based on the Desilu lot that was responsible for a multitude of successful series including The Real McCoy, the Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Bill Dana Show and The Dick van Dyke Show. In 1965 when Leonard left to develop I Spy, Thomas continued independently, producing The Danny Thomas Hour, an anthology series for NBC and joining with Aaron Spelling to create and produce The Mod Squad and other programs. While a 1967 attempt to buy Desilu from Lucille Ball was unsuccessful, Thomas continued to create and produce programs under the banner of Danny Thomas Productions.

Thomas had an enormous positive impact upon the growing medium. The off-camera stand-up routines he performed for the in-studio audience just prior to filming each episode of Make Room for Daddy, were imitated on other programs and institutionalized as the now commonplace "warm-up." The Andy Griffith Show was the first real spin-off for network television, originating in a 1960 episode of The Danny Thomas Show. As a producer he read scripts, and supervised a plethora of number one rated programs and was personally responsible for casting Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in The Dick van Dyke Show. His influence as producer continued not only in his own projects but through the work of his children, notably daughter Marlo, who became a renowned actress-producer-director, and his son Tony, who with partners Susan Harris and Paul Junger Witt is responsible for veritable catalogue of 1970s and 1980s hit programs, including Soap and The Golden Girls.

Thomas's personal integrity is as well-known as his acting and producing talents. In the 1950s he successfully protected two black-listed writers who continued to write for his television series under assumed names. And, in 1983, he was rewarded with the Congressional Gold Medal for his work in establishing the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, a cause he continued to promote and support until his death in 1991.

-Nina C. Leibman


Danny Thomas with Rusty Hamer

DANNY THOMAS. Born Muzyad Yahkoob in Deerfield, Michigan, U.S.A., 6 January 1914. Married: Rose Marie Cassaniti, 1936; two daughters and one son. Began career in radio in Detroit, 1934; worked as master of ceremonies in night club, 1938-40; appeared on Chicago radio, 1940; worked as master of ceremonies, 5100 Club, Chicago, 1940-43; developed own radio, television programs, performed in clubs and theaters worldwide throughout 1940s; performed overseas during World War II with Marlene Dietrich and company, and solo; performed with Fanny Brice on radio, 1944; made motion picture debut in The Unfinished Dance, 1946; starred in long-running television series, Make Room For Daddy; produced successful television series such as The Dick Van Dyke Show. Honorary degrees: L.H.D., Belmont Abbey, International College, Springfield, Massachusetts; Christian Brothers College, Memphis; LL.D., Loyola University, Chicago; D. Performing Arts, Toledo University, Loyola-Marymount University, Los Angeles. Founder, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 1962, Memphis. Recipient: Emmy Award, 1954; Layman's Award from the American Medical Association (AMA); Better World Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), 1972; Michelangelo Award from Boys Town of Italy, 1973; Humanitarian Award from Lions International, 1975; Father Flanagan-Boys Town Award, 1981; Murray-Green-Meany Award, AFL-CIO, 1981; Hubert H. Humphrey Award, Touchdown Club, 1981; American Education Award, 1984; Humanitarian Award, Variety Clubs International, 1984; Congressional Medal of Honor, 1984; Sword of Loyola Award, Loyola University, Chicago, 1985; nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, 1980-81; decorated Knight Malta; knight commander with star, Knights of Holy Sepulchre, Pope Paul VI. Died in Los Angeles, 6 February 1991.

TELEVISION SERIES

1950-52 All Star Revue
1953-57 Make Room For Daddy
1957-64 The Danny Thomas Show
1964-68 Danny Thomas Specials
1967-68 Danny Thomas Hour
1970 Make Room For Granddaddy
1976-77 The Practice
1980-81 I'm a Big Girl Now
1986 One Big Family

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

1988 Side By Side

FILMS

The Unfinished Dance, 1946; The Big City, 1947; Call Me Mister, 1948; I'll See You In My Dreams, 1951; Jazz Singer, 1952.

PUBLICATION

Make Room for Danny, with Bill Davidson. New York: Putnam, 1991.

FURTHER READING

Gelbart, Larry. "The Man Could Make a Short Story Long." The New York Times (New York), 17 February 1991.

Grote, David. The End of Comedy: The Sit-com and the Comedic Tradition. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1983.

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home!: Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.

Leibman, Nina. Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: R. Marek, 1980.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime-time Comedy. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

 

See also Andy Griffith Show; Dick Van Dyke Show