David Daniel Kaminsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Jacob and Clara Nemerovsky Kaminsky and their two sons, Larry and Mac, left Ekaterinoslav two years before his birth; he was the only one of their sons born in the United States. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in East New York, Brooklyn—which eventually would be renamed to honor him—where he began entertaining his classmates with songs and jokes, before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School, but he never graduated. His mother died when he was in his early teens. Clara had enjoyed the impressions and humor of her youngest son and always had words of encouragement for them; her death was a great loss for the young Kaye.
Not long after his mother's death, Kaye and his best friend ran away to Florida. Kaye sang while his friend Louis played the guitar; the pair eked out a living like this for a while. When Kaye returned to New York, his father did not pressure him to return to school or get a job, giving his son the chance to mature and discover his own abilities. Kaye said he had wanted to become a surgeon as a young boy, but there was no chance of the family being able to afford a medical school education for him. He held a succession of jobs after leaving school: soda jerk, insurance investigator, office clerk. Most of them ended with his being fired. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the insurance company $40,000. The dentist who had hired him to look after his office during his lunch hour did the same when he found Kaye using his drill to create designs in the office woodwork. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskillsas a tummler in the Borscht Belt, especially for four seasons at The White Roe resort.
Kaye's first break came in 1933 when he was asked to become one of the "Three Terpsichoreans", a vaudeville dance act. He opened with them in Utica, New York using the name Danny Kayefor the first time. The act toured the United States, then signed on to perform in the Orient with the show La Vie Paree. The troupe left for six months in the Far East on February 8, 1934. While the group was in Osaka, Japan, a typhoon hit the city. The hotel Kaye and his colleagues stayed in suffered heavy damage; a piece of the hotel's cornice was hurled into Kaye's room by the strong wind, nearly killing him. By performance time that evening, the city was still in the grip of the storm. There was no power and the audience had become understandably restless and nervous. To keep everyone calm, Kaye went on stage, his face lit by a flashlight, and sang every song he could recall as loudly as he was able. The experience of trying to entertain audiences who did not speak English is what brought him to the pantomimes, gestures, songs and facial expressions which eventually made him famous. Sometimes it was necessary just to try to get a meal. Kaye's daughter, Dena, tells a story her father related about being at a restaurant in China and trying to order chicken. Kaye flapped his arms and clucked, giving the waiter his best imitation of a chicken. The waiter nodded his understanding, bringing Kaye two eggs. His interest in cooking began on the tour.
When he returned to the United States, jobs were in short supply; Kaye struggled for bookings. One of the jobs was working in a burlesque revue with fan dancer Sally Rand. After the dancer dropped one of her fans while trying to chase away a fly, Kaye was hired to be in charge of the fans so they were always held in front of her.
Danny Kaye made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short Moon Over Manhattan. In 1937 he signed with New York–based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Kaye usually played a manic, dark-haired, fast-talking Russian in these low-budget shorts, opposite young hopefuls June Allyson or Imogene Coca. The Kaye series ended abruptly when the studio shut down permanently in 1938. He was still working in the Catskills at times in 1937, using the name Danny Kolbin. Kaye's next venture was a short-lived Broadway show, where Sylvia Fine was the pianist, lyricist and composer. The Straw Hat Revue opened on September 29, 1939, and closed after ten weeks, but it was long enough for critics to take notice of Kaye's work in it. The glowing reviews brought an offer for both Kaye and his new bride, Sylvia, to work at La Martinique, an upscale New York City nightclub. Kaye performed with Sylvia as his accompanist. At La Martinique, playwright Moss Hart saw Danny perform, which led to Hart casting him in his hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark.
Kaye scored a personal triumph in 1941 in Lady in the Dark. His show-stopping number was "Tchaikovsky", by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a whole string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, seemingly without taking a breath. By the next Broadway season, he was the star of his own show about a young man who is drafted called Let's Face It!.
His feature film debut was in producer Samuel Goldwyn's Technicolor 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor comedyWhoopee! (1930). Kaye's rubber face and fast patter were an instant hit, and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in almost immediately by compiling three of Kaye's old Educational Pictures shorts into a makeshift feature, The Birth of a Star (1945). Studio mogul Goldwyn wanted Kaye to have his prominent nose fixed so it would look less Jewish, but Kaye refused. However, he did allow his natural red hair to be dyed blonde, apparently because it looked better that way in Technicolor.
Kaye starred in a radio program of his own, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS in 1945–1946. Its cast included Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, and Big Band leader Harry James, and it was scripted by radio notable Goodman Ace and respected playwright-director Abe Burrows.
The radio program's popularity rose quickly. Before Kaye had been on the air a year, he tied with Jimmy Durante for fifth place in the Radio Dailypopularity poll. Kaye was asked to participate in a USO tour following the end of World War II. It meant he would be absent from his radio show for close to two months at the beginning of the season. Kaye's friends filled in for him, with a different guest host each week. Kaye was the first American actor to visit postwar Tokyo; it was his first time there after touring there some ten years before with the vaudeville troupe. When Kaye asked to be released from his radio contract in mid-1946, he agreed not to accept another regular radio show for one year and also to limit his guest appearances on the radio programs of others. Many of the show's episodes survive today, and are notable for Kaye's opening "signature" patter.
"Git gat gittle, giddle-di-ap, giddle-de-tommy, riddle de biddle de roop, da-reep, fa-san, skeedle de woo-da, fiddle de wada, reep!"
Kaye was sufficiently popular that he inspired imitations:
- The 1946 Warner Bros. cartoon Book Revue had a lengthy sequence with Daffy Duck impersonating Kaye singing "Carolina in the Morning" with the Russian accent that Kaye would affect from time to time.
- Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer's 1953 song "Lobachevsky" was based on a number that Kaye had done, about the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, again with the affected Russian accent. Lehrer mentioned Kaye in the opening monologue, citing him as an "idol since childbirth".
- Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster also fashioned a short-lived superhero title, Funnyman, taking inspiration from Kaye's persona.
Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s, and is well known for his roles in films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty(1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, Knock on Wood (1954), White Christmas (1954, in a role originally intended for Fred Astaire, then Donald O'Connor),The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958). Kaye starred in two pictures based on biographies,Hans Christian Andersen (1952) about the Danish story-teller, and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols. His wife, writer/lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many of the witty, tongue-twisting songs Danny Kaye became famous for. She was also an associate producer. Some of Kaye's films included the theme of doubles, two people who look identical (both played by Danny Kaye) being mistaken for each other, to comic effect.
Kaye teamed with the very popular Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne) on Decca Records in 1947, producing the number-three Billboard smash hit "Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)". The success of the pairing prompted both acts to record repeatedly through 1950, producing such rhythmically comical fare as "The Woody Woodpecker Song" (based on the frisky bird from the Walter Lantz cartoons, and another Billboard hit for the quartet), "Put 'em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon (And Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea)," "The Big Brass Band from Brazil," "It's a Quiet Town (In Crossbone County)," "Amelia Cordelia McHugh (Mc Who?)," "Ching-a-ra-sa-sa", and a duet by Danny and Patty of "Orange Colored Sky". The acts also teamed for two yuletide favorites: a frantic, melodious, harmonic rendition of "A Merry Christmas at Grandmother's House (Over the River and Through the Woods)", and another duet by Danny & Patty, "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"
While his wife wrote Kaye's material, there was much of it that was unwritten, springing from the mind of Danny Kaye, often while he was performing. Kaye had one character he never shared with the public; Kaplan, the owner of an Akron, Ohio rubber company, came to life only for family and friends. His wife Sylvia described the Kaplan character:
He doesn't have any first name. Even his wife calls him just Kaplan. He's an illiterate pompous character who advertises his philanthropies. Jack Benny or Dore Schary might say, "Kaplan, why do you hate unions so?" If Danny feels like doing Kaplan that night, he might be off on Kaplan for two hours.
When he appeared at the London Palladium music hall in 1948, he "roused the Royal family to shrieks of laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned English variety into an American preserve." Life magazine described his reception as "worshipful hysteria" and noted that the royal family, for the first time in history, left the royal box to see the show from the front row of the orchestra. He later related that he had no idea of the familial connections when the Marquess of Milford Haven introduced himself after one of the shows and said he would like his cousins to see Kaye perform. Kaye also later stated that he never returned to the venue because there was no way to re-create the magic of that time. Kaye had an invitation to return to London for a Royal Variety Performance in November of the same year. When the invitation arrived, Kaye was busy at work onThe Inspector General (which had a working title of Happy Times for a while). Warners stopped work on the film to allow their star to attend. When his Decca co-workers The Andrews Sisters began their engagement at the London Palladium directly on the heels of Kaye's incredibly successful 1948 appearance there, the trio was so well received that David Lewin of the Daily Express declared, "The audience gave The Andrews Sisters the Danny Kaye roar!"
He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The program was broadcast only on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony would come later. During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played "Buttons" in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In 1953, Kaye started his own production company, Dena Pictures, named for his daughter. Knock on Wood was the first film produced by his firm. The firm expanded into television in 1960 under the name Belmont Television.
Kaye entered the world of television in 1956 through the CBS show See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye combined his 50,000-mile, ten-country tour as UNICEF ambassador with music and humor. His first solo effort was in 1960 with an hour-long special produced by Sylvia and sponsored by General Motors; there were similar specials in 1961 and 1962. He hosted his own variety hour on CBS television, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967, which won four Emmy awards and a Peabody award. During this period, beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the annual CBS telecasts of MGM's The Wizard of Oz. Kaye also did a stint as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program. Kaye later served as a guest panelist on that show. He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.
In the 1970s Kaye tore a ligament in his leg during the run of the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, but went on with the show, appearing with his leg in a cast and cavorting on stage from a wheelchair. He had done much the same on his television show in 1964 when his right leg and foot were seriously burned from an at-home cooking accident. The camera shots were planned so television viewers did not see Kaye in his wheelchair.
In 1976, he played the role of Mister Geppetto in a television musical adaptation of Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan in the title role. Kaye also portrayed Captain Hook opposite Mia Farrow in a musical version of Peter Pan featuring songs written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. It was shown onNBC-TV in December 1976 as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. He guest-starred much later in his career in episodes of The Muppet Show, The Cosby Show and in the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone.
In many of his movies, as well as on stage, Kaye proved to be a very able actor, singer, dancer and comedian. He showed quite a different and serious side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death in 1987, Kaye demonstrated his ability to conduct an orchestra during a comical, but technically sound, series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising. Kaye received two Academy Awards: an Academy Honorary Award in 1955 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982. Also that year he received the Screen Actors GuildAnnual Award.
Kaye was enamored of music. While he often claimed an inability to read music, he was quite the conductor and was said to have perfect pitch. Kaye's ability with an orchestra was brought up byDimitri Mitropoulos, who was then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After Kaye's guest appearance, Mitropoulos remarked, "Here is a man who is not musically trained, who cannot even read music, and he gets more out of my orchestra than I ever have." Kaye was often invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers and was the conductor of the all-city marching band at the season opener of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1984. Over the course of his career he raised over US$5,000,000 in support of musicians pension funds.
In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982 (EPCOT Center at the time), both of which were aired on prime-time American television.
Kaye and his wife, Sylvia, both grew up in Brooklyn, living only a few blocks apart, but they did not meet until they were both working on an off-Broadway show in 1939. Sylvia was an audition pianist at the time. Sylvia discovered that Danny had once worked for her father, dentist Samuel Fine. They were married on January 3, 1940. Kaye, working in Florida at the time, proposed on the telephone; the couple was married in Fort Lauderdale. Their daughter, Dena, was born on December 17, 1946.
Both Kaye and his wife raised their daughter without any parental hopes or aspirations for her future. Kaye said in a 1954 interview, "Whatever she wants to be she will be without interference from her mother nor from me." When she was very young, Dena did not like seeing her father perform because she did not understand that people were supposed to laugh at what he did. On January 18, 2013, during a 24-hour salute to Kaye on Turner Classic Movies in celebration of his 100th birthday, Kaye's daughter Dena revealed to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz that Kaye was actually born in 1911.
During World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated rumors that Kaye dodged the draft by manufacturing a medical condition to gain 4-F status and exemption from military service. FBI files show he was also under investigation for supposed links with Communist groups. The allegations were never substantiated, and he was never charged with any associated crime.
After Kaye and his wife became estranged,ca. 1947 he was allegedly involved with a succession of women, though he and Fine never divorced. The best-known of these women was actress Eve Arden.
There are persistent claims that Kaye was homosexual or bisexual, and some sources assert that Kaye and Laurence Olivier had a ten-year relationship in the 1950s while Olivier was still married to Vivien Leigh. A biography of Leigh states that their love affair caused her to have a breakdown. The affair has been denied by Olivier's official biographer, Terry Coleman. Joan Plowright, Olivier's third wife and widow, has dealt with the matter in different ways on different occasions: she deflected the question (but alluded to Olivier's "demons") in a BBC interview. She is reputed to have referred to Danny Kaye on another occasion, in response to a claim that it was she who broke up Olivier's marriage to Leigh. However, in her own memoirs, Plowright denies that there had been an affair between the two men. Producer Perry Lafferty reported: "People would ask me, 'Is he gay? Is he gay?' I never saw anything to substantiate that in all the time I was with him.”Kaye’s final girlfriend, Marlene Sorosky, reported that he told her, "I've never had a homosexual experience in my life. I've never had any kind of gay relationship. I've had opportunities, but I never did anything about them."
Kaye died of a heart attack in March 1987, following a bout of hepatitis. Kaye had quadruple bypass heart surgery in February 1983; he contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion he received at that time. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. He is interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flower pot, musical notes, and a glove. Kaye's name, birth and death dates are inscribed on the glove. The United Nations held a memorial tribute to him at their New York headquarters.