Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Danny Kaye Biographies His Wife Almost Wrote

Danny Kaye and his private life were almost the topic of at least three biographies by his wife, Sylvia Fine.
The other existing biographies of Danny Kaye (unlike the incomparable Danny Kaye: King of Jesters) will tell you that two separate times—once in the 1940s and again in the late 1980s—his wife, Sylvia Fine, attempted to write her own biography of her famous husband. The Kayes’ personal papers at the Library of Congress tell a slightly different story.

Sylvia’s first attempt at a Danny Kaye book started in March 1946. She thought it would be great for prestige and publicity, but her schedule was packed writing songs for Danny’s weekly radio show and for his upcoming movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. More pressing, she had just discovered she was with child and would experience a difficult pregnancy.

So, Sylvia hired a ghost writer, the well known New York literary agent Ethel Paige. Paige had edited and authored several books. Her most recent was Private Lives of Movie Stars: Hedy Lamarr, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball—a book that may have sounded juicy, but was really just press agent puffery. Just what Sylvia was looking for.

By October 1946, Sylvia was less than two months away from her due date and news was beginning to leak of her rocky relationship with Danny. Fan magazines had begun hinting at his carrying on with Eve Arden. This was not the time for a writer to be digging into their personal life. Sylvia demanded the project be scrapped and that Paige “cease her activites on behalf of Danny in the writing of a book.”

By March 1947, Sylvia was ready to take another crack at it, this time by her own hand. She would have to be in complete control of the story. Doubleday & Co., at the time the world’s largest book publisher, paid her a hefty advance, hoping for a whimsical look at the entertainer’s life. Instead, Sylvia spent the next two years writing a more critical look she called Seven Years in a Pressure Cooker. The writing period coincided with the bumpiest time Danny and Sylvia’s marriage would endure, including their seven-month separation. As their relationship finally matured into a “new normal,” she opted to return the advance and scrap the whole project.

Sylvia again started writing a book—but not a biography—in 1976. After teaching a class on the history of musical comedy, first at USC in 1972 and then at Yale for the fall semester of 1975, she thought each lecture would make a great chapter in a book. She paid to have each lesson transcribed, and then began tweaking them into book form. (Interestingly, her chapter on lousy Broadway shows, titled “Turkeys—And Why,” singled out Danny’s only Broadway show she wasn’t involved with, Two by Two.)

But early on in the project she realized the lessons would be better seen and heard rather than read about. So she turned her efforts to pitching them as a TV series for PBS. They eventually were produced as three specials, starting with Musical Comedy Tonight (1979).

Sylvia took one last stab at a memoir in 1987, when she signed a contract with Alfred A. Knopf about seven months after Danny’s death. She called it Fine and Danny, a title she’d first thought up for a video compilation of her husband performing her best bits, which she’d put together a few years earlier for a special event in their honor. But Sylvia, at heart an intensely private person, could never bring herself to finish the book and, four years later, died.

But what about Danny and Sylvia’s daughter, Dena? She is an accomplished writer and author in her own right. Might one day she write a book about her parents? Martin Gottried’s near-fictional Nobody’s Fool claims that the Kayes forced Dena to sign a contract stipulating that she would never write a book about her parents, lest she be cut out of the will. I can only assume this story is apocryphal, since a few years ago Dena was working on a book that she had hoped to have published in connection with the Danny Kaye Centennial Celebration in 2013.

Alas, the economics of today’s publishing industry prevented its publication as the lavish, photo-filled, coffee-table hardcover she envisioned. Instead, a number of those rare photos are now available for viewing on the Library of Congress’ website. And we are left to hope that one day Dena will sit down and share the fascinating story her mother tried to, but couldn’t.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Danny Kaye Sitcom That Almost Was

A new Danny Kaye Show was planned in 1986 as a spin-off of The Cosby Show.

Inspired by the mid-1980s success of the family-friendly Cosby Show, Danny Kaye seriously considered starring in his own self-titled family-friendly situation comedy for NBC.

To that point, Danny had limited experience with sitcoms. He’d guested in episodes of The Jack Benny Show and The Lucy Show in the early 1960s, as payback for guest spots on his variety series. But the rest of his TV work was specials and a handful of spots on talk shows and variety programs.

So the idea was to put him on an episode of the top-rated Cosby Show, to gauge his comfort level and the audience’s reaction. The episode, which aired in February 1986, was sort of a quasi-pilot called "The Dentist," with Danny playing the Huxtables’ unorthodox dentist, Dr. Burns.

The show was well received, but rather than feature the character in a true spin-off, work began on a true pilot for his own series, The Danny Kaye Show.

As lead writer/producer, Kaye looked to Ernie Chambers, who was a writer on the first three years of Kaye’s 1960s variety series, then left to produce its summer replacement, The John Gary Show (bankrolled by Danny’s company, Dena Productions). Chambers then went on to produce other variety series (Joey Bishop Show, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, etc.), before branching into sitcoms and specials.

Chambers was joined by Carol Burnett Show veteran Saul Turteltaub and his writing partner, Bernie Orenstein, who had first written together, then produced together, on That Girl, and had continued to write and produce together ever since.

Their idea was to mix the wacky character he played on Cosby with many of Danny’s own personality traits and hobbies. Kaye would play Dr. Henry Becker, a baseball-loving, French pastry cooking pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.

They completed their 30-minute pilot script on August 26, 1986. Unfortunately, in just the few months since Cosby, Kaye’s health seriously deteriorated. He had undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery three years prior, during which a tainted blood transfusion gave him hepatitis C. Six months after receiving the script, he was dead. The Cosby Show would be Danny’s final appearance.

Interestingly, if the sitcom would have ever happened, it would have been the fifth time Kaye had starred in a "Danny Kaye Show," following his radio show of the 1940s, his stage act of the 1950s and 1960s, a TV special of the early 1960s, and his TV variety series of the mid-1960s.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dr. Who Was Danny's Double

Comic Jon Pertwee looked so much like Danny Kaye, he was hired to play him.

Although he became best known as BBC’s time-traveling Dr. Who in the early 1970s, Jon Pertwee started out as an English comedian who was so often mistaken as Danny Kaye, that in time he was hired to play Danny Kaye.

Pertwee didn’t just look like Danny. He was also equally limber-limbed and nimble-tongued. So, after Kaye’s triumphant appearances at the London Palladium in 1948, Pertwee worked an impersonation of Kaye into his vaudeville act. His impression was so well received, that it was featured in the British film Murder at the Windmill (1949, released in the U.S. as Mystery at the Burlesque), which was really just an excuse to show off a bunch of vaudeville acts.

The comparisons to Kaye, however, soon began to irk Pertwee. Worse, autograph-seekers were constantly walking up to him and asking for Kaye’s signature. During one music hall appearance in 1951, he told a reporter, “I am tired of being mistaken for Danny Kaye. I am waiting for the day when I hear of Danny Kaye being mistaken for me.”

Yet that resemblance did get Pertwee more work. In 1953, writer/directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank had hoped to film their new Danny Kaye picture, Knock on Wood, entirely in London and Zurich, and cast Swedish beauty Mai Zetterling as the leading lady. Yet as soon as they laid out their shooting schedule, to begin June 1, news came that Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, televised nationally, was to take place June 2. Suddenly it seemed easier and less expensive to make the movie on a Paramount soundstage, with a Paramount crew.

Instead, a second-unit crew would spend the last two weeks of May filming Zetterling and a body-double for Kaye running around England and Zurich. And the obvious choice to hire as Danny’s lookalike? Pertwee. Unfortunately, Pertwee had a prior commitment, so a stand-in for the stand-in had to be hired for the last three days of filming. Those exteriors in Zurich at the airport, clinic and hotel? Pertwee. The shots in England, on the country road, river bank, clinic, railroad station, hotel, alley, and driving to and from the castle? Also Pertwee. But the exteriors about two-thirds into the movie in England at a crossroads, on the streets, and outside the pub and hotel? Some other guy, who’s noticeably taller and lankier than Pertwee (or Kaye, for that matter).

Zetterling, too, had to get on a plane to Hollywood, so after the first three days of second-unit work, a double for Zetterling was used in the remaining far shots.

As a sly nod to Kaye’s double, Panama and Frank in their next Kaye picture, The Court Jester, named one of the assassinated lords Sir Pertwee.

But that wasn’t Pertwee’s final Kaye connection. In 1975, he sang Danny’s fairy-tale tunes on the soundtrack to Hans Andersen, a stage version of Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen musical (1952). (Pertwee’s 1959 movie The Ugly Duckling, however, had nothing to do with Andersen or Kaye).

Pertwee died in 1996, like Kaye at age 76, and was compared to Danny till the end.

British comedian Jon Pertwee gained famed as the third Dr. Who, after years of living as a Danny Kaye lookalike.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Son of Goldwyn Helped Spread Kaye Stories

Producer Sam Goldwyn's son began producing shows himself not long after Kaye appeared in his sixth and final Goldwyn film, Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

Samuel Goldwyn Jr., son of the independent studio head who brought Danny Kaye to Hollywood and produced his first five films, died Jan. 9 at the age of 88.

His legendary father saw Kaye on Broadway in Lady in the Dark in 1940 and immediately began to pursue him for films. It took him until May 14, 1942, to sign Kaye and his songwriting wife, Sylvia Fine, to a five-picture deal, the first—the war comedy Up in Arms—to begin production a year later.

It was followed by Wonderman, The Kid from Brooklyn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and A Song Is Born. After Danny left to “freelance,” he returned to Goldwyn one last time, for Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

Goldwyn Jr. became a respected producer in his own right, first in television in the 1950s and eventually in the movies starting in the 1980s. But I’ll always know him as the person who donated—and maintained strict control over—his father’s business papers to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s Margaret Herrick Library.

After several years of begging, I was finally able to get permission from Mr. Goldwyn to pore over scripts, treatments, production records, contracts and correspondence concerning the making of the six Kaye films—research that proved invaluable in the writing of my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters.

Goldwyn Jr. also held on to the rights to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and over the last decade-plus of his life, he continuing searching for the right script and the right star to remake the Kaye classic. He finally settled on Ben Stiller, whose 2013 film would prove to be Goldwyn Jr.’s final screen credit.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Danny Kaye Returns to Mainstream!


Just spotted Danny Kaye at my local grocery store! RedBox is offering the new Blu-Ray of White Christmas.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Do You Want to Buy Danny Kaye’s Roadster?

Do you have a spare million to buy this beauty?

Next week, some lucky car collector will become the new owner of a treasured piece of Danny Kaye movie history:  the tricked-out sportscar Danny hijacks in Knock on Wood.

The car, a 1952 Woodill Wildfire roadster, is one of 142 cars from the Ron Pratte collection being sold at the Barrett-Jackson Car Auction Jan. 13-18, 2015, in Scottsdale, Az. The Discovery and Velocity cable TV channels will broadcast portions of the auction.

The Woodill Wildfire became famous for being the first car built all of fiberglass. For publicity, one of the first off the line in Downey, Ca., was sent to nearby Hollywood and affixed with plenty of gadgets that Kaye could play with as he pretends to be a British car salesman. Months later, the car was slightly restyled to make it look like a racing car, for the Tony Curtis movie Johnny Dark. A year later,
it was driven by Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind.

The company only produced about 15 cars and sold another 285 as kits. Fewer than 10 are known to exist today, the most recent one—a 1955 model—selling three years ago for $100,600. Kaye’s older, storied model will fetch a far higher price. No word on whether it still contains the original overhead, underslung, oscillating compression decravinator.

In Knock on Wood, Danny's character disguises himself as an English car salesman and bluffs his way through a demonstration of a new, gadget-laden vehicle.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The World of Danny Kaye Gets a Little Smaller

The late Eli Wallach joined Danny Kaye in the TV drama Skokie.

Every year, the direct connections to Danny Kaye become fewer and fewer, as we lose another batch of wonderfully talented folks who worked with him. Here are 10 who passed away over the last 12 months:

Stu Miller, 87, the San Francisco Giants pitcher immortalized in the tongue-twisting "Miller-Hiller-Haller" climax of Danny Kaye's "D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song" (1962), passed away Jan. 4, 2015.

Ernest Kinoy, 89, screenwriter of Kaye’s acclaimed TV movie Skokie (1981), died Nov. 10, 2014.

Richard Kiel, 74, most famous as the towering James Bond villain Jaws, also made a hilarious comic turn in the first Danny Kaye Show episode ever taped in color (episode 65, taped 1965, aired 1966). The sketch stars orchestra leader Paul Weston, who wants to sing “I’m Telling You Now” with his troupe, Paul Weston & the Weston Brothers—played by two midgets and a young, 7-foot-tall Kiel. He passed away Sept. 10.

Paul Mazursky, 84, the Academy Award-winning director and writer who got his first break as a sketchwriter on The Danny Kaye Show (1963-67), died June 30. Mazursky and his writing partner Larry Tucker were the only writers to work on the show all four years, and they later considered Kaye for the lead in their movie Harry and Tonto (instead opting for multi-appearance Kaye Show guest Art Carney).

Johnny Mann, 85, the first composer and choral arranger on The Danny Kaye Show (1963), passed away June 24.

Eli Wallach, 98, the legendary actor who co-starred in Skokie, left us the same day.

Martha Hyer, 89, Danny’s sweet love interest Lucy in The Man from the Diners Club (1963), died May 31.

Bern Bennett, 92, the staff CBS announcer whose work included intros for The Danny Kaye Show in the 1960s, died May 29.

Sid Caesar, 91, who succeeded Kaye as revue producer Max Liebman’s lead comedian in the 1940s and whose seminal variety show Your Show of Shows provided the template—and the majority of the writing staff—for The Danny Kaye Show, died Feb. 12.

Arthur Rankin, 89, stop motion puppet TV animation auteur, who with partner Jules Bass turned Danny into the puppet host of Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), died Jan. 30, 2014.