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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Danny Kaye’s First Talk Show Appearance

What may have been Danny Kaye's first talk show appearance ever was just released this week on DVD.

First, a little background:  Early on, Danny was wary of television. Initially, he thought himself above the fledgling medium. He also saw that TV chewed up material at a ferocious pace, and was fearful it would quickly consume all the specialty numbers he had spent decades perfecting on stage.

In the 1950s, he appeared on a handful of TV specials, such as the Academy Awards, but it took until 1960 before a new agent convinced him to appear in three hour-long TV specials, one a year, to rejuvenate his sagging movie career.

To promote the first two specials on CBS, he made guest appearances on his favorite game show, What’s My Line. But the third special, co-starring Lucille Ball, would run on NBC, so he needed to find NBC shows on which to promote it. He consented to something he’d never done before: talk shows.

With the Lucy special set to air Nov. 11, 1962, he appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Nov. 8, The Andy Williams Show Nov. 8, and was interviewed on Here’s Hollywood Nov. 9. He also appeared on NBC’s brand-new Merv Griffin Show, taping the episode Nov. 8-9. The episode aired that second afternoon, so while it may have been the first talk show set Danny ever set foot on, it was his third broadcast.

And it's that hilarious appearance on the Merv Griffin Show that was released on DVD this week, as part of a 12-disc box set of the series.

After the Lucy special, Kaye started his own weekly variety show, which ran for four years, after which he’d sporadically return to talk shows, like David Frost and Dick Cavett, to promote other projects.

New Merv Griffin Show box set kicks off with an early appearance by Danny Kaye.