Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two Sides of Danny Kaye

Tommy Grasso became a well-regarded PBS television director, but paid his dues in the early 1960s as a cue-card holder at CBS, working on The Danny Kaye Show and The Judy Garland Show. Grasso thought the heavy demands of an hour-long weekly variety show took their toll on Kaye (“He turned into a schmuck”). But, years later, Grasso would reevaluate his opinion.

An April 1964 cooking accident left Danny with a severely burned foot—and a cranky disposition.

As Grasso recalled, “I was a very young kid then. I was working with Barney McNulty, cue cards. One week I’d either work on Kaye or I’d work on Judy Garland. I liked working on Judy Garland, because I got paid more, because in those days she would go til 3:00 or 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, which was a ludicrous thing.

“They always rehearsed across from each other. Kaye was a very hard show to do because everything was on cue cards. The cue cards would be so heavy for all the skits they used to do.

“One night Kaye was cooking spaghetti at (choreographer) Tony Charmoli’s house. The pot boiled over, went onto his foot, and burned it very badly. They couldn’t rehearse at the studio, so we rehearsed up at (Danny’s) house on that show. I went up to his house a—I’m 20, 21 years old—and showed up at his house early. So the houseboy puts me in this, not their living room, but their music room/den-type of situation. I’m sitting there and Danny comes out walking on crutches and smoking a pipe, which he at that particular time started smoking a pipe because that’s when the cancer thing came in with cigarettes, so everybody switched to pipes. And this humungous pipe comes walking out. I was very nervous and very shy, because I didn’t have that much to do with him. I kind of hid anyway. And he stopped, and I stood up and I said, ‘Mr. Kaye, I hope you’re feeling better.’ And he says, ‘What the hell do you care for?’ I was embarrassed.

“The funny thing is almost 17 years later, I was doing a thing for PBS called The Warner Bros. Musical Movies, and I somehow I talked Sylvia Fine into doing it. So I go back up to their house, now 17 years later. Go in. The houseboy puts me in the same room. I swear to God not one piece of furniture was changed, nothing. Out comes Danny, the same bathrobe, and I break out in a cold sweat because I figure, ‘Jeez, he’s gonna get ornery with me again,’ and I hopped right up again and I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Kaye, how are you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, fine.’ Very, very nice. He asked, ‘What are you driving?’ I said, ‘Well, I have a rental car,’ because at that time I was back East working for PBS. He said, ‘Well, you take my wife’s car, because it’s special built for her. She has a bad back.’ I said, ‘Sure, fine.’ He was very, very nice and said, ‘Yes, excuse me, because I have a chef over from France, and I’m in the kitchen…’ Very, very, extremely nice.

“Now I had to take Sylvia down to KOCE (in Huntington Beach). We had a nice studio where we did the thing, and through the course of the evening, I tell her the same story, and she said, ‘Well, that’s Danny. Sometimes he’s a schnook and sometimes he’s not.’ He was a very temperamental man.”


  1. I want to know more about Sylvia's car!

  2. Great story. On two occasions that I saw him in person in a non-performance way, once on a Bob Hope special set he was genuinely mean to the cue card guy, but when we did an interview at his house for his Rose parade hosting, he was terrific and got along wonderfully with your host Tom Hatten. Comedians are often cantankerous, and I guess especially back then we'd maybe expect them to be nicer because they make their living appearing adorable. Great interview!

  3. Thanks, Lisa!
    I think everyone got along wonderfully with Tom Hatten! It was on his weekly "Family Film Festival" on KTLA in the 1970s that I first saw Danny & "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

  4. It's sad, but there it is. I guess it sort of goes with the turf. No matter how nice they appear on screen, actors and especially big stars are usually difficult, if not downright impossible. Artistic temperament, the stress of being at the top, wondering when they're going to tumble down, the distorsion of one's point of view caused by continuous adulation can be some of the reasons. In the Danny Kaye incident mentioned above, there is the extra element of physical pain. That being said, I have to admit that I hate it when important people are mean to us small fry. I guess I have to agree with Sylvia's statement and add "...but we love hime all the same".