Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Top 12 Roles Danny Kaye Turned Down

Danny Kaye's hit recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan songs earned him an offer to appear with the world-renowned  D'Oyly Carte company

Walter Mitty, Hans Christian Andersen, the Court Jester—Danny Kaye played several iconic roles over the years. But there were several more huge parts that could have been his, had he wanted them.

Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof  (Kaye’s wife/de facto manager Sylvia Fine allegedly said Danny was not interested in playing a character so old that he had marriage-age daughters. That, of course, didn’t stop him from six years later, playing 600-year-old Noah in Two by Two.)

Harold Hill, The Music Man  (Meredith Willson wanted fast-talking Kaye to originate this role on Broadway, but Sylvia thought the part of a huckster wasn’t right for him. But after the show became a hit, Danny campaigned to star in the movie version. This time it was Willson who refused, insisting on no one but Robert Preston.)

Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady  (Kaye declined the opportunity to fill in on Broadway while Rex Harrison took a three-month break in the early 1960s.)

Fred/Petruchio, Kiss Me Kate  (According to Howard Keel, Danny was MGM’s first choice to star in the 1953 movie version of the Cole Porter musical.)

Various Roles, Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas  (After Kaye’s acclaimed recordings of eight Gilbert & Sullivan songs, the prestigious D’Oyly Carte company invited him to tour with them in the 1950s. He declined.)

Francois, Can-Can  (Five years after On the Riviera, 20th Century Fox asked Kaye to make this similarly themed musical, but Danny let the part fall to Frank Sinatra, under On the Riviera director Walter Lang.)

The Dauphin, Huckleberry Finn  (Kaye actually signed on to play Gene Kelly’s sidekick in this big-budget musical. He even began rehearsals in mid-1951, but pulled out, along with Kelly, and the entire project was scrapped. Gene claimed Danny was dissatisfied with playing a supporting role.)

Harry, Harry and Tonto  (Writer Paul Mazursky wanted his former Danny Kaye Show boss to star in his 1974 comedy-drama, until Kaye insisted on “joking up” his script. Mazursky instead hired Art Carney, who would win an Oscar for the role.)

Frosch the Jailer, Die Fledermaus  (In 1950, the New York Metropolitan Opera asked Kaye to play a comic non-singing role in the Johann Strauss operetta, but his busy schedule prevented it.)

Remy Marko, Stop, You’re Killing Me  (Danny was supposed to follow up The Inspector General with a musical version of the Damon Runyon play A Slight Case of Murder for Warner Bros. Unfortunately, the first film was so difficult for all involved that Kaye and the studio mutually ripped up his contract. The part went to Broderick Crawford instead.)

Bert, Mary Poppins  (Walt Disney supposedly briefly considered casting Kaye as the Cockney chimneysweep immortalized by Dick Van Dyke, although there’s no record he was formally offered the part.)

Jerry, Some Like It Hot  (Billy Wilder first envisioned Kaye in the Jack Lemmon role, playing alongside Bob Hope.)


  1. Is it also true that he was supposed to play in "Servant of two masters", at the Chichester drama festival, but he cancelled to the conternation of Laurence Olivier?

  2. Theresa, that's exactly right. In the spring of 1967, as his TV variety series was winding down, Kaye signed to appear in the play for six weeks, from August 7 to September 16, 1967. But days before he was supposed to begin rehearsals, the Six-Day War broke out and Danny pulled out of the play to go entertain the Israeli troops. Kaye allegedly was getting cold feet about the dramatic departure and was accused of using the war as a pretext, greatly upsetting Olivier, the Chichester folks, and the thousands who had purchased advance tickets.

  3. This was a very interesting post. In general, I think that the parts were cast with the right actors (no one will ever be Harold Hill to me other than Robert Preston), but I would have loved to have seen Danny as Fred/Petruchio in "Kiss Me Kate." Certainly he had the vocal talent to tackle this role, and it would have been a little something different for him to appear in a big screen adaptation of a Broadway musical. And I think he would have done very well as Harry in "Harry and Tonto," if only he could have been persuaded to put the shtick on hold. Maybe he felt a little insecure about accepting the role, and thought that the only way he could do it would be to add extraneous bits of business.

  4. Debra, I agree. Danny would have brought his own talents to each of the roles, made them his own, and, I'm sure, done a great job, although I think the actor who did get each of the parts (particularly Robert Preston!) did more than fine.

  5. I also recall that he was considered very strongly for the role of Noel Airman in the film version of "Marjorie Morningstar"; it ended up being Gene Kelly who was good but in the novel the character is a Catskills entertainer which would have been wonderful for Danny. Would have been VERY different -- dark and sexy -- from anything he ever did.

  6. Lisa, very interesting! I was not aware of that possibility, but timewise it make sense. Danny was actively recruiting "freelance" film projects in 1957 from a range of studios, and I assume ended up doing "Me & the Colonel" instead.

  7. My understanding from Norman Jewison is that Kaye very desperately wanted to play Tevye in the film, In order to reclaim his Jewish heritage. It broke Jewison’s heart not to offer Kaye the role. Jewsion wanted a more “serious” actor to play Tevye.

  8. Draparks,
    Thank you for the comment. From what I understand, Kaye did very much want to play Tevye, but I can't speak to his motives. As far as it breaking Jewison's heart not to offer Danny the role, all I know is that the one time they did work together (on Kaye's first TV special in 1960) was not a happy experience for Jewison, particularly due to re-editing of the show by Mrs. Kaye, against his wishes.