“He’s a master at playing the guessing game”

The Modesto Bee – Dec. 12, 1984

By: Jane Leavy (The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – Danny Kaye always seemed to be made of elastic. It was as if the anatomical laws that applied to everyone else had no bearing on him. His face was made of rubber. His blue eyes were three-way bulbs. His voice defied octaves. And his hands! They danced, they floated, they flew. He was always in the process of becoming something. He could be anyone and anything: Captain Hook, Hans Christian Andersen or a 5-year-old boy; a pilot, a conductor, or a gourmet cook. And so now, it is startling to see him in pain, restricted by a bum leg that forces him to be like everyone else, himself.

The elevator door at Dulles airport in suburban northern Virginia closes behind two wheelchairs and their occupants. An elderly woman, in her 80s surely, looks over at the man sitting on her right. He is wearing space shoes and carrying an orthopedic cane. Rust-colored hair tumbles of his Izod hat. A pink carnation is tucked inside the band, a gift from a stewardess.

“Danny Kaye?” the old woman says.

A limousine waits in the rain. Danny Kaye is helped into it. He hates this. He always moved so easily, so gracefully from world to world and place to place. Laughter greased the skids. It still does. As the Virginia countryside melts into darkness, the years fade from his face. Little by little, gesture by gesture, nuance by nuance, he becomes Danny Kaye.

“I keep referring to myself as an elderly eccentric gentleman,” he says, merrily.

“And then I keep harking back to my beginnings and I’ve got to remember I was a youthful eccentric gentleman. I was eccentric almost all my life, meaning I never went by the book, which is why (baseball manager Leo) Durocher and I became such good friends. Rules to me were always confining, especially in my profession.”

The voice becomes a snort, but the face remains that of a man who was once described by his wife as “an elfin child left on somebody’s doorstep.”

“Tradition,” he says, shaking his cane in the wan glow of passing headlights. “The reason I have this is tradition. You know I go in for surgery right after this? I was brought up like a Catholic in the theater. The show must go on. So I busted up my leg, my right leg. [I hate to correct Danny, but it was actually his left leg that was injured in Two by Two, as can be seen from footage in A Legacy of Laughter and reported on in various articles. - J.N. Webmistress] I came back to the show in a cast and for 10 months I did the show on crutches and in a wheelchair because the show must go on.”

This was in 1970. He was on Broadway at the time, playing Noah in “Two by Two.” He leaped. The stage was wet. His foot turned under and he ruptured the ligaments in his right foot [again...it was the left - J.N. Webmistress]. His left leg [should be the right leg] has been compensating ever since. Jogging and fielding grounders with the ball club he part-owned didn’t help.

The show went on: “We did some research,” he says.

“It was some schmuck in the Middle West who had a small theater, somebody got sick and he didn’t want to give the money back. So he made up this whole myth and tradition that the show must go on.”

(He was in Washington for the Kennedy Center Honors, one of five artists honored last Sunday.) The honors were for the “body of his work.”

Danny Kaye loves that. Some body. He postponed the left hip [again...right hip] replacement surgery so he could be in Washington for this.

“This gives me the warmest glow of all and it lasts the longest,” he says. “It’s a very, very important occasion. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Even if I have to hobble about on a cane.”

It is suggested, in the limousine, that Danny Kaye’s life has been one grand improvisation, a marvelous mischievous tour de force.

He likes this idea. He embraces it, the idea becomes his. Soon, he is improvising on it, theme and variations. “I think the theme is staying alive and doing variations on that. I enjoyed sparkling health until I was 70. Then it all hit the fan. A couple of years ago, when I left the Mayo Clinic, I called my daughter, Dena, and said, “Bad news. I’m probably going to have to have this operation.’ She said, “Maybe it’s for the best. I never thought of you as walking. I always thought of you as floating.”

Of course.

Here are some of the things Danny Kaye has done, floating through the last 71 years: he has married one woman, fathered one daughter and starred in 17 movies, not including an unreleased short with George Bernard Shaw; he has conducted almost every major symphony orchestra in the world and some not-so-major ones, raising millions of dollars for musicians’ pension funds. Once he led the Cleveland Symphony in a rendition of “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” using a fly swatter for his baton. He does not read music.

He has been a soda jerk, an insurance adjuster and a tummeler (Yiddish for “one who creates tumult”) at the White Roe Lake hotel in the Catskills. In his Broadway debut in 1940 he stopped the show nightly in “Lady in the Dark,” by naming 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds of a song named “Tchaikovsky.” He has gone to synagogue in Moscow. He has been a permanent roving ambassador for UNICEF for 31 years. He made children smile. “Walter Mitty dreamed it, Danny Kaye lived it,” his wife says.

He also played the lead in the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

He (and his partners) bought and sold the Seattle Mariners, a major league baseball club. He was a five-handicap golfer, and a regular on the Best Dressed list (until he discovered space shoes and white sweat socks).

He is the only American amateur to receive the “Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France,” the top French culinary award, and his specialty is Chinese. His friend, Vin Scully, the baseball broadcaster, who will introduce him at the Kennedy ceremonies, says, “He’s a lot of person. He’s a group photo.” (Kaye chose Scully over other friends like Henry Kissinger and Cary Grant).

He led 100 Danish reporters singing “Wonderful Copenhagen” on the 800th anniversary of that city and was the only one who knew the words. He was named Danish knight. He visited a leper colony. He was the first person along with Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, to visit David Ben-Gurion after he was wounded in the bombing of the Knesset in 1957. After the Six Day War, he visited a blind child in a hospital in Israel. The boy would speak to no one. “After Danny Kaye left,” says a friend Olive Behrendt, “the boy sat up and said, ‘I’ve just seen Danny Kaye.’”

There’s more: He diagnosed his own appendicitis and flew himself to the Mayo Clinic for surgery. He has had quadruple bypass surgery. He has seen so many operations, he was named an honorary member of the American College of Surgeons.

And one night in 1950, he made a woman who was eight months pregnant laugh so hard she delivered in the first aid station at the Roxy theater. His wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote much of the material he performed on stage and screen, used to take him around to friends to induce labor. “I want people to remember that he was probably the funniest man I’ve ever seen,” she says. “That’s gotten lost somewhere.”

He has begun, perfected, and abandoned more careers than entire graduating classes of Harvard Business School. There were times traffic stopped in New York City when his fans filled the streets. In London, the papers heralded his arrival with a picture of his hat and his shoes and the words: “He’s here.”

Once he went to the House of Commons where he happened upon the Archbishop of Canterbury. “We chatted for a while,” Kaye says now in the limousine as the lights of Washington’s suburbs grow thicker along the road.

“He said he was delighted about how I was pleasing people in the theater. Then he said goodbye. I got in my car. He walked to his. As we pulled away, he stepped off the sidewalk. My driver slammed on the brakes.”

Kaye makes the noise of screeching tires. He does it well. Then silence. “He walked back to the car, by which time I had rolled the window down and he said: ‘Young man, you very nearly achieved a real measure of fame.’”

Kaye is giggling at the absurdity of it all. “Isn’t that great?”

At the height of his popularity, in the mid-1960s when he was a fixture on prime-time television with “The Danny Kaye Show,” he took a hike. He said, “Enough.”

Friends say he has no ego needs.

“Everybody has ego needs,” he says.

What he knows is instinct. He has spent a lifetime honing it and obeying it. It’s all a matter of reflex and timing. At Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, from which he never quite managed to graduate, he was an infielder with soft hands and a feel for the ball. As an entertainer on the Borscht Belt and Broadway, he had a gift for knowing what made people laugh.

Friends say it’s hard to know the real Danny because there’s so many of them. “Yeah,” he says, as the limousine navigates the traffic and the wet streets of downtown Washington. “You know who finds me the most difficult to know? Me. I’m a crazy person. I’m as neurotic as anybody, but on a scale, there’s more balance than imbalance.”

What are the worst things about Danny Kaye?

“Impatience, irritability, and a short temper,” he says—three qualities that emerge under stress.

But laughter is nurtured in the womb of sadness. Every comic knows that. It is instinctive. A couple of months ago, Henry Kissinger and Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor of West Germany, addressed a group of oil company executives at the Stanford Court. Kaye walked right by the security, Nassikas said, “slammed his fist on the boardroom table and in a high, shrill voice said, ‘This looks to me like some high-powered meeting!’”

“I didn’t slam my fist on the table,” Kaye says, smiling.

There isn’t much else he hasn’t done. Right about now, at 71, pulling up to Washington hotel, he can’t think of anything he’s got to do, except get well. “One thing I’m certain of is that I don’t want to play Hamlet,” he says. “Why? It’s not as tough as doing comedy.”

This reminds him of a story. Edmund Gwenn, the English character actor, was on his deathbed.

“A friend asked, “Edmund, is it hard to die?’ Edmund Gwenn said, ‘It’s not as hard as comedy.’”

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