About Danny Thomas
Best remembered as the star of Make Room for Daddy during television's first golden age, Danny Thomas was more than just another nightclub entertainer turned sitcom star. Along with partner Sheldon Leonard, he produced such landmark television series as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and many others. However, his most enduring contribution was the time and energy he expended while helping establish the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
According to his 1991 autobiography, Make Room for Danny, the man known to millions the world over as Danny Thomas was born Muzyad Yakhoob on January 6, 1914, in Deerfield, Michigan. Baptized at Deerfield's St. Alphonsus Church, his mother had always assumed that her son's name had been changed to Alphonsus, and used it on several legal papers. Finally, the youngster's father decided to legally change the family's last name to Jacobs. Hence the father became Charles Jacobs, the mother Margaret, and young “Muzzy” Yakhoob became Amos Jacobs. That said, even after he adopted his official show business name, longtime friends such as Frank Sinatra simply called him Jake.
The first generation son of Lebanese immigrants, he absorbed much of his family's culture through his close-knit family, and would later use them as the back story for his famed TV sitcom. The elder Jacobs supported his eight sons and one daughter by selling scrap metal and peddling dry goods until he had earned enough to buy a horse farm in Michigan. After losing the farm in a poker game, their father moved to Toledo, Ohio, and spent the rest of his days working in a factory. A natural storyteller, he would fascinate his children with tales of life in Lebanon and his trials and travails as a peddler, which rubbed off on young Thomas.
Living in various ethnic communities, Thomas developed an uncanny ability to mimic accents, including Yiddish, Irish, and Lebanese. Close to his uncle Tony Simon and his Aunt Julia, the boy often lived with them, following them in their various changes of location until he was 15 years old. During the 1920s he sold candy and soda at the Empire Burlesque Theatre in Toledo. After watching many comedians do their respective acts, he realized that someone could actually make a living being funny. His favorite performer was a dialect comic named Abe Reynolds, who wove Russian and Jewish accents into his monologues in the same fashion that Catskills comedian Myron Cohen did. At the age of 12, Thomas and his brother formed their own short-lived high school act: Ray and Amos Jacobs—Songs, Dances, and Snappy Patter.
After dropping out of high school at age 15, Thomas sold candy at a Burlesque theater in Rochester, New York, before returning to Toledo to work as a punch press operator's assistant at the local Autolite factory. At age 17 he moved in with his uncle David Azar in Detroit, and during the height of the Great Depression made his debut on radio station WMBC's The Happy Hour Club, where he met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Rose Marie Mantel. Frequent amateur hour appearances finally led to paying work—$2 a night—at local beer gardens that sold 3.2 and near beer. Telling his ethnic stories and singing songs to ethnic audiences, the youngster was enough of a success to latch onto occasional MC jobs, small dramatic parts on radio, and commercials. However, with a new baby—future That Girl star Marlo—and the haphazard nature of show business bookings, the entertainer struggled, and his family was in jeopardy. His wife pleaded for him to quit performing and go into the grocery business.
In later years Thomas claimed that he prayed for guidance to St. Jude Thaddeus, swearing that if he were a show business success, he would build the nearly forgotten apostle a shrine. Certainly Thomas's career began to prosper once he relocated to Chicago in 1940. A master of several different dialects and a fair celebrity impressionist, he began to score work as a character actor on several network radio programs and in commercials, but the employment wasn't steady.
Although he felt it was beneath the dignity of a radio actor to work saloons, Thomas had a family to feed and took a booking at a former Studebaker automobile agency called the 5100 Club. Hoping to avoid the embarrassment of his hometown friends learning about his return to nightclubs, he put two of his brothers' names together and billed himself as Danny Thomas. The name change signaled the beginning of his salad days as a comedian. Constantly refreshing his material ala The Jack Story, Crotchety Calhoun, and Ode to a Wailing Syrian with humorous personal observations, he became an audience favorite and was held over for several months. More important, he attracted a powerful agent, Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris Agency.
Lastfogel asked Thomas to curtail some of the ethnic material in his act, and began booking him for top dollar at nightspots like the Chez Paree in Chicago, La Martinique in New York, the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and the Radio City Music Hall. In 1944 the agent landed Thomas the role of Jerry Dingle the postman on Fanny Brice's CBS radio smash The Baby Snooks Show. The canny agent even brokered movie contracts with MGM, Warner Bros., and Columbia pictures for his young variety star. Thomas made five films between 1947 and 1951, most notably the Gus Kahn biopic I'll See You In My Dreams with Doris Day and a schmaltzy remake of Al Jolson's first talkie, The Jazz Singer. Most of Thomas's films were box office successes, but all three studios turned him down as a long-term prospect because the Lebanese-American star refused to get a nose job.
Still playing nightclubs and theaters, Thomas made his first television appearance as one of the hosts of NBC's Four Star Revue. Mixing fast-paced sketches with jugglers and dance acts worked against the grain of Thomas's comedy. In clubs he could develop a story slowly, then draw the audience in before interjecting a surprising punch-line or, as he called it, “a treacle cutter.” After a year, Thomas opted out of the show, which eventually evolved into The Colgate Comedy Hour. After a year back in the clubs, he signed with the upstart ABC network to do a sitcom. The show that writer Mel Shavelson created around him was based on one of Thomas's family stories. While he was on the road, his two young daughters would sleep with their mother. When Thomas came home, the daughters were ushered back to their own room so they could “make room for daddy.” A warm-hearted blend of comedy and variety, Make Room for Daddy followed the trials and travails of Danny Williams, a successful entertainer who tried to balance a career and family life. Although ABC initially had far fewer affiliates than the other two major networks, the show was an instant hit and won the Emmy for best new show.
For the first three years, Jean Hagen—who had earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Singing in the Rain — played his wife Margaret. Sherry Jackson portrayed their daughter, Terry, and Rusty Hamer played son Rusty. By his own admission, Thomas did not get along too well with Hagen, feeling that the former Broadway and Hollywood star looked down on him. Hagen left the show after the 1955/1956 season to take on more serious roles. Rather than replace her with another actress in the same role, the next season's storyline began with reactions to the death of Margaret Williams, making Hagen's the first continuing character role in network television history to be killed off. Although she worked steadily, Hagen's solo career never really regained momentum, and she retired due to ill health in 1964.
Thomas's final season on ABC featured his character as a widower who met a widowed nurse named Kathy O'Hara. Played by red-headed actress Marjorie Lord, the warm yet perky character worked perfectly off of Thomas's slowburning character. When Thomas moved the show to CBS, she became his character's wife. The show took over the departing I Love Lucy time slot and became a perennial topten ratings hit until Thomas voluntarily retired the show in 1964. During its run, the show brought several performers to prominence, including Bill Dana, Hans Conried as Uncle Tonoose, and Angela Cartwright as Kathy's daughter, Linda, who later co-starred on Lost in Space. In one of the minor parts, Sheldon Leonard, a character actor specializing in movie gangster types during the 1930s and 1940s, appeared as Danny Williams's agent and worked behind the scenes as a director. Eventually they became production partners responsible for a slew of hit shows.
Lastfogel and the William Morris Agency had the foresight to set Thomas up with his own production company, Danny Thomas Productions. Besides his own show, the comedian's company oversaw the first rural sitcom, The Real McCoys. Starring Walter Brennan and Richard Crenna, the show ran for eight seasons on ABC and CBS. Thomas also introduced popular comedian/actor Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor on his own show before spinning it off into the perpetually popular Andy Griffith Show in 1960. Another of television's greatest situation comedies also came from Thomas's company, the Dick Van Dyke Show, which, like his own program, was about working in show business while trying to live a normal family life. One of Thomas's funniest performances came when he portrayed a walnut-eating alien named Kolac in one of Van Dyke's dream sequences. Not all the shows that bore his imprint boasted the same quality, but such programs as The Joey Bishop Show and Gomer Pyle enjoyed solid network runs. In his autobiography, Thomas gave all credit for the success of these shows to his indefatigable partner, Sheldon Leonard. However, even after Leonard departed to form his own company in 1965, Thomas's company produced such hit as The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Mod Squad, the latter coproduced with Aaron Spelling.
Besides making numerous guest appearances on shows hosted by other stars, including his daughter Marlo's series That Girl, Thomas starred in a series of specials before hosting an hour-long variety and drama series for NBC called The Danny Thomas Hour in 1968. Two years later he assembled the cast of his old hit show and retitled it Make Room for Granddaddy, which lasted only one season on ABC. Thomas's son, Tony, now a prominent producer in his own right, produced his 1976-77 effort The Practice, which featured the comedian in a role he loved, a crusty but caring physician. Less interesting was his role as dentist Ben Douglas in the tepid 1980 Diane Canova vehicle I'm a Big Girl Now. Thomas's final television series was the seldom seen 1986 sitcom One Big Happy Family, wherein he played an ex-vaudevillian raising his late brother's children. No longer a force on television, Thomas continued playing to capacity crowds at nightclubs and toured with fellow television icons Milton Berle and Sid Caesar in a live show called The Legends of Comedy.
Throughout even the busiest times of his career, Thomas always made good on his pledge to build a shrine to St. Jude. The edifice he helped found was the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, a center where hospital care would be given to all children regardless of their ability to pay. Directed toward the cause by Lastfogel, Thomas began raising money for the project during the early 1950s. After St. Jude's opened in 1962, the comedian publicized the hospital, enlisted all of the biggest names in show business to play the yearly Shower of Stars benefits, and educated the public on the hospital's progress in fighting such diseases as childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease. Further, the entertainer donated money from his own pocket. The proceeds from his commercials for Maxwell House coffee and the sale of his share of the Miami Dolphins football team were sent directly to St. Jude's. For his many efforts, Thomas was lauded with numerous awards and honorary doctorates, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. The award that meant the most to him was the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was presented to him by his old Hollywood pal President Ronald Reagan on April 16, 1985. Thomas continued working for the cause until his death from a heart attack on February 6, 1991.