Danny Kaye, arguably one of the all-time great Jewish entertainers, would have turned 100 last week. Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky on January 18, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. Mel Brooks, also from Brooklyn, was also born Kaminsky, but he and Kaye were not related.
Kaye left school at the age of 13 to work in the Borscht Belt of Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains. From there he went through a series of jobs in and out of show business before making his Broadway debut in Straw Hat Revue, but it was the stage production of the musical Lady in the Dark in 1940 that brought him acclaim and notice from agents.
He starred in 17 movies, notably The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), White Christmas (1954), and – perhaps his most accomplished performance – The Court Jester (1956).
Kaye was known for his trademark red hair and skill at quick fire tongue twisters, most memorably the “pellet with the poison” speech from The Court Jester.
In his later years, Kaye took to entertaining at home as chef – he had a special stove installed in his patio – and specialized in Chinese and Italian cooking. The specialized stove Kaye used for his Chinese dishes was fitted with special metal rings for the burners to allow the heat from them to be highly concentrated. Kaye needed to install a trough with circulating ice water so he could use the burners. He also taught Chinese cooking classes at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant in the 1970s. The theater and demonstration kitchen underneath the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him.
Kaye was honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He won an Emmy, two Golden Globe Awards, and received two honorary Oscars: one in 1955 “For his unique talents, his service to the Academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people,” and in 1982 he received the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In 1984, he received a Kennedy Center Honor. He was named “King of Brooklyn” at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival in 1986.
Kaye showed he was more than just a comedic actor with his dramatic role in the memorable 1981 TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. One of his final performances was a guest role on The Cosby Show where he played a dentist.
Kaye and his wife, the choreographer Sylvia Fine, donated much time and resources to philanthropic work. He was the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his many years of work with the organization.
Following a bout with hepatitis, Kaye died of a heart attack on March 3, 1987 at age 74. In addition to his wife, he also left behind a daughter, Dena. He is interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. Following his death, the United Nations held a memorial tribute to him at their New York headquarters.