“My show-business career was responsible for calling attention to what I really wanted to do in life, which was to build the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee,” Danny Thomas said, shortly before his death in February 1991.
“That hospital is my only interest in life. That’s why I was born. If I must be remembered, it will be for that more than anything else.”
Danny Thomas was born Muzyad Yakhoob in Deerfield, Michigan, on January 6, 1912, to Lebanese immigrants, and renamed Amos Jacobs soon after.
For years, Jacobs struggled to develop a nightclub act before changing his name to Danny Thomas (two of his brothers’ names) and making a commitment to build a shrine to St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, if he succeeded in show business.
“At that time, I decided to stop being the last angry man,” Thomas recalled. “For fun on stage I used to complain about everything: What you read in the paper, the stinking boss who made you work seven nights a week, the speeding ticket you got this morning. … Then I decided to tell stories because inherently, I’m a storyteller. That’s my heritage. From ancient Phoenicia on down, my ancestors were storytellers. My mother was a great storyteller. And then my career just happened.”
After headlining at Chicago’s 5100 Club in 1940, Thomas was signed by William Morris Agency head Abe Lastfogel, who booked him into popular Manhattan nightclubs. Five Hollywood films followed from 1947 to 1951, including a remake of The Jazz Singer. In 1950, Thomas made his television debut as one of the four hosts of NBC’s The All Star Revue.
“It was very experimental,” Thomas said, “and great exposure, but I wasn’t crazy about giving away my wonderful nightclub material. So I quit after the first season. I read every now and then that I failed there. I didn’t fail. I quit. I wouldn’t give up my life-earned material.”
Once again, he hit the road on the nightclub circuit but realized that during his stays at home he was a virtual stranger. He appealed to Lastfogel to create a television series for him. The result was ABC’s first bona fide hit, Make Room for Daddy. The title was suggested by Thomas’ wife, Rose Marie, to reflect his real-life predicament with daughters Theresa and Margo (now Marlo) and son Tony.
"Make Room for Daddy was not a situation-comedy show, it was a situation-family show,” Thomas recalled. “Funny things happen with families and unhappy things happen with families, and we portrayed them both. People pulled for us and cared about us.
Because of my nightclub work, the principal cities of the United States knew me. Middle America tuned in, and if you haven’t got Middle America, you'll never succeed in television. They had an affinity for us. They could relate to our family problems.
Father was a nudnick, and the children could outwit him at any time because he let them. You let anybody who loves you outwit you.”
Thomas remembered Make Room for Daddy was popular from its first airings in 1953. “In the first year,” he said, “we tied for Best New Show with The United States Steel Hour for the Sylvania Award. You want to talk about a category!”
In addition to seven Emmy nominations (the seventh for Guest Actor in a Drama Series on Empty Nest) with one win, Thomas won numerous professional and humanitarian awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, presented to him in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.
After four years on ABC, Thomas’ program moved to CBS, where it filled the time period vacated by I Love Lucy and was renamed The Danny Thomas Show.
“One of the reasons for our success was the fact that we were diligent about the scripts,” Thomas said. “People used to say to us, ‘It’s 2:30 in the morning and you guys are still working at that script! What are you doing, Gone With the Wind?’ And we would say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing 24 minutes and 40 seconds of Gone With the Wind every week.’ We never settled for anything less than the best we could do.”
“My father had great pride about his work,” says his daughter Marlo Thomas, whose series That Girl twice featured her father as a guest star. “He loved the whole process. When he performed, his eyes were always twinkling and shining. He was a perfectionist about his work because he had such respect for the audience. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame meant so much to him; he called me right away. I know he was looking forward to coming to the event, and I’m glad he at least knew it was going to happen.”
Sheldon Leonard, who for 11 years produced, directed and co-wrote Make Room for Daddy and The Danny Thomas Show, says, “Danny deserves all the credit people can give him for his skills as an actor, comedian and, above all, a humanitarian. Danny was essentially a raconteur, a descendant of the minstrels of medieval times. If he were still living in his ancestral homeland of the Middle East he would probably be in a medina, encircled by children and admirers, telling stories. And the business we were in was the business of telling stories.
Danny’s sense of how to do the show was of infinite value. His taste and his judgment were essential in the shaping of the show. What he liked and felt were the great determinants for us, and his contributions — spontaneous, extemporaneous, and otherwise — were essential.”
Thomas downplayed his skills as an actor on the show. “The fringe benefit was that my character, Danny Williams, was in show business,” said Thomas. “We really played my life, and it worked. There were no differences between Danny Williams and Danny Thomas.”
Marjorie Lord, who joined the show in 1957, says, “Playing yourself isn’t easy. To be interesting as yourself is a great challenge, and Danny was able to do that. I always thought of our show as a healing show. Danny knew how to milk everything out of a scene. His comedy and his timing were perfection. I used to watch Danny work in nightclubs, and he would have the audience on the edge of their seats. You could hear a pin drop when he was performing. He had them mesmerized.
“Danny was very, very dynamic and enormously talented. He would have been a storyteller no matter where you put him in the world. It was a gift, and he was the channel for it. He loved telling stories, and you felt his enjoyment. Danny took the human situation and made it funny. He saw the frustrations about life, but dealt with problems in a humorous way. He realized that a positive approach to life was the more successful one.”
In the 1960s, Thomas and Leonard’s T&L Productions developed several television comedies, with one sitcom spinning off others. The Danny Thomas Show spun off The Andy Griffith Show, which in turn spun off Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The Dick Van Dyke Show was also among T&L’s successes.
Says Leonard, “The most important thing about Danny only indirectly relates to television in the sense that Make Room for Daddy, The Danny Thomas Show, and his other shows enabled him to have the prestige and the financial security to fulfill his promise to build the hospital as a tribute to St. Jude. It has saved countless lives, and from generation to generation there’s no telling how many lives it will save. Without Danny’s career on television, St. Jude’s hospital would never have existed. In a few years the laughs will be forgotten, but for generations to come, Danny’s work on the hospital will not be.”
“My father saw life as a traffic accident,” says Marlo Thomas. “Either you're the kind of person who stops and helps or you’re the kind of person who drives by, and my father was the kind of person who stopped and helped. For him, sick children were another kind of accident that he couldn’t pass by.”
Tony Thomas, whose Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions has created several successful programs, including The Golden Girls, Empty Nest and Soap, says, “I know that my father wanted to be remembered most as the founder of the St. Jude’s hospital. He felt that that was his greatest accomplishment, however, one of the great joys of his life was entertaining people. I’m sure that he would also want to be remembered for the laughter that he brought to many.
Shortly before his death, Thomas said, “I made good in show business to build that hospital. It was predestined. Too many wonderful things happened to me along the way to be just coincidences. I didn't need help from above for my show-business career, but I sure needed help from above to attract a whole nation to support St. Jude’s hospital. I have that credibility quotient that is unexplainable. People believe me.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Danny Thomas's induction in 1991.