Question: Being an old-timer, I loved your column about Red Skelton. So here's a question about another entertainer from my era, Danny Kaye. I seem to remember him not getting along with Lucille Ball. Was that for real? Carl P., Fargo, N.D.
Televisionary: Yes, it was, Carl, though the two of them then made a show of telling the press it was all in fun.
Kaye, who was a legendary live performer before launching a CBS musical-variety TV show in September 1963, was also a temperamental one, turning on a dime and letting fly when angered. And as the story goes, TV's beloved Lucy (who was no shrinking violet herself, remember) got on his nerves. It first became evident to the public when the two co-hosted the 1964 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. When time grew short, Ball reportedly told Kaye to read the citations faster, whereupon he started reading so fast he couldn't be understood. Neither Ball nor the nominees took too kindly to the act.
That didn't stop them from taping a Kaye show together, but Ball apparently got so fed up while working with him that she wanted to walk, and only stayed after much convincing by husband Gary Morton. Even so, the two parted after filming without any kind of farewell, never mind a fond one.
It got to the point, however, where Kaye and Ball both realized that if they wanted to do business with CBS and keep the suits happy, they'd have to at least pretend to make nice. Kaye taped an interview in which he claimed it was all a gag. "We decided to play a joke," he said. "Someone who didn't have a sense of humor wouldn't understand... I didn't really mean it when I said, 'Get this red-headed dame off my set.' We had a mock argument."
For her part, Ball issued a non-denial denial. "I'll admit it looked that way," she told TV Guide of the supposed bad feelings. "We kid real strong. You know how he is, honey, with those run-throughs he runs and yells and squawks. Actually, I hurt my leg and had to go home. I didn't say goodbye because he was in the middle of a song."
Uh-huh. In Ball's defense and as I said, plenty of people had problems with her, too she wasn't alone in feeling a little friction with Kaye. There was a famous story about him being offended by a foreign reporter's question and asking her to "close her ears" so he could tell her how his show was really made. He then reportedly cursed a blue streak.
Kaye was known to be a moody perfectionist. When it was announced that he would do a weekly show, industry pundits predicted it would never fly. "That guy takes four months to make up his mind about a single number," one unnamed observer said. "After two weeks they'll be seven weeks behind."
It didn't turn out that badly, of course, but Kaye himself admitted that his reputation was not undeserved. When he decided to take up golf, for example, he spent a solid five weeks at the practice tee before ever stepping onto the course. It paid off, however he broke 100 his first time out. When he wanted to learn to fly, he took a year out of his career and went to ground school to master the theory behind aviation before heading to flight school.
Despite admitting to being detail-oriented, however, Kaye stopped short of the actual "perfectionist" term. ("That is the last thing I am," he said.) And he knew he could be moody, too, but didn't consider that as much of a problem since he tolerated that quality in other people. Matter of fact, he respected it, as producer Perry Lafferty discovered when he first met with Kaye about working on the show. "I had the flu," he recalled. "I got out of bed, staggered down to the Sherry-Netherland, and was hardly able to talk I was so sick... He was feeling me out. Just like that, he asked me what I thought the format should be. 'How the hell should I know,' I snapped in my misery, 'until I get some writers to hammer it out?' The truth apparently impressed him."
Kaye was what he was. Comedy fixture Jack Benny once said of him: "If you like Danny Kaye, it's pretty hard to watch him and not like him... Of course, if you don't like Danny, nothing he does will please you."
As it turned out, after four seasons the audience fell into the latter category. CBS canceled the show after it dropped to 77th out of the top 100 shows. "Kaye had evidently kept too well his 1963 promise: 'With a weekly show... I can take chances. I can afford to be lousy,'" wrote TV Guide's Richard K. Doan in 1966.
Kaye was one of the greats, but nobody's great enough to afford that.