Question: My wife and I have a bet, with the loser making dinner for two Friday nights in a row. What was Danny Thomas's real name? Thank you for your help. — Jason W.
Televisionary: There are technically two correct answers to that one, Jason. Here's hoping yours is one of them (I always try to root for whichever warring party takes the time to write).
Thomas was born Amos Jacobs, which was the anglicization of his Arabic name, Muzyad Yahkoob (his parents were Lebanese immigrants), in 1914. And that wasn't the only interesting detail of his birth: A veterinarian delivered him in a barn on the family's Deerfield, Mich., farm during a violent snowstorm. (It seems his mother went into labor while watering the horses and couldn't be moved back to the house because of the weather.)
Sound like a tough life? It got tougher. When Thomas was only four months old, his dad bet the farm (literally) in a poker game and lost it, forcing the family to move. That plus his mother's poor health — she fell ill after giving birth to him — meant the future comic, actor and dancer was raised by his aunt and uncle until the age of 12. "I lived a few blocks from my real parents' home and I didn't realize until I was seven that my 'Cousin Ray' was really my brother," he told TV Guide in 1962.
Growing up poor, Thomas hawked soda and candy in a burlesque house, learning the routines of all the comics who performed there, then dropped out of high school and moved to Detroit to make his fortune. He didn't get rich there, but he did get himself a wife and, soon enough, daughter Marlo (That Girl) was born. It was then that his wife begged him to give up his dream and take a job as a grocery clerk, whereupon Thomas prayed to a statue of St. Jude, patron saint of the forgotten and the hopeless, and asked for a sign that he should remain in show business. A short time later, he got his big break as a regular comic at a Chicago night club, which launched a string of club, radio and movie work that eventually landed him on NBC's Four Star Revue (later All Star Revue).
Having hit the big time on TV, Thomas celebrated his good fortune by quitting it and going back to night club work. "The only time I felt I was being myself was when I was on a night-club floor," he later said of that time. "In those television shows I was trying to be someone else — and it showed. It was frustrating and it plagued me, so I went back home — to the saloon."
Of course, had Thomas stayed happy there, this might be a much shorter column. But in the early '50s, producer Lou Edelman and writer Mel Shavelson showed up at Thomas's Beverly Hills house with a TV script to show him. Thomas turned it down and the two got up to leave — only to have him beg them to sit back down. "At that moment, something got into me and the words came pouring out," Thomas recalled. "I made a plea to Lou and Mel to help me. I told them I wanted to stay home and be a father to my children [he now had three]. I told them I had been on the road for 18 years and that my kids saw so little of me that they were calling me 'Uncle Daddy....' I told them that my oldest daughter, Marlo, had written an essay in school about her father traveling all over the world pursuing tomorrow, but that when his tomorrow comes, it will be empty. I said to Lou and Mel, 'Help me! Please help me!'"
Thus was Make Room For Daddy, which presented Thomas as an entertainer trying to balance a career on the road with a family at home, born on ABC in 1953. After three seasons, it became The Danny Thomas Show.
Thomas never forgot what he took to be St. Jude's largesse. And he repaid the favor by founding St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and then doing a lot of fundraising for it. (He and his wife are buried in a memorial garden there, in fact.)
But he also never forgot what being poor was like, and even after earning millions from his own shows plus ownership stakes in such programs as The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Thomas was as dollar-conscious as anyone in Hollywood and could negotiate with the best of them. Furthermore, he was the master of his set and was known for giving loud voice to any displeasure he was feeling. Yet he always took care of his people, and they knew where they stood with him. "He puts on this tycoon act, and he screams and yells and sulks sometimes, but the real Danny Thomas is always there just beneath the veneer," a production assistant told a reporter. "Sometimes a member of the crew fouls up or gets drunk, and Danny lights into him as if he's going to kill him, but in a few minutes he forgets about it. We call him 'The Toothless Tiger.'"
The tiger never quit his roaring as quickly as he did when wee Angela Cartwright, who played his step-daughter on the show (and would become even better known later in her career as Lost In Space's Penny Robinson), softened him up. "The only person who can always handle him is Angela," said Thomas Show producer-director Sheldon Leonard. "When he begins to shout she goes up to him, puts her arms around him and says, 'I love you.' Well, brother, Danny's meek as a lamb."
Not only was Cartwright a tiger tamer, she was known as one of the best criers in the business, able to spurt tears on cue. And the entire cast got into the game in 1964, when Thomas decided to quit while he was ahead — the show was still in the top 10 — and the cast filmed the final episode of the series' original run. Amanda Randolph, who played maid Louise, burst into "Auld Lang Syne" while the live audience was still in the studio and the crowd, the rest of the cast and the crew joined in, all of them crying. Thomas went to his dressing room to collect himself and returned for the final wrap party.
Typical Hollywood false sentiment? Hardly. "If the sponsors had been here while Amanda was singing and asked us to go on for two more years, I'll bet we would have done it," Leonard said.