Danny Thomas, one of America’s most beloved entertainers, whose life and career were indelibly intertwined with that of his patron saint, died of a heart attack Wednesday.
Norman Brokaw, head of the William Morris Agency and Thomas’ longtime agent, said the 79-year-old actor was stricken at his Trousdale Estates home about 1:30 a.m.
Paramedics took Thomas to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency room about 30 minutes later, hospital spokesman Ron Wise said.
“There was nothing that anyone could do,” Wise added.
Maury Foladare, Thomas’ personal publicist for nearly 50 years, said his old friend had just completed a series of coast-to-coast interviews in connection with his autobiography and had stopped in Memphis, Tenn., to help celebrate the 29th anniversary of Thomas’ beloved St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“He had a little bronchitis, which seemed to be aggravated by the rain in Memphis,” Foladare said, but otherwise he was in apparent good health.
Winner of five Emmys for “The Danny Thomas Show,” called “Make Room for Daddy” when it first went on the air in 1953, knighted by two Popes and holder of the Congressional Gold Medal presented by former President Ronald Reagan, Thomas was a multifaceted comic, equally at home before TV and movie cameras and in the acrid environs of the cheap nightclubs where he began.
And the immediate reaction to his death reflected both Thomas’ dedication to humanitarian causes and that versatility.
“His warmth and believability generated truth,” actress Pat Carroll, who portrayed the wife of a nightclub owner on the TV show, told CBS radio Wednesday.
Brokaw and Foladare remembered particularly his kindnesses and lack of temperament.
Carl Reiner, who produced the “Dick Van Dyke Show” with Thomas as co-executive producer, said Thomas “was the most alive man . . . I’ve ever met. You’d just walk up to him and there would be energy coming out from him. The word love comes out. He exuded love. He hugged you and complimented you. He was always positive.”
One of Thomas’ last public appearances was Jan. 24 at a 95th birthday party for George Burns at the Hillcrest Country Club. “Danny was one of my closest friends,” Burns said Wednesday. “He touched all of our lives and he will be missed. . . .”
Bob Hope said, “Danny was one of the giants of the industry and what he did for St. Jude’s will never be forgotten. . . . I can’t understand his leaving us. . . . God must have needed some help.”
In a written statement, President Bush said Thomas’ death “leaves a noticeable void in the world of American humor. We also lose a fine gentleman and humanitarian who will always be known as a man of good will. . . . He pioneered the family sitcom in which we could all use the new medium of television to laugh at ourselves and our daily problems. We will be laughing with him for years to come.”
At St. Jude’s, a hospital spokesman recalled Thomas’ final visit on Monday, the last of hundreds its benefactor had paid over the years.
“He was cutting cake, chatting with kids and parents, shaking hands with employees. His spirits were high, his health seemed good. It’s a terrific final memory--he was having such a great time when he was here.”
Although Thomas was best-known popularly as Danny Williams, the frequently absent entertainer on one of the country’s longest-running television series, he seemed to think of himself as Amos Jacobs, the son of Lebanese immigrants.
A religious man but one who never evangelized his beliefs, Thomas once said, “My purpose in life is to propagate the philosophy of man’s faith in man, based upon my own belief that unless man re-establishes his faith in his fellow beings, he can never establish a faith in God.”
“ ‘Make Room for Daddy’ ” made me a national figure,” Thomas said in 1986 on the eve of accepting his Gold Medal from Reagan--one of only 96 in the nation’s history ever handed out at the time. “But St. Jude’s Hospital is the greatest accomplishment of my life, something that will live long after the celluloid turns yellow.”
At fund-raisers for the hospital--where an 8-year-old girl was cured of sickle-cell anemia through a then-unprecedented bone marrow transplant--Thomas would gather players from the old TV series and reminisce about the show.
But the stories quickly turned to appeals for donations from the thousands of friends and celebrities who attended the countless lunches and dinners that raised what Thomas once estimated at more than $1 billion.
When St. Jude’s accepted its first patient in 1962, the survival rate of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia was less than 5%, he would say. It was past 50% at St. Jude’s when he died.
“We are the pediatric research center of the world,” he said.
For his humanitarian efforts, Pope Pius XII made the Roman Catholic Maronite a Knight of Malta and Pope Paul VI decorated him as a Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
The man that Burns once called the greatest storyteller in the world was born the fifth of nine children to a struggling family who moved from Deerfield, Mich., to Toledo, Ohio, when the family farm failed.
He was raised by a childless aunt because of his mother’s health. And while his father worked in a family candy store, the aunt, who lived upstairs, doted on him.
When she and her husband insisted on taking young Amos Jacobs to Rochester, N.Y., when they moved, it was not a traumatic moment for him because he wasn’t completely aware of who his real parents were.
“I didn’t know my brothers were my brothers until I was 7,” he would say. His took his professional name from two of them in 1940 while working a shabby Chicago nightclub where he was ashamed to use his real name.
Last September, Thomas made a surprise visit to Deerfield, touring the village of about 1,000 people and popping in at some stores and St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, where he was baptized--without shoes, because the family couldn’t afford them.
Earlier records had indicated Thomas was born Jan. 6, 1914, but his baptismal certificate shows he was born in 1912.
The future star first fell in love with show business while he was selling candy in a burlesque theater. He dropped out of high school after a year and began a series of odd jobs that would give him the stake he needed to go to Detroit, where he intended to become a comedian.
There he met and married (in 1936) Rose Marie Cassaniti while she was still in her teens and began working as a $2-a-night dialect comic in dingy rooms.
After their first child, Margaret (later Marlo, the actress and wife of Phil Donahue), was born, his wife pleaded with him to get out of what was then a struggling radio and club career and into more financially rewarding work.
It was then he made his now legendary bargain with St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes.
“On my honor,” he would say years later, “I never did say: ‘Make me rich and famous,’ ” as one version of the story had it. “I said, ‘Help me find my way in life and I will build you a shrine.’ ”
Foladare said it was about this time that he met Thomas, who credited St. Jude with a rapid turnaround in his fortunes. He began a series of quick nightclub successes in Detroit, Chicago and New York, where his weekly salary rose from $50 to $500 and then came to Hollywood to work on Fanny Brice’s radio show “Baby Snooks,” where he did 14 weeks and created the character of Jerry Dingle.
Movie studios wanted to sign him, but there was one problem, as Thomas remembered:
“Louis B. Mayer said I had the qualities to become a great dramatic actor. He said I could be another David Warfield. I didn’t even know who David Warfield was but apparently he was a Broadway star who also had a swarthy complexion.
“Then Mayer told me how Americans go to the movies to live in a dream world, leaving their own humdrum lives behind. They wanted to see beautiful people with perfect faces. So he wanted me to have my nose fixed.
‘After all,’ ” Mayer added, “ ‘if you had an unsightly wart wouldn’t you want to have it removed?’ ”
“I told him it wasn’t a wart, I breathed through it.
“Afterward, my agent, Abe Lastfogel of William Morris (who Thomas referred to in later years as ‘my dad’), said, ‘Danny, this is one thing I can’t advise you on.’ (But) that night he called me and told me, ‘Yes, I can advise you. You don’t have to change your nose. There’ll be plenty of work for you anyway.’ ”
Lastfogel proved prophetic and his client’s films came to include “The Unfinished Dance” in 1947, “Big City” in 1948, “Call Me Mister” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (as songwriter Gus Kahn) in 1951 and a remake of “The Jazz Singer” in 1953.
He also did an early TV variety show, “All-Star Revue,” alternating with such giants of comedy as Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn, but left unhappily in 1952 after two years, calling television “a workplace for idiots.”
But he returned to TV the following year in “Make Room for Daddy,” which after three years became “The Danny Thomas Show.” That show ended its original run in 1964 but resurfaced later as “Make Room for Granddaddy.”
The plot was a veiled reflection of Thomas’ life and the original title came from a phrase used in Thomas’ home. Whenever he returned from his club, film or radio appearances, his children had to shift bedrooms to “make room for daddy.”
Jean Hagen played his first wife, Margaret, followed by Marjorie Lord as his second wife, Kathy; Angela Cartwright played a daughter, Linda; and Rusty Hamer played his son, Rusty. Sherry Jackson and Penney Parker were seen successively as the daughter, Terry.
Of all the artists who appeared on the program over the years, perhaps the most beloved was Hans Conried as Uncle Tonoose, the heavily accented, wonderfully eccentric patriarch of the Williams clan.
The series ended its various incarnations in 1971 and Thomas made another try at episodic TV five years later in “The Practice,” in which he portrayed an elderly, absent-minded and contrary physician. But the show was placed opposite “Dallas” and lasted only a year.
Another comedy, “One Big Family,” brought Thomas back to syndicated television for the final time in 1986. He played an old-time vaudevillian who inherits five children after his brother and sister-in-law have died.
By then he had also become a television executive, forming his own company to produce “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Gomer Pyle USMC” and “The Mod Squad.”
Besides his wife and Marlo (“I just adored him,” she said simply, shortly after her father’s death), he is survived by another daughter, Theresa, and a son, Tony.
A few days ago, while touring to promote his autobiography, “Make Room for Danny,” Thomas was asked why his characters had been so sympathetic and so successful.
“People cared about us,” he replied, and then reflected for a moment.
“I don’t know who said this,” he continued. “Maybe it was Shakespeare who said: ‘Show me a man in trouble and I’ll show you a funny man.’ ”
The family is seeking contributions to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, 332 N. Lauderdale St., Memphis, Tenn. 38105.
A funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.