Remembering Danny Kaye on his centennial

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye
CBS News

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(CBS News) Even in the golden age of Hollywood, he stood out. Few performers captivated audiences the way actor, singer, dancer and comedian Danny Kaye did.

Throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s, he was everywhere -- on stage and on the radio, in movies and on TV . . . and all around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

What didn't he do?

"He didn't make himself bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches," said his daughter, Dena Kaye. "I made that for him."

Dena didn't have to make much else for her father -- he was also an avid chef.

"I used to say that his kitchen was like his private theater," she told Miller, "and the things he cooked with were not just utensils, they were artist's tools."

Her father loved cooking so much, Dena donated his "artist's tools" to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and funded a cooking "theater" in his name.

The only daughter of Danny Kaye and composer-lyricist Sylvia Fine, Dena Kaye is keeping her parents' memory alive, 100 years after they were born.

At the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a special exhibit honors the legendary couple.

"So, why should people of this generation know your father?" Miller asked.

"He was so much more than a performer," Dena replied. "He was UNICEF's first goodwill ambassador in 1954. So he's a role model. I can't say Angelina Jolie would say, 'Oh, I'm doing this 'cause I know Danny Kaye did it,' but nonetheless, he paved the way for Harry Belafonte, Audrey Hepburn, et cetera."

David Daniel Kaminsky grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. He was a high school dropout who spent his summers performing for vacationers at resorts in the Catskills, eventually adopting the stage name Danny Kaye.

"He was always just silly, always wanting to entertain people," said Dena.

At an audition in 1940, Kaye met musician Sylvia Fine, and the two eloped. A year later, he got his big break: a role in the Broadway play, "Lady in the Dark," in which he performed what became one of his signature songs.

Danny Kaye in the 1955 comedy, "The Court Jester." Paramount Pictures

"He could sing, he could dance, he was funny, he was dramatic, he was moving, he was silly, he was all of those things," said Dena.

And Hollywood took notice. Kaye would go on to star in more than two dozen films -- including classics like "White Christmas" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

In "Hans Christian Andersen," he portrayed a prolific Danish storyteller, capturing the hearts and minds of children everywhere.

And then there was "The Court Jester," with this famous repartee:

"The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!"

His wife Sylvia often collaborated on the music. "My mother wrote a lot of his songs and they're kind of referred to as 'patter songs,' " said Dena. "What I call them was her intellectual tornadoes."

"Most couples can't work together -- how did they make it work?" Miller asked.

"With difficulty," Dena replied.

Shortly after Dena was born, Danny and Sylvia reportedly became estranged, due to rumors of his affairs with many different women . . . and men, the most famous, allegedly, Laurence Olivier.

"What do you say to that?" asked Miller.

"I say, people can write whatever they would like," Dena said. "I am just not in the business of confirming or denying anything. It's just a waste of my time."

The couple never divorced, and remained loving, doting parents to their only child.

"I really had a normal childhood," Dena said. "I mean, yes, Cary Grant came to the house, and yes, I asked Frank Sinatra to come to my graduation party and he showed up and I was thrilled, but I mean, we lived in the same house from 1947 until I sold it in 1991. I'd never been to an Academy Awards. I went to normal schools. I wasn't at parties growing up."

  • Michelle Miller
    Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.