Danny Kaye always seemed to be made of elastic. It was as if the anatomical laws that applied to everyone else had no bearing on him. His face was made of rubber. His blue eyes were three-way bulbs. His voice defied octaves. And his hands! They danced, they floated, they flew. He was always in the process of becoming something. He could be anyone and anything: Captain Hook, Hans Christian Andersen or a 5-year-old boy; a pilot, a conductor or a gourmet cook. And so now, it is startling to see him in pain, restricted by a bum leg that forces him to be like everyone else, himself.
The elevator door at Dulles airport closes behind two wheelchairs and their occupants. An elderly woman, in her eighties surely, looks over at the man sitting on her right. He is wearing space shoes and carrying an orthopedic cane. Rust-colored hair tumbles out of his Izod hat. A pink carnation is tucked inside the band, a gift from a stewardess.
"Danny Kaye?" the old woman says.
A limousine waits in the rain. Danny Kaye is helped into it. He hates this. He always moved so easily, so gracefully from world to world and place to place. Laughter greased the skids. It still does. As the Virginia countryside melts into darkness, the years fade from his face. Little by little, gesture by gesture, nuance by nuance, he becomes Danny Kaye.
"I keep referring to myself as an elderly eccentric gentleman," he says, merrily.
"And then I keep harking back to my beginnings and I've got to remember I was a youthful eccentric gentleman. I was eccentric almost all my life, meaning I never went by the book, which is why baseball manager Leo Durocher and I became such good friends. Rules to me were always confining, especially in my profession."
The voice becomes a snort, but the face remains that of a man who was once described by his wife as "an elfin child left on somebody's doorstep."
"Tradition," he says, shaking his cane in the wan glow of passing headlights as he heads toward Washington, where he is to receive a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. "The reason I have this is tradition. You know I go in for surgery right after this? I was brought up like a Catholic in the theater. The show must go on. So I busted up my leg, my right leg. I came back to the show in a cast and for 10 months I did the show on crutches and in a wheelchair because the show must go on."
This was in 1970. He was on Broadway at the time, playing Noah in "Two by Two." He leaped. The stage was wet. His foot turned and he ruptured the ligaments in his right foot. His left leg has been compensating ever since. Jogging and fielding grounders with the ball club he part-owned didn't help.
The show went on: "We did some research," he says.
"It was some schmuck in the Middle West who had a small theater, somebody got sick and he didn't want to give the money back. So he made up this whole myth and tradition that the show must go on."
Which is why he's in Washington. The show is in the Kennedy Center Opera House, where he is one of five artists who will be honored for the "body of his work."
Danny Kaye loves that. Some body. He postponed the left hip replacement surgery until a week from tomorrow so he could be here for this.
"This gives me the warmest glow of all and it lasts the longest," he says. "It's a very, very important occasion. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Even if I have to hobble about on a cane."
It is suggested, here in the limousine, that Danny Kaye's life has been one grand improvisation, a marvelous, mischievous tour de force.
He likes this idea. He embraces it, the idea becomes his. Soon, he is improvizing on it, theme and variations. "I think the theme is staying alive and doing variations on that. I enjoyed sparkling health until I was 70. Then it all hit the fan. A couple of years ago, when I left the Mayo Clinic, I called my daughter, Dena, and said, 'Bad news. I'm probably going to have to have this operation.' She said, 'Maybe it's for the best. I never thought of you as walking. I always thought of you as floating.' "
Here are some of the things Danny Kaye has done, floating through the last 71 years: he has married one woman, fathered one daughter and starred in 17 movies, not including an unreleased home-movie with George Bernard Shaw; he has conducted almost every major symphony orchestra in the world and some not-so-major ones, raising millions of dollars for musicians' pension funds. Once he led the Cleveland Symphony in a rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee" using a fly swatter for his baton. He does not read music.
He has been a soda jerk, an insurance adjuster and a tummeler (Yiddish for "one who creates tumult") at the White Roe Lake hotel in the Catskills. In his Broadway debut in 1940 he stopped the show nightly in "Lady in the Dark," by naming 54 Russian composers, real and imagined, in 38 seconds of a song named "Tchaikovsky." He has gone to synagogue in Moscow. He has been a permanent roving ambassador for UNICEF for 31 years. He made children smile.
"Walter Mitty dreamed it, Danny Kaye lived it," his wife says.
He also played the lead in the movie "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
He (and his partners) bought and sold a major-league baseball team, the Seattle Mariners. He was a five-handicap golfer, and a regular on the Best Dressed list (until he discovered space shoes and white sweat socks). He is the only American amateur to receive the "Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France," the top French culinary award, and his specialty is Chinese. His friend, Vin Scully, the baseball broadcaster, who will introduce him at the ceremonies tonight, says, "He's a lot of person. He's a group photo." (Kaye chose Scully over other friends like Henry Kissinger and Cary Grant).
He led 100 Danish reporters in singing "Wonderful Copenhagen" on the 800th anniversary of that city and was the only one who knew the words. He was named a Danish knight. He visited a leper colony. He was the first person, along with Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, to visit David Ben-Gurion after he was wounded in the bombing of the Knesset in 1957. After the Six Day War, he visited a blind child in a hospital in Israel. The boy would speak to no one. "After Danny Kaye left," says a friend, Olive Behrendt, "the boy sat up and said, 'I've just seen Danny Kaye.' "
There's more: He diagnosed his own appendicitis and flew himself to the Mayo Clinic for surgery. He has had quadruple bypass surgery. He has seen so many operations, he was named an honorary member of the American College of Surgeons.
And one night in 1950, he made a woman who was eight months pregnant laugh so hard she delivered in the first aid station at the Roxy theater. His wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote much of the material he performed on stage and screen, used to take him around to friends to induce labor. "I want people to remember that he was probably the funniest man I've ever seen," she says. "That's gotten lost somewhere."
He has begun, perfected, and abandoned more careers than entire graduating classes of Harvard Business School. There were times traffic stopped in New York City when his fans filled the streets. In London, the papers heralded his arrival with a picture of his hat and his shoes and the words: "He's here."
Once he went to the House of Commons where he happened upon the Archbishop of Canterbury. "We chatted for a while," Kaye says now in the limousine as the lights of Washington's suburbs grow thicker along the road.
"He said he was delighted about how I was pleasing people in the theater. Then he said goodbye. I got in my car. He walked to his. As we pulled away, he stepped off the sidewalk. My driver slammed on the brakes."
He makes the noise of screeching tires. He does it well. Then silence. Relief eases across his face. "He walked slowly back to the car, by which time I had rolled the window down and he said: 'Young man, you very nearly achieved a real measure of fame.' "
Kaye is giggling at the absurdity of it all. "Isn't that great?"
At the height of his popularity, in the mid-1960s when he was a fixture on prime-time television with "The Danny Kaye Show," he took a hike. He said, "Enough."
Friends say he has no ego needs.
"Everybody has ego needs," he says.
"Danny walked away," his wife has said. "He does from time to time. I think he probably just felt like it at the moment. I think it's part of the improvisation."
He refuses to believe this is extraordinary. For him, it's not. His friend Phil Goldfarb, from the neighborhood in Brooklyn where Kaye was born on Jan. 18, 1913 (ne': David Daniel Kaminsky, Kominsky or Kominski, he's not sure which), says he's the kind of guy who will call you up one afternoon and say "Let's go to Paris" and mean it. And do it.
His friend and business partner Lester Smith remembers the day in 1977 when Kaye left the Mariners' spring training camp in Arizona to fly to Seattle to deliver a loaf of bread and a shaker of salt to them on the day they moved into their new home, a Jewish tradition.
We're all actors, in the world according to Kaye. Some of us do it for a living.
"I come closer to behaving like I really feel than most people. That, I know," he says. "I know when I'm removed, when I'm at a distance, or when I'm embracing, loving, caring."
If this is true, it's odd because it means that he does less acting than most. On the other hand, that could explain the source of his charm.
People ask him to explain it all the time. He shrugs. "There are no answers. Years ago at the Palladium I had a psychiatric group come to see me. They said, 'What is this magic that you have with an audience?' I said, 'It is like when I explain about the necessity for a conductor of a symphony orchestra within the framework of the basic structure, can we then extrapolate those emotional sequences having yet to do with . . .'
"I can give you double talk. I don't know. I go out on a stage and I try to perform as well as I know how. The fact that you read magic into it is something else again. I have nothing to do with that."
What he knows is instinct. He has spent a lifetime honing it and obeying it. It's all a matter of reflex and timing. At Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, from which he never quite managed to graduate, he was an infielder with soft hands and a feel for the ball. As an entertainer on the Borscht Belt and Broadway, he had a gift for knowing what made people laugh. As a chef, he knows just how much star anise to use. It's all subjective. He disdains recipes. He improvises.
"All those shows I did, there was never one show that was ever the same," he says. "In a funny way, again, I relate it to cooking. You can, he says, relate almost anything in life to cooking. Someone said, 'How come you picked Chinese food as a thing to devote yourself to?' I said, 'It seems to me it has to do with the way I perform on the stage.' It's fairly simple to put something in a pot and stick it in the oven or on top of the stove and let it cook. It's another thing where speed and fierce heat are the prerequisites. They are the two prerequisites for cooking Chinese food. It's the essence of my timing, which is what my profession is."
Lou Gorman was the general manager when Kaye owned the Mariners. One day they went to see a minor league team in Stockton, Calif. Gorman insisted upon going to his favorite Chinese restaurant. Kaye demurred. Chinese food in Stockton? When they arrived, Kaye asked to see the kitchen. The owners were thrilled. They knew his reputation.
"All the Oriental cooks spotted him immediately," Gorman says. "They didn't speak any English. They started to mimic him. Danny got his sleeves rolled up and cooked dinner with them."
"I think God bungled when he made Danny Kaye," says Jim Nassikas, president of San Francisco's Stanford Court hotel, and once a witness to an ad hoc chocolate souffle' cooking contest between Kaye, James Beard and other chefs.
"He made a number of personalities in one man. I saw four or five of them in one day."
It was a few years back, Nassikas says. Dame Margot Fonteyn, a friend, was in the hotel. Kaye insisted upon getting dressed up in a room service uniform and delivering her VIP tray. He was straightening the pillows when she realized who it was. "Oh my God," she said. They talked ballet for a while and then he went downstairs and talked food with James Beard.
Later, there was a ball game at Oakland's Alameda County Stadium.
"He said, 'Watch this,' " Nassikas says. "He started pounding on the door of the locker room and a big guy comes out and Danny says, 'I'm with Time magazine. Tell Chuck Tanner now the manager of the Pittsburg Pirates to get on out here right now.' Tanner came out a bit fuming and says, 'Oh my God . . .' "
Kaye then did the first three innings of radio play-by-play and said, " 'Let's go to the symphony.' It was Seiji Ozawa's farewell performance. We walked through the back door, not breaking stride, and we walk straight to that little window behind the symphony where you're in full view of the conductor. He caught Ozawa's eye and starts pointing to the violinist and pointing to his ear to show the tone was off. He almost had Ozawa in stitches."
The man is still a tummeler. He's evolved but he hasn't changed. Friends say it's hard to know the real Danny because there's so many of them.
"Yeah," he says, as the limousine navigates the traffic and the wet streets of downtown Washington. "You know who finds me the most difficult to know? Me. I'm a crazy person. I'm as neurotic as anybody, but on a scale, there's more balance than imbalance."
What are the worst things about Danny Kaye?
"Impatience, irritability, short-temperedness," he says -- three qualities that emerge under stress. But laughter is nurtured in the womb of sadness. Every comic knows that. It is instinctive. A couple of months ago Henry Kissinger and Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor of West Germany, addressed a group of oil company executives at the Stanford Court. Kaye walked right by the security, Nassikas said, "slammed his fist on the boardroom table and in a high, shrill voice said, 'This looks to me like some high-powered meeting!' "
"I didn't slam my fist on the table," Kaye says, smiling.
There isn't much else he hasn't done. Right about now, at 71, pulling up to a Washington hotel, he can't think of anything he's got to do, except get well. "One thing I'm certain of is that I don't want to play Hamlet," he says. "Why? It's not as tough as doing comedy."
This reminds him of a story. It seems Edmund Gwenn, the English character actor, was on his deathbed.
"A friend asked, 'Edmund, is it hard to die?' Edmund Gwenn said, 'It's not as hard as comedy.' "