LOS ANGELES -- Danny Thomas, 79, the Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian who starred in the popular television series "Make Room for Daddy," died Feb. 6 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He suffered a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills.
A noted philanthropist, Mr. Thomas founded St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis in 1962, and he regularly made appearances on its behalf. The hospital is a leading research center dedicated to finding cures for children's cancer and other catastrophic children's diseases.
Mr. Thomas made a guest appearance on Saturday's episode of the television series "Empty Nest" as an aging physician. He appeared to be in good health and recently completed a tour promoting his new book, "Make Room for Danny," said Norman Brokaw, chairman and chief executive officer of the William Morris Agency.
Mr. Thomas once said that good comedy could be summed up as "problems." He explained, "Give them problems the audience can identify with and people will care."
"Make Room for Daddy," renamed "The Danny Thomas Show" after its first three seasons, was one of television's longest-running family comedies, appearing from 1953 to 1964. Mr. Thomas played a nightclub singer and comedian, Danny Williams.
Jean Hagen played his first wife, Margaret, followed by Marjorie Lord as his second wife, Kathy; Angela Cartwright played Kathy's daughter, Linda; and Rusty Hamer played his son, Rusty. Sherry Jackson and Penny Parker played his daughter, Terry.
The title came from a phrase used in the real Thomas household. Whenever Mr. Thomas returned home from a tour as a nightclub and radio comedian, his children had to shift bedrooms to "make room for Daddy."
Hamer died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot last year. Cartwright has had a successful movie career.
President Reagan presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Mr. Thomas in recognition of his fund-raising activities to benefit St. Jude.
When he was a struggling entertainer, Mr. Thomas prayed to St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases. He vowed then that someday he would build a shrine to the saint.
Born Amos Jacobs in Deerfield, Mich., the comedian grew up in a large Lebanese Catholic family in Toledo. After several odd jobs, he moved to Chicago with the aim of becoming a radio actor.
"I was going to play nightclubs on the weekends, but I really thought I was going to be a character actor," he recalled in 1986. "That's why I went to Chicago -- to get jobs on the soap operas. My ambition was to get a station wagon, a house in the suburbs, commute to work and lead a nice, normal, happy life."
He was making a good living as a radio actor when he married Rose Marie Cassaniti in 1936. Their lives changed when he took a $50-a-week job as emcee at Chicago's 5100 Club. He stayed three years and adopted a new name from brothers Danny and Thomas. He moved on to the prestigious Chez Paree in Chicago, then national fame.
After his success in nightclubs and radio, Mr. Thomas went on to Hollywood. He turned down advice from Louis B. Mayer that he have his nose fixed, and went on to make such films as "The Unfinished Dance," "The Big City," "Call Me Mister," "I'll See You in My Dreams" and the 1952 version of "The Jazz Singer."
His television work also included "Make Room for Granddaddy," "The Practice," and "I'm a Big Girl Now."
Another family comedy, "One Big Family," brought Mr. Thomas back to syndicated television briefly in 1986. He played an old-time vaudevillian who inherits five chidren after his brother and sister-in-law die.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Thomas is survived by two daughters, actress Marlo Thomas, who is married to talk show host Phil Donahue and who starred in the comedy series, "That Girl," from 1966 to 1971, and Theresa Thomas; and a son, Tony Thomas.