He could be as modest as Walter Mitty, as uninhibited as a court jester. He could be elegant or prodigiously clownish. In a movie role, he could display restrained insight one minute, then do a stunning turn of virtuoso gibberish the next. Such astonishing versatility was a celebrated aspect of the career of Danny Kaye - who passed on Tuesday in Los Angeles. But it does not really explain how this comic genius ignited 17 films, performed some of the greatest TV comedy in the medium's history, and remained a fixture in American popular culture for some 45 years.
For that you have to look also at the nature of his talent. He was a natural with children, for instance, and once explained that he was not afraid to use the childlike impulses in his own character when dealing with kids - hence his ability to touch them so effectively. He acted as ``ambassador to the world's children,'' for UNICEF, for which he raised funds over a 30-year period by ``conducting'' benefit concerts that were marvels of inventive absurdity. On his trips around the globe for that organization, kids responded to his wonderfully empathetic clowning as readily as adult audiences, needing no common tongue. During his award-winning TV series, it was true entertainment to watch him sit at stage-edge and conduct a serio-comic dialogue with children in the audience.
That ability also helps explain the deep and lunatic delight he gave adults when he did his rubber-limbed dancing or played comedy parts. His manic energy tapped some spring of crazy impulses felt by millions of fans who saw them take form through his performing brilliance. In his hands, the zany visions lurking in the back of their minds were not just crudely materialized but expressed with epic creativity. They saw this happen in the title role of ``The Secret Lives of Walter Mitty,'' based on a James Thurber short story. Few audiences have laughed as hard as those who watched Kaye as the meek and drably decent Everyman grappling with the barbarisms of daily life and dreaming of gallant alternatives.
In fact, Kaye tended to play meek-natured film characters, but in productions that allowed him to do the musical numbers for which he was so noted. But no matter how flamboyant these were, they had a grace that gave his work an enduring class.
The comedian Jan Murray once told of how he had heard Kaye perform a monologue on stage in London - where Kaye was enjoying a huge success. If you counted the laughs, Murray noted, they added up to far fewer per minute than Murray himself usually received. But Murray readily admitted that there was something else in the response to Kaye that was more important than the laugh count. It was the rich and highly charged quality of the laughter, which took place in an atmosphere of delight and comic revelation. To provoke this kind of response calls for a talent possessed by only a handful of funnymen in a generation. Danny Kaye had it in abundance.