02/18/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
In his first TV appearance, on NBC's All Star Revue, an early '50s variety show, nightclub headliner and film actor Danny Thomas bombed. He vowed never to return, blasting the medium as "only for idiots." Fortunately for the idiots, Thomas changed his mind (and his act) in 1953 and became one of the youthful medium's most durable stars. Sporting a cigar only slightly longer than his epic nose, mixing verbal sass with moralistic schmaltz, he shaped small-screen humor—along with the likes of buddies Milton Berle and Sid Caesar—for over four decades. On Feb. 6, at age 77, he had just appeared on NBC's Empty Nest (produced by his son, Tony) and was looking forward to doing a TV movie with daughter Marlo when he was stricken with a fatal heart attack at his Beverly Hills home. Said a grieving Marlo: "I just adored him."
The sentiment is shared by millions. Thomas's Make Room for Daddy (later The Danny Thomas Show) reigned as a top sitcom from 1953 to 1964, in part because many of the show's most telling episodes, and even the title, came from the comedian's own life. Born Muzyad Yakhoob, the Lebanese-American son of a Toledo dry-goods peddler dropped out of school to follow his star in radio and vaudeville. Like his TV character, he was so often on the road that wife Rose Marie would frequently let one of the Thomas kids sleep in her bedroom. When Danny came home, they had to make room for Daddy.
More than an actor, he amassed a fortune producing such hits as The Andy Griffith Show and The Mod Squad. A devout Catholic, he showed his gratitude for success by founding St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis in 1962. "Danny Thomas was a giver," says Berle, "not a taker. I feel that he's up there right now in heaven being St. Jude's assistant."