In our hearts, we made room for Danny Thomas

February 07, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television is neither good nor bad in some strict aesthetic sense. Good television is programming that connects with the currents of our lives and helps us see ourselves as part of a larger whole.

By that definition, Danny Thomas, who died yesterday of a heart attack, made good television -- very good television.

It started in 1953 with "Make Room for Daddy," the weekly sitcom starring Thomas as Danny Williams, a nightclub performer. The show's focus was the Williams' household, which included his wife (Jean Hagen), 6-year-old son (Rusty Hamer) and 11-year-old daughter (Sherry Jackson). The source of humor was that Williams thought he was the stern lord of the household, but the wife and kids had him rapped around their fingers. He was a pussycat.

The show retooled during the 1956-'57 season, becoming "The Danny Thomas Show" when Hagen left. Thomas, who was a producer from the beginning, had Hagen written out as having died, and his character courted various women before opening the 1957-'58 season with a new wife (Marjorie Lord), whom he called "Clancey."

The Williams' household expanded to include Clancey's daughter (Angela Cartwright). And that family basically stayed together until the show ended its run in 1964 -- adding various stars ranging from Annette Funicello and Bill Dana to Hans Conried and Roosevelt Grier (the football player) to the cast from time to time.

In TV terms, the program was noteworthy in that it was part of a group of shows -- like "I Love Lucy" and "The Joey Bishop Show" -- where the sitcom premise was the same as the real life of the star, except for a different name. The appeal in part was that they seemed to offer a look at the home life of the star. As sociology, it was television creating a new kind of intimacy between celebrity and public -- making us all part of the same electronic family.

But that's not what made "The Danny Thomas Show" such good television. Danny Thomas/Danny Williams represented a large segment of the post-war America population -- first and second generations of immigrants trying to blend their traditional values with the new ideas and attitudes of a booming consumer society. That was the real font of humor.

Thomas was himself a Lebanese-American, and his character was continually referring to the "old country" and the "good old way of doing things" as he tried to "lay down the law" on everything from rock and roll dancing to making time payments for appliances instead of paying cash.

It was no accident that the most successful episodes were those that featured Conried's Uncle Tonoose, who made his debut in 1958. Uncle Tonoose was from the other side of the ocean. He was the immigrant relative so many of us had in our real lives -- who so embarrassed us with his old-country ways and his butchered English. He was the opposite of the go-go years we were heading into in the early 1960s.

The humor that resulted from the interaction of the old-world Tonoose, the throwback Williams and the up-to-the-minute Clancey and the kids was the classic stuff of sitcoms. It was television creating an arena where our own shared anxieties and tensions could be symbolically played out in a non-threatening and usually pleasurable way.

Though Thomas went on to short-lived sitcoms like "Make Room for Granddaddy," he did become a highly successful TV producer, making such shows as "Mod Squad" and "The Andy Griffith Show." And he built an enduring reputation as a charity fund-raiser.

But it is Danny Williams who remains with us in the endless loop of celluloid creations that plays in rerun day and night in our new multichannel television universe.

And Danny Williams still has something to teach us about honoring our roots as we move into what each generation believes is a new and improved present and future.

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