Kaye scored a personal triumph in 1941, in the hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark. His show-stopping number was "Tchaikovsky", by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a whole string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, seemingly without taking a breath.
His feature film debut was in producer Samuel Goldwyn's Technicolor 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! (1930). Goldwyn agonized over Kaye's ethnic, Borscht-belt looks and ordered him to undergo a nose job. Kaye refused, and Goldwyn found another way to brighten Kaye's dark features by lightening his hair, giving him his trademark redheaded locks. Kaye's rubber face and fast patter were an instant hit, and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in almost immediately by compiling three of Kaye's old Educational Pictures shorts into a makeshift feature, The Birth of a Star (1945).
Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s, and is well known for his roles in films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, White Christmas (1954, in a role originally intended for Fred Astaire, then Donald O'Connor), Knock on Wood (1954), The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958). Kaye starred in two pictures based on biographies, Hans Christian Andersen (1952) about the Danish story-teller, and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols. His wife, writer/lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many of the witty, tongue-twisting songs Danny Kaye became famous for. Some of Kaye's films included the theme of doubles, two people who look identical (both played by Danny Kaye) being mistaken for each other, to comic effect. The Kaye-Fine marriage, as was the case with many spouses who worked together in the high-pressure world of film-making, was sometimes stormy.
During World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated rumors that Kaye dodged the draft by manufacturing a medical condition to gain 4-F status and exemption from military service. FBI files show he was also under investigation for supposed links with Communist groups. None of the allegations was ever substantiated, and he was never charged with any associated crime.
Kaye was sufficiently popular that he inspired imitations:
When he appeared at the London Palladium music hall in 1948, he "roused the Royal family to shrieks of laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned English variety into an American preserve." Life magazine described his reception as "worshipful hysteria" and noted that the royal family, for the first time in history, left the royal box to see the show from the front row of the orchestra.
He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The program was broadcast only on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony would come later.
He hosted his own variety hour on CBS television, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967. During this period, beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the annual CBS telecasts of MGM's The Wizard of Oz. Kaye also did a stint as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program. Kaye later served as a guest panelist on that show.
Kaye was the original owner of baseball's Seattle Mariners along with his partner Lester Smith from 1977 to 1981. Prior to that, the lifelong fan of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers recorded a song called "The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song (Oh really? No, O'Malley!)", describing a fictitious encounter with the San Francisco Giants, which was a hit during those clubs' real-life pennant chase of 1962. That song is included on one of the Baseball's Greatest Hits compact discs.
During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played "Buttons" in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In the 1970s Kaye injured his leg during the run of the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, but went on with the show, cavorting on stage from a wheelchair.
In many of his movies, as well as on stage, Kaye proved to be a very able actor, singer, dancer and comedian. He showed quite a different and serious side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death in 1987, Kaye demonstrated his ability to conduct an orchestra during a comical, but technically sound, series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising. Kaye received two Academy Awards -- an honorary award in 1955 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982.
In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982 (EPCOT Center at the time), both of which were aired on prime-time American television.
In his later years he took to entertaining at home as chef — he had a special stove installed in his patio — and specialized in Chinese cooking. The theater and demonstration kitchen underneath the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him.
He also had a longstanding interest in medicine and was permitted to observe surgery on several occasions.
Kaye died in 1987 from a heart attack, following a bout of hepatitis. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. He is interred in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flower pot, musical notes, and a glove.
Throughout his life, Kaye donated to various charities.
Working alongside UNICEF's Halloween fundraiser founder, Ward Simon Kimball Jr., the actor educated the public on impoverished children in deplorable living conditions overseas and assisted in the distribution of donated goods and funds.
Kaye was enamored by music. While he often claimed an inability to read music he was quite the conductor, and was said to have perfect pitch. Kaye was often invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers. Over the course of his career he raised over US$5,000,000 in support of musicians pension funds.