Singer-comic Danny Thomas had always struggled with leaving his family when he went on the road to perform. In those days, a good television gig could keep an actor near home, but Thomas’ initial foray into the small screen was a variety show that was quickly cancelled. After that disappointing experience, ABC executives would only agree to another shot if Thomas starred in a sitcom. During a long brainstorming session one night, Thomas and the network brass decided that the new show’s premise should reflect Thomas’ real life, and Make Room for Daddy was born.
True to Thomas’ experiences, the sitcom featured a traveling performer-father trying to work and raise a family simultaneously. The real life Thomas got to forgo the motel rooms of the road and act in a successful, long-running, Emmy-winning series, just like he always wanted. And even better than that, when he went home from the studio at night, he was looking right at his source material for future episodes.
In its 1953 debut and for three years following, Thomas’ character, Danny Williams, was married with two precocious kids, Terry and Rusty. But when actress Jean Hagen (Danny’s TV missus) left the show after three seasons, the sitcom endured the first of many casting evolutions. Hagen’s character was written to have died, so in the fourth season, Danny played a widower who dated a number of guest-starring lady friends—sometimes to the comic dismay of his kids.
In the 1956 season finale, Danny proposed to the widowed Irish lass Kathy. With Kathy’s little daughter Linda, the core Williams brood was established for the next seven years, and when the program returned to the air in the fall of ’56, it was renamed The Danny Thomas Show. In 1957, the sitcom switched from ABC to CBS, and into a time slot previously occupied by the CBS’s powerhouse I Love Lucy.
Danny Thomas was one of the only sitcoms to stay on the air more than a decade, and it set new standards for the portrayal of realistic familial dynamics. The Williams kids weren’t the head-bowing, ever-obedient types of 50’s sitcom youngsters—when Thomas hollered or cracked wise, his TV kids gave it right back. The show was constantly peppered with interesting guest appearances too, as real-life stage personalities worked the mic at the clubs where Danny Williams performed. Incidentally, Thomas’ off-camera comedy bits, which were performed for the live studio audiences just before taping began, planted the seed for the now industry standard pre-show “warm-up.”
Thomas formed a company with a man named Sheldon Leonard, who directed The Danny Thomas Show during its first season and went on to executive produce. Their very successful and prolific T and L Productions was responsible for shows like The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show (actually a spin-off from a Danny Thomas episode) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (for which Thomas recommended Mary Tyler Moore to play Laura Petrie). Performers like Bill Dana and Joey Bishop went from guest appearances on Danny Thomas’ show to the stars of their own shows—produced by Danny Thomas.
The Danny Thomas Show ended its run in 1964, though NBC re-ran it under the original Make Room for Daddy title as part of its weekday schedule from 1960 to 1965. Much of the beloved cast reassembled for two TV specials that aired in ’67 and ’69, then came together again in 1970 for the one-season spin-off sitcom Make Room for Granddaddy.
So, Thomas’ real life family became the basis for his television show, and his television show opened opportunities for his real life TV business. There are those guys on commercials who aren’t doctors but who play them on TV…Thomas was, in fact, a performer who also happened to play one on TV, and not surprisingly, he played himself perfectly.
UK / ABC – CBS / x25 minute episodes / 20 September 1953 – 18 July 1957 on ABC and 7 October 1957 – 14 September 1964
Danny Thomas as Danny Williams
Jean Hagen as Margaret Williams (1953-56)
Marjorie Lord as Mrs. Kathy “Clancy” Williams (1957-64)
Sherry Jackson as Terry Williams (1953-58)
Penny Parker as Terry Williams (1959-60)
Rusty Hamer as Rusty Williams
Angela Cartwright as Linda Williams (1957-64)
Amanda Randolph as Louise (1953-64)
Horace McMahon as Phil Arnold (1953-54)
Ben Lessy as Benny (1953-57)
Jesse White as Jesse Leeds (1954-57)
Hans Conried as Uncole Tonoose (1958-64)
Sheldon Leonard as Phil Arnold (1957-64)
Pat Harrington Jr. as Pat Hannigan (1959-60)
Annette Funicello as Gina Minelli (1959)
Sid Melton as Uncle Charley Halper (1959-64)