Danny Thomas had the heart of a saint — but some called him a phony
You might be surprised to learn why the classic TV legend never said no to a good cause.
Many classic TV shows touched on how important charity was.
Some TV characters gave too little. On The Andy Griffith Show, "Opie’s Charity" finds Sheriff Andy’s son being miserly with his donations.
Other TV characters gave everything they had. On The Addams Family, "Morticia’s Favorite Charity" found the family donating their most precious family heirlooms. It was a charitable moment so memorable, this episode is one of the few referenced in the popular Nineties reboot movie.
But behind the scenes of classic TV shows, there was one figure in the Fifties and Sixties who never heard of a good cause he didn’t immediately want to support.
Danny Thomas told the United Press International in 1958 that he thought he might’ve worked with "almost every major organization and charity in the United States."
Because Thomas was so charitable with his free time, some people started seeing his charity work as just another big part of his act. They considered the TV star a phony only working with charities for the publicity.
"I’ve been accused of using it as a gimmick, as a meaning of building a high rating on my show," Thomas explained.
The kerfuffle arose in 1957 when Thomas was promoting his show against the popular Twenty-One. He declared that it was more important for his show to get a better rating than the game show because "the building at St. Jude hospital is at stake!"
"A staunch Catholic friend of mine went into a tirade against Thomas," the syndicated column TV Keynotes wrote in papers across the country, under the headline Danny Thomas Charity Gimmick Is Assailed. "He resented sentimental Danny's use of St. Jude to get himself publicity and a good rating."
"Some unkind citizen once wrote that I was using St. Jude Hospital to further my career," Thomas complained weeks later in an interview with Newsday. "Ridiculous. Without my career, there would never have been a St. Jude Hospital."
What those doubters didn’t know was that Thomas, who was deeply spiritual as a devout Catholic, had experienced a pivotal moment in his life where afterward, it made sense to him to give back.
It happened during one of the lowest moments in Thomas’ career. He’d been fundraising to keep his entertainment career going, but he couldn’t make ends meet.
One night he prayed to Saint Jude, the patron saint of the hopeless, and he asked for a sign. Later that same day, when he arrived home, a couple telegrams sat waiting. As he opened one after another, he discovered he had not one but two job opportunities.
It was the sign he needed to keep going with show business, and after that, things never got hopeless again for the rising TV star.
His wife Rosemarie told the UPI that she suspected her husband had a guilty complex, wanting to share his wealth with those in need, serving as a saint for the hopeless himself by fundraising and rarely turning away pleas for help from a good cause. She could see this work was wearing her husband out.
By the end of the 1950s, Thomas was worried that all the charity work was taking a toll on him, too. At this point, the cause he’d thrown himself behind the most was building a children’s hospital in Tennessee.
Fittingly, it was a Saint Jude Hospital, named for the saint who had inspired Thomas to act so long ago. Over six years, Thomas had raised $1,250,000 for the hospital, and all he needed was a final $500,000 to get construction started.
Thomas saw the hospital as urgent because it would provide free treatment to kids suffering from leukemia. He was trying to build a place where every kid from every background could heal, so he put out an album where half the profits would go to the hospital and the other half would go to other charities sponsoring the record’s production.
Over all his charity work, Thomas discovered he felt most compelled to help kids. He knew to do the most for them, he had to start cutting back on some of his other charity work, mostly because he knew there was a chance all those doubters who thought he was in it for publicity might start tuning him out.
"I’m limiting myself to children’s work," Thomas said. "If you aren’t careful, you spread yourself too thin. I don’t want the public to say, 'Oh, no, not Danny Thomas again,' every time they see me make an appeal for funds."
What those doubters should have realized is that Thomas’ charity work was a core part of who he was, and after becoming a star, that saintly nature he had about him never changed a day in his life, no matter how famous he got.
"The hospital is my way of saying ‘thank you’ for all that I have come to be," Thomas said.