By Mervyn RothsteinN.Y. Times News Service NEW YORK - Danny Thomas, 77 years and 1 day old, is sitting on a sofa at his midtown hotel comparing the comedians of today with the ones of his generation.
"Most of the new comics have about six or seven great minutes," Thomas says. "After that, they have to garbage it up to be out there for maybe 20 minutes. In our day, you did an hour."He reaches up to adjust the black-rimmed eyeglasses that somewhat disguise his trademark large hook nose, a nose that three movie producers - Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn - could not persuade him to change.
"The new comics' subject matter is not deep enough," Thomas said. "They don't get to the core of the people. There's really no substance, no universality to what they're doing.
"They have one big problem," he added. "They have to start on top. They go on the talk shows or to the big comedy clubs, and the first time out they must be scared to death. They have no place to stink. We did. Oh, did we stink!"
The tale of the days in which he stank, as well as the years in which he soared, is told in Thomas' autobiography, "Make Room for Danny," which he wrote with Bill Davidson and which is being published by G.P. Putnam's Sons.
It is the story of Muzyad Yakhoob (his name was later changed to Amos Jacobs, and his friends still call him Jake), the son of Lebanese immigrants who was born in Deerfield, Mich., on Jan. 6, 1914, and grew up with his eight brothers and one sister largely in Toledo, Ohio.
It is the story of a high-school dropout who went into show business with the dream of becoming a character actor. (It is a dream he still pursues; his daughter Marlo Thomas is working on a movie for the two of them to do together.)
He was a character actor on radio, although one of his first radio jobs was making the sound of horses' hooves on a "Lone Ranger" show by beating his chest with two toilet plungers.
But he had a yen for comedy and after rough beginnings became a night-club star, with the encouragement and assistance of Abe Lastfogel, then the head of the William Morris Agency. He took the name Danny Thomas, combining the first names of two of his brothers, at the 5100 Club in Chicago in 1940.
Then came movies, followed by major success on television in the situation comedy "Make Room for Daddy," later known as "The Danny Thomas Show," which ran from 1953 to 1964 and is still seen in reruns.
And he became a successful television producer, first with Sheldon Leonard and then with Aaron Spelling, creating such shows as "The Real McCoys," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mod Squad."
But through it all, he remained a comedian - a special kind of comedian. Danny Thomas does not deliver one-liners. "My people are inherently storytellers," he explains. "When I was a kid, the entertainment was somebody from the old country or a big city who came and visited and told tales of where they came from."
Of his comic tales, the one that is his signature is known as the Jack Story:
There's this traveling salesman who gets stuck one night on a lonely country road with a flat tire and no jack. So he starts walking toward a service station about a mile away, and as he walks, he talks to himself. "How much can he charge me for renting a jack?" he thinks. "One dollar, maybe two. But it's the middle of the night, so maybe there's an after-hours fee. Probably another five dollars. If he's anything like my brother-in-law, he'll figure I got no place else to go for the jack, so he's cornered the market and has me at his mercy. Ten dollars more."
He goes on walking and thinking, and the price and the anger keep rising. Finally, he gets to the service station and is greeted cheerfully by the owner: "What can I do for you, sir?" But the salesman will have none of it. "You got the nerve to talk to me, you robber," he says. "You can take your stinkin' jack and. . . . "
Through the years Thomas has been known for his deep religious faith. (Bob Hope's one-liner on the subject is that his friend Danny is so religious the highway patrol stops him for having stained-glass windows in his car.)
The classic tale about Thomas is that when things were not going well and after his wife, the former Rose Marie Cassaniti, had urged him to leave show business, he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of the hopeless, impossible and difficult cases, asking the saint to set him on the right path.
He vowed that if the saint did so, he would build him a shrine.
"After that, everything happened to me so quickly that it had to be more than a coincidence," he says. "I never prayed for fame and fortune. I wasn't trying to do anything but make a living. I was hoping that the radio producers would have more faith in my ability to play character roles. All I wanted was to get a house in the country, buy a station wagon, raise my kids."
The shrine he built, with the help of many other people, turned out to be the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
"There's no question of it," he says proudly. "That's my epitaph. It's right on the cornerstone: Danny Thomas, founder."