Danny Kaye talks about his role in the complex drama 'Skokie'
Chutzpa - an old yiddish word that has come into current common usage - means , according to Webster, ''supreme self-confidence.'' Well, it took chutzpa - as well as courage, vision, and tenacity - to produce ''Skokie'' (CBS, Tuesday, 8- 10:30 p.m., check local listings).
Although very different from CBS's recent controversial airing of Vanessa Redgrave in ''Playing for Time,'' it is probably the most dangerously complex TV drama since that Emmy-winning program. It is also a glowing example of American commercial television at its stimulating and informative best.
In its own way, ''Skokie'' is an extension of Arthur Miller's concentration-camp drama ''Playing for Time,'' in that it is a dramatization of what happened a few years later, in 1977-78, when an American Nazi group requested permission to parade through the streets of Skokie, Ill., a haven for many concentration-camp survivors in the suburbs of Chicago.
It is complex because ''Skokie'' investigates character and motivation as well as surface facts. It boldly delves into the multicolored reactions of such varied Jewish organizations as the Jewish Defense League and the Anti-Defamation League, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Socialist Party of America.
It is dangerous because in condemning racism, it dares to use all the racist vocabulary, thus making such language available to impressionable viewers. Despite honest and direct (sometimes too simplistic) attempts to clarify everybody's position, there is still room for misunderstanding.
Despite such reservations, the fact remains that ''Skokie'' is an admirable venture into ''message'' television, full of the subtleties of ideological conflict as well as the absurdities and emotionalism. If there is any major fault, it is that ''Skokie'' sometimes telegraphs its message, and then just in case you haven't received it, goes back and dots the i's.
''Skokie'' is Danny Kaye's show. Although he shares some of the honors with John Rubenstein, Eli Wallach, and Ed Flanders, his portrait of Max Feldman, a concentration-camp survivor determined to prevent the neo-Nazis from marching, is a triumph of sympathetic characterization, a flamboyant role played with overtones of unsuppressible physical and emotional fury spilling over from a mind attempting to reason with the unreasonable.
''Skokie,'' written by Ernest Kinoy, directed by Herbert Wise, and produced by the same team responsible for ''Holocaust'' (Herbert Brodkin and Robert Berger), is a lesson in democracy for all Americans. School study groups are being offered instructional material by CBS for use in the classroom, but most families would do well to be prepared to discuss this complicated, controversial drama right then and there, in front of the TV set, at the time it airs.
Danny Kaye, comfortably ensconced in his Sherry-Netherland suite in New York, is still shaken by the experience of filming ''Skokie.''
''The first day we shot the first scene in a synagogue in Skokie, I thought there were a group of typical Hollywood extras, but then I made my speech about 'If the Nazis march here . . .' and I turned around and saw tears running down the extras' cheeks. I thought that for extras they were inordinately moved . . . until I discovered that every one of those extras was a survivor of the Holocaust. Every one had a number tattooed on his arm.
''These people said, 'Sure, let the Ku Klux Klan speak, let the communists talk, let the civil rights demonstrators talk . . . but Nazis? No! It is very hard for them to draw the line between legality and emotionality.''
In New York to promote the special, he is proud that the film has no resolution. ''It makes very strong points for several sides,'' he says.
Advance viewers are already predicting that this is the best performance of Danny Kaye's life, that he will probably win an Emmy.
''I don't do this kind of thing to win awards,'' Kaye said. ''I'm at a funny place in my life, because I don't want to do things for the sake of doing them anymore. I only want to do things that excite me or interest me - or things that are slightly dangerous, like this show, in terms of questions like 'Why did they use Danny Kaye, a light comedian, for such a dramatic role?'
''I did it because it was a great part and I have great respect for producer Herb Brodkin. And also, I remembered the Skokie incident very well. When I read the script I saw how true it was to the actual incident. I thought it would be of some importance and say something to somebody.''
What would Kaye like the TV film to accomplish?
''Listen,'' he says, as he picks up a copy of the script from the table before him: ''. . . if we agree that our purpose is to defeat what Collins (the Nazi) stands for, to protect democracy against Nazism, against genocide, I say the most practical way, in fact the only way, is to defend the First Amendment as our strongest weapon. Who needs the protection of the Bill of Rights most? The weak, the most vulnerable in society. If speech, if protest, can be stifled by government today, the village of Skokie against the Nazis, even the Nazis, the same principle can be applied tomorrow when others may have the desperate need to cry out for help and justice. Now there's no doubt there is danger in letting Nazis make their propaganda. Somebody may believe them. They may grow. They may get more powerful. There is a danger in democracy itself.''
Does Kaye regard his role in ''Skokie'' as a climactic moment in his career?
''I am not going to say, 'This is my last big hurrah.' Tomorrow I may do something completely different, also climactic. If you want to say this is the best thing I have done, fine - at this time. There may be something better a year from now.
''Do you believe this is the best thing I have ever done? Tell me.''