The Schnozzola, or as I like to call him, the Great Durante, is one of the most legendary entertainers in all of American history. He started as a honky-tonk piano player in some very rough venues in lower New York during the first decade of the 20th century. He eventually became part of a top nightclub act "Clayton, Jackson, and Durante" with his long time partners, Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. The more the trio worked together, the more Durante was encouraged to hone his comedic skills. Durante was eventually offered a film contract in Hollywood, which he initially chose to turn down because he didn't want to desert his partners. They encouraged him to take the deal which he eventually did but the three men remained financial partners and friends for life.
Hollywood never seemed to know what to do with Jimmy Durante. His persona was larger than life and made it difficult for him to play other characters. For that reason, his best moments on film came when he was performing songs and routines his famous nightclub act. His film career ended with his memorable cameo in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" as Smiler Grogan, the man who literally kicks off the festivities in the opening reel of the film by giving a deathbed confession to a group of unsuspecting tourists that he's hidden a fortune in cash in a park in Santa Rosita under a big "W."
Durante achieved far greater success on television than he ever did in films. In 1950, he received the distinguished George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in television. Durante's warmth and self-deprecating humor were perfect tools in the new medium of television. He gained a whole new legion of fans. He spent the next 25 years appearing on various TV sitcoms, talk shows and variety programs.
In the 1960s he returned to his first love -- music. His albums included the 1963 best-seller, "September Song." In the early 1970s, Durante suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a wheelchair. He passed away in January of 1980 as a beloved icon of American culture.
-- Otto Bruno