Danville, Illinois sits approximately 130 miles south of Chicago, just west of the Indiana border in some of the richest farmland in America. It has produced not only crops, but notable companies including Chuckles Candy, Windbreaker Jackets and others – ironically, this small slice of Americana town is most famous for the five celebrities who hail from there. Three are native sons, two others spent enough significant portions of their youth in Danville to consider it their hometown.
These celebrities include Dick and Jerry Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Donald O’Conner and Bobby Short, all of whom have had very illustrious show business careers.
Gene Hackman, who was born on January 30, 1930, has been nominated for five Academy Awards, winning twice: Best Actor for The French Connection, Best Supporting Actor for The Unforgiven. In addition to making more than 80 films, he has appeared frequently on the stage.
Among my favorites of his movies are Bonnie and Clyde, I Never Sang for My Father, Hoosiers, The Unforgiven, The Conversation and The Royal Tenenbaums.
The above acceptance speech is classic Hackman: understated, perfectly timed, memorably delivered. It is almost impossible to imagine him hitting a wrong note in any venue.
Dick Van Dyke, born December 13, 1925, is a five time Emmy recipient who has also won a Tony and a Grammy. His classic television show ran for five years in the 1960’s, you can still catch it on cable network. While attending Danville High School he became acquainted with O’Conner, Short and Hackman.
Van Dyke has appeared in more than twenty films, including Bye Bye Birdie, Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy. As chimney sweep Burt Poppins, he famously preformed “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s younger brother, was born July 27, 1931. While lesser known than his sibling, Jerry carved out a very notable, diverse career of his own.
He began as a stand-up comic: anyone who saw him on the Tonight Show or other variety programs of the past with his banjo/comedy routines can attest to his brilliance. These appearances, combined with his extensive night club tours, led to a lucrative television career which included four Emmy Award nominations as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a comedy series.
On an unrelated matter, Jerry happens to be an extremely avid/skilled poker player – he has announced poker tournaments on ESPN.
Donald O’Conner was born August 28, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois, but claimed Danville as his hometown. He got an early start in the movies at the age of twelve, appeared in a series of B films before hitting stardom in Francis, the story of a man whose best friend was a talking mule. This led to a number of sequels which were very popular.
By far, his signature role was the character Cosmo Brown in the classic, Singing in the Rain. This performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” is iconic:
The general public probably has a very limited awareness of Bobby Short. But if you are a fan of the Great American Song Book, composers like Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Alan Lerner, Stephen Sondheim (among many others), you probably know about this stellar cabaret performer.
For thirty-five years beginning in 1968, he was an institution at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel on Madison/76th Street in New York City. Recording numerous albums (Bobby Loves Cole Porter being my own personal favorite), he also appeared in a handful of films and television shows. Here is a sample of his work:
Bobby was laid to rest in Danville in March of 2005.
These brief sketches don’t do justice to the five talents who were ironically raised in a small Illinois town with the population of around 30,000. All five returned to Danville many times in their lives – the photo above was taken in Danville when they appeared at a benefit for the restoration of the popular Fischer Movie Theater. What a splendid group!