Introduction: Sammy Davis, Jr. (08:23)
Sammy Davis, Jr. was a member of the Rat Pack, the act that put Las Vegas on the map. The presence of a “one-eyed negro Jew” onstage was a powerful statement of inclusion in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a complicated and sometimes controversial black man who had to navigate the challenges of race.
Child Star (05:33)
Davis was born in 1925 and grew up in Harlem. He won his first amateur contest at the age of 3 and played the title role in the short film “Rufus Jones for President” at 7. He toured the Chitlin Circuit with his godfather’s act, the Will Mastin Trio. He later regretted not having a formal education.
"Dancing on Air" (04:44)
Davis patterned his dance style on tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Actress Whoopi Goldberg described it as “light” and “feathery.” “It’s not taught,” comedian and actor Billy Crystal said. “It just is; then it is practiced and honed and improved and becomes this incredible statement of who you are.”
Army Abuse, Talented Impressionist (08:40)
Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army’s first integrated infantry where he was a target of racism and bullying. He began using his talent to win enemies over and discovered he was a gifted impressionist. He claimed Humphrey Bogart once gave him tips on imitating his mannerisms.
"Hey There" (08:00)
Davis followed in the wake of Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole, crooners who defied racial singing stereotypes. He broke through musically with “Hey There,” from the 1954 Broadway musical, “The Pajama Game.” He gained exposure performing at trendy Los Angeles nightclub Ciro’s and on Eddie Cantor’s televised “Colgate Comedy Hour.”
Losing Eye, Conversion to Judaism (03:58)
Davis lost his eye in an auto accident in 1954. He did some soul searching as he recovered and converted to Judaism, seeing a kinship between the plights of blacks and Jews. He had to recalibrate his sense of balance and relearn such simple tasks.
Kim Novak Controversy (03:19)
Davis and actress Kim Novak fell in love; the interracial couple became the subject of controversy as their affair was documented in the press. Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures Corporation, was said to have put a mob hit on Davis, demanding that he marry a black woman within 48 hours, leading to Davis’s sham marriage with Loray White.
"Porgy and Bess" (14:48)
In 1960, Davis married Swedish actress May Britt. The interracial marriage prompted death threats, and President John F. Kennedy asked that Davis’s invitation to a gala hosted by Frank Sinatra be revoked. The Rat Pack defined the ethos of Las Vegas and gave the illusion of integration on the Strip.
"Golden Boy" (07:55)
Davis was an inexperienced actor when he starred in a 1964 musical. He kissed white co-star Paula Wayne, a taboo-shattering act that sparked racist backlash. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the musical and expressed an admiration for the song “No More.” Davis and Britt split in 1968.
Civil Rights Movement (05:05)
Actor friends sparked an interest in activism within Davis. He participated in the March on Washington and raised money for related causes. Still, he did not feel accepted by the black community throughout his career.
"Candy Man" (08:10)
Davis scored his biggest hit with a song from the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”; he secretly thought it was a terrible song. Davis entertained U.S. troops during the Vietnam War and became close with President Richard Nixon, leading to backlash from the Left.
Fading Relevance (04:19)
Davis was increasingly seen as a throwback to a time that many wanted to forget. He made a cameo on hit TV show “All in the Family” during which he famously kissed Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) on the cheek.
"Mr. Bojangles" (04:27)
Davis began performing a ballad about a down-and-out street performer that seemed symbolic of his decline. He spent extravagantly on clothing, cars and other luxuries, resulting in financial trouble. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol and developed throat cancer after years of smoking. Despite being near death, he delivered a moving dance performance on ABC-TV’s “Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration.”
Larry King Interview (03:45)
Davis became addicted to drugs and alcohol and developed throat cancer after years of smoking. He did not control his money, songs, or other assets. He chose radiation over surgery to save his voice.
“Sammy Davis Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration” (07:05)
Despite being near death from throat cancer, Davis delivered a moving dance performance on ABC-TV. Other celebrities including Michael Jackson also performed.
Credits: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (01:55)
Credits: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me
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