Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr 1989 (cropped).jpg
Davis Jr in 1989
Born Samuel George Davis Jr.
December 8, 1925
Harlem, New York, United States
Died May 16, 1990 (aged 64)
Beverly Hills, California, United States
Cause of death Throat cancer
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California
Occupation Singer, tap dancer, actor, pianist, drummer, comedian
Years active 1929–90
Spouse(s) Loray White (m. 1958–59)
May Britt (m. 1960–68)
Altovise Davis (m. 1970–90)
Parent(s) Sammy Davis Sr.
Samuel George "Sammy" Davis Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer. Primarily a dancer and singer, he was also an actor of stage and screen, comedian, musician, and impressionist, noted for his impersonations of actors, musicians and other celebrities. At the age of three, Davis began his career in vaudeville with his father and Will Mastin as the Will Mastin Trio, which toured nationally. After military service, Davis returned to the trio. Davis became an overnight sensation following a nightclub performance at Ciro's (in West Hollywood) after the 1951 Academy Awards. With the trio, he became a recording artist. In 1954, he lost his left eye in a car accident, and several years later, he converted to Judaism.
Davis's film career began as a child in 1933. In 1960, he appeared in the Rat Pack film, Ocean's 11. After a starring role on Broadway in 1956's Mr Wonderful, he returned to the stage in 1964's Golden Boy. In 1966 he had his own TV variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. Davis's career slowed in the late 1960s, but he had a hit record with "The Candy Man" in 1972 and became a star in Las Vegas, earning him the nickname "Mister Show Business".
As an African-American during the pre-Civil Rights era, Davis was a victim of racism throughout his life and was a large financial supporter of the Civil Rights movement. Davis had a complex relationship with the black community, and drew criticism after physically embracing President Richard Nixon in 1972. One day on a golf course with Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. "Handicap?" he asked. "Talk about handicap. I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew." This was to become a signature comment, recounted in his autobiography, and in countless articles.
After reuniting with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1987, Davis toured with them and Liza Minnelli internationally, before he died of throat cancer in 1990. He died in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, and his estate was the subject of legal battles.
Davis was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award for his television performances. He was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987, and in 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1 Early life
3 Personal life
3.1 Car accident and conversion to Judaism
3.3 Political beliefs
4 Cancer and death
7 Honors and awards
7.1 Grammy Awards
7.2 Emmy Awards
7.3 Other honors
11 See also
13 Further reading
Samuel George Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925, in the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City, as an only child, to Sammy Davis Sr., an African-American entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a tap dancer of Afro-Cuban descent. During his lifetime, Davis stated that his mother was Puerto Rican and born in San Juan. However, in the 2003 biography In Black and White, author Wil Haygood writes that Davis's mother was born in New York City to parents of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and African-American descent, and that Davis claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.
Davis's parents were vaudeville dancers. As an infant, he was reared by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents separated. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour.
Will Mastin Trio: (L–R) Sammy Davis Sr., Sammy Davis Jr., and Will Mastin
Davis learned to dance from his father and his "uncle" Will Mastin, who led the dance troupe his father worked for. Davis joined the act as a child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing. Mastin and his father shielded him from racism. Snubs were explained as jealousy, for instance. When Davis served in the United States Army during World War II, however, he was confronted by strong racial prejudice. He later said, "Overnight the world looked different. It wasn't one color any more. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for eighteen years, a door which they had always secretly held open." At age 7 Davis played the title role in the film Rufus Jones for President, in which he sang and danced with Ethel Waters Davis lived for several years in Boston's South End, and reminisced years later about "hoofing and singing" at Izzy Ort's Bar & Grille.
Sammy Davis Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington
During service in World War II, the Army assigned Davis to an integrated entertainment Special Services unit and he found that the spotlight lessened the prejudice. Even prejudiced white men admired and respected his performances. "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking," he said.
After his discharge, Davis rejoined the family dance act, which played at clubs around Portland, Oregon. He also recorded blues songs for Capitol Records in 1949, under the pseudonyms Shorty Muggins and Charlie Green.
On March 23, 1951, the Will Mastin Trio appeared at Ciro's as the opening act for headliner Janis Paige. They were only to perform for twenty minutes but the reaction from the celebrity-filled crowd was so enthusiastic, especially when Davis launched into his impressions, that they performed for nearly an hour, and Paige insisted the order of the show be flipped.
He began to achieve success on his own and was singled out for praise by critics, releasing several albums. This led to Davis being hired to sing the title track for the Universal Pictures film Six Bridges to Cross in 1954, and later to his starring role in the Broadway play Mr. Wonderful in 1956.
In 1959, Davis became a member of the famous Rat Pack, led by his friend Frank Sinatra, which included fellow performers Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. Initially, Sinatra, known formally as capo di tutti, called the gathering "the Clan", but Davis voiced his opposition, saying that it reminded people of the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group "the Summit", but the media referred to them as the Rat Pack, the name of its earlier incarnation led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The group made several movies together, including the original version of Ocean's 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), as well as many joint stage appearances in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, but he was required (as were all black performers in the 1950s) to lodge in a rooming house on the west side of the city, instead of in the hotels as his white colleagues did. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts. Davis and other black artists could entertain, but could not stay at the hotels where they performed, gamble in the casinos, or dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars. Davis later refused to work at places which practiced racial segregation.
Sammy Davis Jr. (left) with Walter Reuther (center) and Roy Wilkins (right) at the 1963 March on Washington.
In 1964, Davis was starring in Golden Boy at night and shooting his own New York-based afternoon talk show during the day. When he could get a day off from the theater, he would be recording new songs in the studio, or performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Davis knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he could not help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.
Although he was still a draw in Las Vegas, Davis's musical career had sputtered by the late 1960s, although he had a No. 11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with "I've Gotta Be Me" in 1969. His effort to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in his signing with the Motown record label. Though his deal with them to have his own label with the company fell through, Sammy had an unexpected #1 hit with "The Candy Man" after he signed with MGM Records in 1972. Although he did not particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he did enjoy popularity with his 1976 performance of the theme song from the Baretta television series, "Baretta's Theme (Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow)" (1975–1978), which was released as a single (20th Century Records 2282). He occasionally landed television and film parts, including cameo visits to the television shows The Rifleman on two different episodes, I Dream of Jeannie, All in the Family (during which he famously kisses Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) on the cheek) and, with wife Altovise Davis, on Charlie's Angels. In the 1970s, he appeared in commercials in Japan for Suntory whiskey.
Davis performing in 1966.
On December 11, 1967, NBC broadcast a musical-variety special titled Movin' with Nancy. In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show is notable for Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
Davis had a friendship with Elvis Presley in the late 1960s, as they both were top-draw acts in Vegas at the same time. Davis was in many ways just as reclusive during his hotel gigs as Elvis, holding parties mainly in his penthouse suite, and Elvis went to them occasionally. Davis sang a version of Presley's song "In the Ghetto" and made a cameo appearance in Presley's concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is. One year later, he made a cameo appearance in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, but the scene was cut.
In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the United States, he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.
On May 27–28, 1973 Davis hosted (with Monte Hall) the first annual, twenty-hour Highway Safety Foundation telethon. Guests included Muhammad Ali, Paul Anka, Jack Barry, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Ray Charles, Dick Clark, Roy Clark, Howard Cosell, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Joe Franklin, Cliff Gorman, Richie Havens, Danny Kaye, Steve Leeds, Jerry Lewis, Hal Linden, Rich Little, Butterfly McQueen, Minnie Pearl, Boots Randolph, Tex Ritter, Phil Rizzuto, The Rockettes, Nipsey Russell, Sally Struthers, Mel Tillis, Ben Vereen, Lawrence Welk, and many more. It was a financial disaster. The total amount of pledges was $1.2 million. Actual pledges received were $525,000.
Davis was a fan of daytime soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This led to a cameo appearance on General Hospital and a recurring role as character Chip Warren on One Life to Live, for which he received a Daytime Emmy Award nomination in 1980. He was also a game show fan, appearing on the ABC version of Family Feud in 1979. He appeared on Tattletales with his third wife, Altovise Davis, in the 1970s. He made a cameo during an episode of the NBC version of Card Sharks in 1981.
In addition to American soaps, he was also a huge fan of the Australian show Prisoner: Cell Block H. Davis wanted to make an appearance in Prisoner, but the show ended (in 1986) before this could be arranged.
Davis was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting pictures of family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar, named Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. "Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro's period, early '50s," Boyar quotes Davis. "And he hooked me." Davis used a medium format camera later on to capture images. Again quoting Davis, "Nobody interrupts a man taking a picture to ask ... 'What's that nigger doin' here?'" His catalog includes rare photos of his father dancing onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio and intimate snapshots of close friends Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Nat "King" Cole, and Marilyn Monroe. His political affiliations also were represented, in his images of Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. His most revealing work comes in photographs of wife May Britt and their three children, Tracey, Jeff and Mark.
Davis was an enthusiastic shooter and gun owner. He participated in fast-draw competitions; Johnny Cash recalled that Sammy was said to be capable of drawing and firing a Colt Single Action Army revolver in less than a quarter of a second. Davis was skilled at fast and fancy gunspinning, and appeared on television variety shows showing off this skill. He appeared in Western films and as a guest star on several "Golden Age" television Westerns.
Car accident and conversion to Judaism
Davis nearly died in an automobile accident on November 19, 1954, in San Bernardino, California, as he was making a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. In 1953, he had struck up a friendship with comedian and host Eddie Cantor, who gave him a mezuzah. Instead of putting it by his door, as a traditional blessing, Davis would wear it around his neck as a good luck charm. The only time he forgot it was the night of the accident. The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Route 66 at Cajon Boulevard and Kendall Drive (34.2072°N 117.3855°W). Davis lost his left eye to the bullet-shaped horn button (a standard feature in 1954 and 1955 Cadillacs) as a result. His friend, actor Jeff Chandler, said he would give one of his own eyes if it would keep Davis from total blindness. Davis wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident. He was featured with the patch on the cover of his debut album and appeared on What's My Line? wearing the patch (March 13, 1955). Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.
While in San Bernardino's Community Hospital, Cantor told him about the similarities between the Jewish and black cultures. Prompted by this conversation, Davis—who was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father—began studying the history of Jews. He formally converted to Judaism several years later, in 1961. One passage from his readings (from the book A History of The Jews by Abram L. Sachar), describing the endurance of the Jewish people, intrigued him in particular: "The Jews would not die. Three millennia of prophetic teaching had given them an unwavering spirit of resignation and had created in them a will to live which no disaster could crush." The accident marked a turning point in Davis's career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity.
In 1957, Davis was involved with Kim Novak, a young actress under contract to Columbia Pictures. The head of Columbia studio, Harry Cohn, was worried about the negative effect this would have on the studio because of the prevailing taboo against miscegenation. He called his friend, mobster John Roselli, who was asked to tell Davis that he had to stop the affair with Novak. Roselli arranged for Davis to be kidnapped for a few hours to throw a scare into him. His hastily arranged and soon-dissolved (after nine months) marriage to black dancer Loray White in 1958 was an attempt to quiet the controversy. In a 2014 BBC documentary, it was disclosed that Cohn arranged for Davis to be threatened with having his other eye put out or his leg broken if he did not marry a black woman within 48 hours. At his wedding celebration he became so inebriated that his friend, Arthur Silber, put him to bed. Upon checking later, Silber caught him holding a loaded pistol to his head. The marriage to Loray White was never consummated, Davis having offered to pay her $10,000 to enter into a sham marriage.
In 1960, Davis caused controversy again when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail while starring in the Broadway adaptation of Golden Boy during 1964–1966 (for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor). At the time Davis appeared in the play, interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states (but were legal in New York), and only in 1967 were those laws ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. Davis and Britt had one daughter Tracey and adopted two sons. Davis performed almost continuously and spent little time with his wife. They divorced in 1968, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with singer Lola Falana. That year, Davis started dating Altovise Gore, a dancer in Golden Boy. They were married on May 11, 1970, by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Kathy McKee replaced Altovise in Davis's nightclub act. They adopted a son, Manny, in 1989. Davis and Altovise remained married until his death in 1990.
Sammy Davis Jr. in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House with President Richard Nixon, March 4, 1973
Davis was a registered Democrat and supported John F. Kennedy's 1960 election campaign as well as Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 campaign.
However, he became a close friend to President Richard Nixon and publicly endorsed him at the 1972 Republican National Convention. Davis also made a USO tour to South Vietnam at Nixon's request. Previously, Davis had won Nixon's respect with his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon invited Davis and his wife, Altovise, to sleep in the White House in 1973, the first time African Americans were invited to do so. The Davises spent the night in the Queens' Bedroom.
Davis was a long-time donor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH organization. Jackson also performed Davis's wedding.
Cancer and death
Grave of Sammy Davis Jr. in the Garden of Honor, Forest Lawn Glendale.
In August 1989, doctors found a tumour in Davis' throat. Davis died in Beverly Hills, California, on May 16, 1990 at age 64, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told that surgery (laryngectomy) offered him the best chance of survival, Davis replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; he subsequently was treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. However, a few weeks prior to his death, his entire larynx was removed during surgery. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Garden of Honor, Lot 5774, Space 1 in Glendale, California, next to his father and Will Mastin.
On May 18, 1990, two days after Davis's death, the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip were darkened for ten minutes as a tribute to him. He was survived by his wife, his daughter, his sons, his sister, his mother, his grandmother, and two grandchildren.
Davis was portrayed by Don Cheadle in the HBO film The Rat Pack, a television film about the group of entertainers. Cheadle won a Golden Globe Award for his performance.
Comedian Eddie Griffin has made his impersonation of Davis a major part of his act.
On later episodes of The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) wore an "SDjr" pin as a tribute to Davis, who, in its 5th season, made a guest appearance in the episode "No Way, Baby".
On Saturday Night Live, Davis has been portrayed by Garrett Morris, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Tim Meadows.
Davis was portrayed on the popular sketch comedy show In Living Color by Tommy Davidson, notably a parody of the film Ghost, in which the ghost of Davis enlists the help of Whoopi Goldberg to communicate with his wife.
David Raynr portrayed Davis in the miniseries Sinatra, a television film about the life of Frank Sinatra.
Davis was portrayed by Keith Powell in an episode of 30 Rock entitled "Subway Hero".
In the 1993 film Wayne's World 2, Tim Meadows portrays Davis in the dream sequence with Michael A. Nickles as Jim Morrison.
He was portrayed by Paul Sharma in the 2003 West End production Rat Pack Confidential.
In September 2009, the musical Sammy: Once in a Lifetime premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, and additional songs by Bricusse and Anthony Newley. The title role was played by Broadway Tony Award nominee Obba Babatundé.
Davis was mentioned in British singer Amy Winehouse's album Back to Black on the song "Me and Mr. Jones". The lyrics are as follows: "Aside from Sammy you're my best black Jew."
A black and white portrait of Davis, drawn by Jim Blanchard, adorns the cover of avant-garde rock band Oxbow's second album King of the Jews.
Midwest radio personality Kevin Matthews impersonated Sammy Davis Jr. many times on his radio show.
Comedian Jim Carrey has portrayed Davis on stage, in the film Copper Mountain, and in a stand-up routine.
Comedian Billy Crystal has portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in his stand-up routine and at the Oscars.
"Sammy" is a song dedicated to Davis on the 1997 Gwar album Carnival of Chaos.
In the novel and its film adaptation Everything Is Illuminated, the grandfather's seeing-eye dog is named "Sammy Davis Jr. Jr".
Actor Phaldut Sharma created the comedy webseries [I Gotta Be Me], following a frustrated soap-star as he performs as Sammy in a Rat Pack tribute show.
Main article: Sammy Davis Jr. discography
Honors and awards
Year Category Song Result Notes
2002 Grammy Hall of Fame Award "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Inducted Recorded in 1962
2001 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1972 Pop Male Vocalist "Candy Man" Nominee
1962 Record of the Year "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Nominee
1962 Male Solo Vocal Performance "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Nominee
Year Category Program Result
1990 Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Sammy Davis Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Celebration Winner
1989 Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series The Cosby Show Nominee
1980 Outstanding Cameo Appearance in a Daytime Drama Series One Life to Live Nominee
1966 Outstanding Variety Special The Swinging World of Sammy Davis Jr. Nominee
1956 Best Specialty Act — Single or Group Sammy Davis Jr. Nominee
Year Category Organization Program Result
2008 International Civil Rights Walk of Fame Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site Inducted
2006 Las Vegas Walk of Stars front of Riviera Hotel Inducted
1989 NAACP Image Award NAACP Winner
1987 Kennedy Center Honors John F. Kennedy Center for
the Performing Arts Honoree
1977 Best TV Actor — Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Sammy and Company (1975) Nominee
1974 Special Citation Award National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Winner
1968 NAACP Spingarn Medal Award NAACP Winner
1965 Best Actor — Musical Tony Award Golden Boy Nominee
1960 Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6254 Hollywood Blvd.
Rufus Jones for President (1933)
Seasoned Greetings (1933)
Sweet and Low (1947)
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956)
Anna Lucasta (1959)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
Ocean's 11 (1960)
Sergeants 3 (1962)
The Threepenny Opera (de) (1962)
Convicts 4 (1962)
Johnny Cool (1963)
Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)
Nightmare in the Sun (1965)
The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (1965, title song)
A Man Called Adam (1966)
Alice in Wonderland (or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?) (1966)
Salt and Pepper (1968)
The Fall (1969)
Sweet Charity (1969)
One More Time (1970)
Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971; deleted scene)
Save the Children (1973)
Poor Devil (1973; unsold pilot of a TV series)
Gone with the West, also known outside the U.S. as Little Moon and Jud McGraw (1975)
Sammy Stops the World (1978)
The Cannonball Run (1981)
Heidi's Song (1982)
Cracking Up (1983)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Cannonball Run II (1984)
Alice in Wonderland (1985)
That's Dancing! (1985)
Knights of the City (1986)
The Perils of P.K. (1986)
Moon over Parador (1988)
The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990, last role)
Mr. Wonderful (1957), musical
Golden Boy (1964), musical – Tony Nomination for Best Actor in a Musical
Sammy (1974), special performance featuring Davis with the Nicholas Brothers
Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1978) musical revival
General Electric Theater – "The Patsy" (1960) Season 8 Episode 21
Lawman – episode Blue Boss and Willie Shay" (1961)
The Dick Powell Show" - episode "The Legend" (1962)
Hennesey – episode "Tight Quarters" (1962)
The Rifleman – 2 episodes "Two Ounces of Tin (#4.21)" (February 19, 1962) and "The Most Amazing Man (#5.9)" (November 27, 1962)
77 Sunset Strip – episode "The Gang's All Here" (1962)
Ben Casey – episode "Allie" (1963)
The Patty Duke Show – episode "Will the Real Sammy Davis Please Hang Up?" (1965)
The Wild Wild West – episode "The Night of the Returning Dead" (October 14, 1966)
Batman - "The Clock King's Crazy Crimes" (1966)
I Dream of Jeannie – episode "The Greatest Entertainer in the World" (1967)
The Mod Squad - episode "Keep the Faith Baby" (1969)
The Beverly Hillbillies - episode Manhattan Hillbilies (1969)
The Name of the Game – episode "I Love You, Billy Baker" (1970)
Here's Lucy (1970)
All in the Family – episode "Sammy's Visit" (1972)
The Carol Burnett Show (1975)
Charlie's Angels – episode "Sammy Davis, Jr. Kidnap Caper" (1977)
Sanford and Son – Self
Archie Bunker's Place – episode "The Return of Sammy" (1980)
The Jeffersons episode "What Makes Sammy Run?" (1984)
Fantasy Island episode "Mr. Bojangles and the Dancer/Deuces are Wild" (1984)
Gimme a Break! – episode "The Lookalike" (1985)
Hunter – episode "Ring of Honor" (1989)
The Cosby Show – episode "No Way, Baby" (1989)