Hand color tinted photo of Sammy Davis, Jr.
Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. (December 8, 1925 – May 16, 1990) was an American entertainer.
Primarily a dancer and singer, Davis was a childhood vaudevillian, and became internationally famous for his performances on Broadway and in Las Vegas, as a recording artist, television and film star, and the only black member of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”.
At the age of three Davis began his career in vaudeville with his father and “uncle” as the Will Mastin Trio, toured nationally, and after military service, returned to the trio. Davis became an overnight sensation following a well received nightclub performance at Ciro’s after the 1951 Academy Awards, with the trio, became a recording artist, and made his first film performances as an adult later that decade. Losing his left eye in a car accident in 1954, he converted to Judaism and appeared in the first Rat Pack movie, Ocean’s Eleven, in 1960. After a starring role on Broadway in 1956’s Mr Wonderful, Davis returned to the stage in 1964’s Golden Boy, and in 1966 had his own TV variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. Davis’s career slowed in the late sixties, but he scored a hit record with “The Candy Man”, in 1972, and became a star attraction in Las Vegas.
As an African-American, Davis was the victim of racism throughout his life, and was a large financial supporter of various civil rights causes. Davis had a complex relationship with the black community, and attracted criticism after physically embracing Richard Nixon in 1970. 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 dying of throat cancer in 1990. Davis died heavily in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, and his estate was the subject of complicated legal battles.
Davis was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, and was nominated for a Golden Globe 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.
Samuel George “Sammy” Davis, Jr. was born in New York City, New York, to Elvera Sanchez (1905–2000), a tap dancer, and Sammy Davis, Sr. (1900–1988), an African-American entertainer. During his lifetime, Davis, Jr. 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, Jr.’s mother was born in New York City to Cuban American parents, and that Davis, Jr. claimed he was Puerto Rican because he feared anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales.
Davis’s parents were both dancers in vaudeville. As an infant, he was raised by his paternal grandmother. When he was three years old, his parents split up. His father, not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. As a child, Davis learned how 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 young child and they became the Will Mastin Trio. Throughout his long career, Davis included the Will Mastin Trio in his billing. Mastin and his father had 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. As he said later, “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.”
While in the service, however, he joined an integrated entertainment Special Services unit, and found that the spotlight removed some of the prejudice. “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 he was discharged, Davis rejoined the dance act which played at a wide variety of spots around Portland, Oregon, and began to achieve success on his own as he was singled out for praise by critics. The next year, he released his second album. The next move in his growing career was to appear in the Broadway show Mr. Wonderful in 1956.
In 1959, he became a member of the “Rat Pack”, which was led by his old friend Frank Sinatra, and included such fellow performers as Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Shirley MacLaine. Initially, Sinatra called the gathering of fast-living friends “the Clan”, but Sammy voiced his opposition, saying that it invoked thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra renamed the group “the Summit”; undeterred, the media continued to refer to them as the Rat Pack.
Davis was a headliner at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada for many years yet was required to accept accommodations in a rooming house on the west side of the city, rather than reside with his peers in the hotels, as were all black performers in the 1950s. For example, no stage dressing rooms were provided for black performers, so they were required to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts.
During his early years in Las Vegas, he and other African-American artists like Nat King Cole and Count Basie could entertain on the stage, but often could not reside at the hotels at which they performed, and most definitely could not gamble in the casinos or go to the hotel restaurants and bars. After he achieved superstar success, Davis refused to work at venues which would practice racial segregation. His demands eventually led to the integration of Miami Beach nightclubs and Las Vegas casinos. Davis was particularly proud of this accomplishment.
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 either be in the studio recording new songs, or else performing live, often at charity benefits as far away as Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, or doing television variety specials in Los Angeles. Even at the time, Sam knew he was cheating his family of his company, but he couldn’t help himself; as he later said, he was incapable of standing still.
Although he was still a huge draw in Las Vegas, Davis’s musical career had sputtered out by the latter years of the 1960s, although he had a #11 hit (#1 on the Easy Listening singles chart) with “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in 1969. An attempt to update his sound and reconnect with younger people resulted in some embarrassing “hip” musical efforts with the Motown record label. But then, even as his career seemed at its nadir, Sammy had an unexpected worldwide smash hit with “Candy Man”. Although he didn’t particularly care for the song and was chagrined that he was now best known for it, Davis made the most of his new opportunity and revitalized his career. Although he enjoyed no more Top 40 hits, he did enjoy some extra popularity with his performance of the theme song from the T.V. series Baretta (1975–1978) which was not released as a single but was given extensive radio play and he remained a successful live act beyond Vegas for the remainder of his career. He would still occasionally land television and film parts, including high-profile cameo visits to the All in the Family (during which he kisses Archie Bunker (Carrol O’Connor) on the cheek), and with wife Altovise Davis on Charlie’s Angels. In the 1970s, he also appeared in a series of memorable commercials in Japan for Suntory whiskey.
On December 11, 1967, NBC broadcast a musical-variety special entitled Movin’ With Nancy. In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show is famous for Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. greeting each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
In Japan, Davis appeared in television commercials for coffee, and in the U.S. he joined Sinatra and Martin in a radio commercial for a Chicago car dealership.
Davis was one of the first male celebrities to admit to watching television soap operas, particularly the shows produced by the American Broadcasting Company. This admission led to him making a cameo appearance on General Hospital and playing the recurring character Chip Warren on One Life to Live for which he received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1980. He was also a game show fan, making a cameo on the ABC version of Family Feud in 1979, and hosting a question with Richard Dawson watching from the sidelines. He appeared on Tattletales with third wife Altovise Davis in the 1970s. He also made a cameo during an episode of the NBC version of Card Sharks in 1981.
Davis was an avid photographer who enjoyed shooting family and acquaintances. His body of work was detailed in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar. “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 catalogue of photos include rare shots of his father dancing onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio. Also, 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, 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 competition, and was said to be capable of drawing and firing a Colt Single Action revolver in less than .25 of a second. Davis was extremely skilled at fast and fancy gun spinning, and several times appeared on T.V. variety shows showing off this skill. Davis appeared in several western films and as a guest star on several “Golden Age” T.V. westerns, as well.
Car accident and conversion
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. The accident occurred at a fork in U.S. Highway 66 at Cajon Blvd and Kendall Drive. Davis lost his left eye as a result, and wore an eye patch for at least six months following the accident. He appeared on What’s My Line wearing the patch. Later, he was fitted for a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life. While in the hospital, his friend Eddie 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 and converted to Judaism several years later. One passage from his readings, 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”. In many ways, the accident marked a turning point in Davis’s career, taking him from a well-known entertainer to a national celebrity and icon.
In the mid-1950s, Sammy was involved with Kim Novak, who was a valuable star under contract to Columbia Studios. The head of the 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 old friend, the mobster Johnny Roselli, who was asked to tell Sammy 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.
Davis’s first wife was Loray White, whom he married in 1958 and divorced in the following year. In 1960, Davis caused controversy when he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt. Davis received hate mail while starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy from 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 US states, and only in 1967 were those laws abolished by the US Supreme Court. The couple had one daughter 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. They adopted a child, and remained married until Davis’s death in 1990.
Although Davis had been a voting Democratic, he had felt a distinct lack of respect from the John F. Kennedy White House. He had been removed from the bill of the inaugural party hosted by Sinatra for the new President because of Davis’s recent interracial marriage to May Britt on November 13, 1960.
In the early 1970s, Davis famously supported Republican President Richard M. Nixon (and gave the startled President a hug on live TV). The incident was very controversial, and Davis was given a hostile reception by his peers, despite the intervention of Jesse Jackson. Previously he had won over their respect with his performance as Joe Wellington Jr. in Golden Boy and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon invited Davis to sleep in the White House in 1973, which is believed to be the first time an African-American was invited to do so. Davis spent the night in the Queen’s Bedroom. Unlike Frank Sinatra, Davis voted Democratic for president again after the Nixon administration.
Death Davis died in Beverly Hills, California on May 16, 1990, of complications from throat cancer. Earlier, when he was told he could be saved by surgery, Davis replied he would rather keep his voice than have a part of his throat removed; the result of that decision seemed to cost him his life. However, a few weeks prior to his death his entire larynx was removed during surgery. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California next to his father and Will Mastin.