Everything Sammy Davis, Jr. did, he did well. And he did everything.
“American Masters,” the PBS anthology of creative lives, makes up a long omission Tuesday with “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Directed Sam Pollard, whose earlier ‘American Masters’ films documented Marvin Gaye, Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson and the partnership of John Ford and John Wayne, it works hard to capture the spirit of a man of many parts and boundless ability, with sections headed Hoofer, Singer, Impressionist, Leading Man, Rebel, Activist and so forth.
The film is full of great things — that is, clips of Davis in performance — and makes a consistent case for him as a breaker of boundaries, not even counting his marriage to the Swedish actress Mai Britt in a time when interracial unions were illegal in many states. Even though at times it feels unequal to its subject, it captures the ebb and flow (mostly the flow) of his life and is absolutely recommended.
Of course, every documentary is shaped by what’s available — the money to pay for clips, the people who are willing to talk, and of course, time. And Davis, more than many public personalities, resists easy summation. Indeed, the impression one gets here is that history has not quite made up its mind, at least about the person, and whether he was brave or craven. There should be no question about Davis the performer.
He made his screen debut at age 7 in 1933 — the same year as did Fred Astaire — in the short subject “Rufus Jones for President” and was around long enough to cover Michael Jackson. (We get a taste of “Bad” here.) His mainstream success, his association with Frank Sinatra, in a way that could at times seem obsequious, made him somehow less than black to some, though he suffered the same Jim Crow indignities as every black performer on the road then — the New Frontier in Las Vegas drained a swimming pool he’d been using after another guest complained. Though he marched with Dr. King and raised money for the cause, says Harry Belafonte, “His commitment was never really fully recognized historically.”
Playing himself on “All in the Family” he kissed Archie Bunker (“You’re being colored, I know you had no choice in that; but whatever made you turn Jew?”), to great cultural delight. To great cultural consternation, he hugged Richard Nixon — “I’ve Gotta Be Me” begins with Davis defending himself before a crowd of black activists (“Disagree if you will with my politics — good — but I will not allow anyone to take away the fact that I am black”), and going on to sing, yes, “I’ve Gotta Be Me” and bring them to their feet.
The fact is, all these seeming contradictions, his insecurity as much as his ability, gave him power as an artist; there is fantastic joy in his fast numbers, real hurt in his ballads. He drew from a great range of professional experience, having performed on the “Chitlin Circuit,” in vaudeville, in nightclubs, on the legitimate stage, on television, in movies, theaters and casinos. But raised in show business, performing with his father and “uncle” Will Mastin, he never spent a day in school or had the chance to play with other kids.
Watching Davis as Sporting Life in the 1959 film of “Porgy and Bess,” one laments the film musicals he never made, but his peak years as a performer dovetailed neatly with a golden age of television variety — he made his television debut on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1951 — and there is a lot of footage of him around, in performance and interviews. Even into the 1970s, it felt like you didn’t have to wait long to see him there.
Along with a raft of generically described writers and scholars giving historical perspective or their own impressions of what Davis must have been thinking about this or that, you get celebrity voices Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, the late Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak, whose brief affair with Davis in the late 1950s was reportedly crushed by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn with a threat of physical injury. Many of Davis’ peers are of course permanently unavailable for comment, but it would have been good to hear from younger artists he might have influenced, say, Savion Glover, who acted with Davis (and the late Gregory Hines) in Nick Castle’s 1989 film “Tap” and who has danced to Davis’ recording of “Mr. Bojangles.” Or from Shirley MacLaine, with whom he performed in the film of “Sweet Charity.”
Other omissions are stranger. Crystal is not only a fan but a fan who used to impersonate Davis — in blackface, to raise a contemporary sore point — on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s and as recently as the 2012 Academy Awards. Undoubtedly there are people who know Davis better through Crystal’s rendition than by the man’s own work. This is not mentioned at all, and though one can see that it might be distracting to discuss it, not to discuss it is distracting too.
Although he had the same hard reckoning with changing times as many performers of his generation — the ’60s and ’70s were not always kind to the singers of the ’40s and ’50s — Davis found a voice in some later material, including this film’s title song and “Mr. Bojangles,” a sentimental waltz he makes profound through identification.
“Performers who got hooked on junk, wiped out by alcohol, wiped out by changing of times,” Davis says of the song. “I’ve seen them disappear, great dancers, great stylists, and when I do that number some nights I say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s me, that’s how I’l be when I’m 70 years old … ‘I’ll be working little joints and I’ll talk about what I used to be and that’ll be the end of it.”
That is not the end of it. A tap battle between Davis and Hines is excerpted from a television tribute not long before Davis’ death from throat cancer at 65. It is worth waiting for.
‘American Masters:Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd