From the Archives: Consummate Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. Dies at 64
Sammy Davis Jr., the quintessential showman embraced by his peers as “Mr. Entertainment” for his enormous talent and versatility, died early Wednesday morning at his home in Beverly Hills after a nine-month battle with throat cancer.
Death came as friends and fans of the diminutive, 64-year-old entertainer maintained a vigil outside his home. They had been gathering there since Tuesday when word began to circulate that the end was near.
The tributes were immediate:
Frank Sinatra, who with Davis, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford became Hollywood’s fast-living “Rat Pack” of the 1960s and who knew him for 40 years, said he “wished the world could have known Sam as I did. . . . It was a generous God who gave him to us for all these years . . . . Sam was the best friend a man could have.”
Said Bishop: “Guess they must need a good show up in Heaven, that’s all I can say.” Then he added, “God I’m sorry. I loved him.”
Martin hailed Davis as a great entertainer and “an even greater friend, not only to me, but to everyone whose life he touched.”
Former President Ronald Reagan remembered him as “a special talent which made him more than just a great entertainer--it made him magical.” Comedian Bill Cosby said that “it would have been fantastic to see him at age 82 still enjoying performing for the people. I’ll see him later.”
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley—who counted Davis among his friends and political supporters—ordered the city’s flags flown at half staff.
Davis had battled the cancer in his throat since September, when a tumor was discovered growing behind his vocal cords. He began a series of radiation treatments that left his skin discolored and raw enough to bleed when he touched his throat.
When his illness became known, fans around the world deluged him with letters letting him know that he was in their prayers.
Show business friends from Sinatra and Cosby to Liza Minnelli and Steve Lawrence rallied to his side, putting themselves at his disposal. A month before the cancer was detected, Davis, Sinatra and Minnelli (filling in for an ailing Dean Martin) had been on a reunion tour, bringing sellout audiences to their feet.
His friends’ affection for the man who enjoyed describing himself as a “little one-eyed colored guy” was nowhere more evident than during a television tribute earlier this year, commemorating his more than six decades in show business.
Said singer Whitney Houston, a guest on the televised tribute taped last year: “He helped to break down the color barriers. I think he fought the battle for the rest of us.”
Davis would have been the first to acknowledge that he was but one soldier among generations of troops who assaulted color barriers. Nonetheless, he determinedly fought his battles with whatever weapons were available, including one that he felt the haters could not withstand—his talent.
Whether dancing with his father and uncle on countless television guest spots, captivating movie audiences as Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess,” singing his way through “Mr. Wonderful” on Broadway, or finding a hit song and a theme in “Candy Man,” Davis brought an exuberance to every performance.
His versatility was such that he could go on a bare stage alone and weave a stunning evening of entertainment with song, dance, impressions and comedy.
“This is what I want on my tombstone,” he once told an interviewer:
“Sammy Davis Jr., the date, and underneath, one word: ‘Entertainer.’ That’s all, because that’s what I am, man.”
Behind Davis’ superb stagecraft, however, and despite the adoration of faithful fans, Davis was for much of his life a man at war with himself.
He buried his pain in alcohol and cocaine—chasing the delusion that his “swinging” lifestyle somehow compensated for his two divorces, his estrangement from his children, and his futile efforts to become what he thought others expected him to be.
“I didn’t like me,” Davis told an interviewer in 1989. “So it made all the sense in the world to me at the time that if you don’t like yourself, you destroy yourself.
“The monkey on my back is that I created a lifestyle that was no good for me. My life was empty. I had drugs, booze and broads, and I had nothing.”
He had to fight his way through what he has called “the tortures of the damned,” and he credited Altovise, his wife of 20 years, with helping him make a turnaround.
“She was there for me,” he said. “She gave me all the support in the world.”
The turnaround began when doctors told him in 1983 that his stomach and liver were so damaged that he would die soon if he didn’t stop drinking. He stopped. In 1984 and 1985, he underwent hip replacement surgery.
But he returned to dance again and charmed movie fans as Little Mo, the veteran hoofer with still enough moves to accept a “challenge” dance, in the 1989 film “Tap.”
The drinking was only one of his excesses. He spent money just as easily.
During his illustrious career, he had earned millions and spent or given away more. And by the 1980s, the Internal Revenue Service was clamoring for unpaid millions in taxes it said he owed.
Davis also shamelessly gushed over every guest on his television shows. And his ostentation became a trademark. If one gold ring was good, four had to be better.
Try as he might to win love with his talent, his public persona had become an easy target--grist for a devastating (and, he said, all too accurate) impersonation by comedian Billy Crystal.
But if his excesses were obnoxious to some, Davis, the individual, was a monument to generosity for others. He marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala., played benefits for Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, and helped raise funds to investigate the Atlanta child murders.
Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, remembered him Wednesday as “a humanitarian whose heart was so big . . . that it dwarfed his frame.”
Hooks, in a statement, called attention to Davis’ accomplishments “in the struggle of African-Americans,” much of which “was not widely known . . . .”
Coretta Scott King called him “not only one of the greatest performing artists of our age” but “an ardent, tireless supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement . . . .”
Davis would break into his schedule to play a benefit for a blind ex-fighter or sell bonds for Israel. Even as his bank account slid toward empty, he was contributing thousands of dollars to his child’s school.
This consummate entertainer whose career has been described as a series of radical mood swings was born Dec. 8, 1925, in Harlem, N.Y., where his father was lead dancer and his mother, Elvera (Sanchez) Davis, was in the chorus of a vaudeville troupe headed by his adopted uncle, Will Mastin.
When the act went on the road, Davis remained with his paternal grandmother, Rosa (Mama) Davis, who raised him until his parents divorced. His father took custody, and by age 3 a mugging little Sammy had made his stage debut.
He learned to dance by watching routines from the wings, and the rhythms from his flashing feet soon became a popular addition to the act. He made his film debut in 1933, at age 7, in “Rufus Jones for President,” a comedy in which a boy dreams he is elected President.
Davis never attended school. His father and Mastin hired tutors—especially when truant officers applied pressure—to teach the youngster the three Rs. That irregular instruction and Davis’ later friendship with a U.S. Army sergeant who loaned him books and taught him remedial reading was as close as he came to formal education.
Mastin’s troupe, which had included 12 members, began to shrink with the decline of vaudeville and eventually was reduced to “The Will Mastin Trio, Featuring Sammy Davis Jr.”
Touring in the 1930s and ‘40s, the trio often could not find hotels that would rent rooms to blacks or restaurants that would serve them. But it was not until Davis was drafted into the Army’s first integrated unit at age 18 that he ran into the naked racism never far beneath the surface of World War II America.
During basic training in Wyoming, he was beaten, kicked and spat upon by bigoted whites in his barracks. Describing those days in his best-selling 1965 biography, “Yes, I Can,” Davis said his knuckles were covered with scabs from fighting racists during his first three months in the Army.
Perhaps the ugliest incident occurred when a group of white enlistees decided to teach him a lesson for being too familiar with a white female officer.
Davis said they lured him to a remote spot on the base, where they beat him and painted racial slurs on his chest and forehead. They forced him to tap dance and smeared more white paint over his body, only to remove a spot to demonstrate that beneath the paint he was still “just as black ‘n’ ugly as ever.”
The pain of that incident motivated him to pump even more energy into his performances at camp shows. He felt that his sheer talent could reach the haters, “neutralize them,” force them to recognize him as a person.
He used an audience’s affection as fuel, and he made no secret of his “joy of being liked.” And he would work himself to exhaustion to please an audience, friends said, in a futile effort to make the world love him--to erase the brutal memories of his Army experiences.
Davis rejoined his father and uncle after the war, but the trio led a hand-to-mouth existence as vaudeville died and they tried breaking into nightclubs. They worked hotels in Las Vegas, where they could neither register as guests nor enter the casinos because they were black.
Some New York City clubs would not allow him to enter, and he needed a special permit just to be on the streets of Miami Beach at night when he performed there.
But Davis continued to increase his repertoire—adding trumpet, drums, celebrity impressions—as the trio crisscrossed the country, taking whatever dates they could find.
In 1946, Metronome magazine named him “Most Outstanding New Personality” on the strength of his Capitol recording of “The Way You Look Tonight,” the magazine’s selection as record of the year. Davis recorded it under a deal paying him $50 a side for each recording.
During the next two years, the trio appeared with headliners such as Mickey Rooney, Sinatra and Bob Hope. Jack Benny later intervened to get them a booking at Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood where they opened for singer Janis Paige. The audience would not let them off—or Paige on—stage. The next night, Paige was the opening act for the Will Mastin Trio.
The group’s later appearance on Eddie Cantor’s NBC television show was such a hit that they became the comedian’s summer replacement.
By 1954, when Davis released his first album under a contract to Decca Records, his father and Mastin had become background accompaniment to his soaring performances.
With Davis as its centerpiece, the trio sold out clubs from Los Angeles to New York, and the group was in constant demand for guest spots on television variety shows.
Davis’ on-target impersonations of Jimmy Cagney, Jerry Lewis and Jimmy Stewart were a revelation to audiences who simply had never imagined a black performer being able to so accurately capture a white celebrity’s character.
But it all nearly ended in November, 1954, in a car crash on a stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles that cost him his left eye. During his recuperation at a San Bernardino hospital, he said, he began thinking seriously about religion and converted to Judaism.
Once out of the hospital, he was in even more demand. And contract offers began a steady march upward through five figures for a week’s work. In 1956, he made his Broadway debut in “Mr. Wonderful,” a musical comedy created for him.
By the late 1950s, the Will Mastin Trio had broken up, but Davis continued dividing his income with his father and uncle for months—some friends say years.
He became a member of Hollywood’s so-called “Rat Pack” and made six of his 23 movies with them, beginning with “Ocean’s Eleven” in 1960 and ending with “One More Time” in 1970.
After a brief marriage to dancer Loray White in 1959, Davis married Swedish actress May Britt in 1960. The couple had a daughter, Tracey, and adopted two sons, Mark and Jeff. The couple divorced in 1968, and two years later Davis married dancer Altovise Gore. They adopted a son, Manny, last year.
During his marriage to Britt, his celebrity could not shield him from white anger and black consternation.
Davis noted in an interview with Playboy magazine that his mother was Puerto Rican.
“So I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored and married to a white woman,” he said. “When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time.”
He was bitterly criticized in 1972, during the Republican National Convention in Miami, for hugging Richard M. Nixon. To many black Americans, the photo of that incident was eloquent testimony to what they saw as Davis’ misplaced values.
That criticism, however, wasn’t as painful as the rejection that came his way from John F. Kennedy, whose candidacy he had tirelessly supported.
Davis had been invited to Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, but the invitation was rescinded a few days after it was offered because the Kennedy camp felt Davis and his white wife might anger Southerners.
“The guy I ran with is the man that told me, ‘Don’t come to the White House cause you’ll embarrass me’ because I was married to a white woman,” Davis said in a 1987 interview. “And I had to accept that. But that was the man I campaigned for, and went all out for. That was John Kennedy.”
By now Davis was a fixture in the firmament of American stars. Before his “Rat Pack” movies, he had appeared in “The Benny Goodman Story,” co-starred with Eartha Kitt in “Anna Lucasta” and won rave notices as Sportin’ Life in the film version of “Porgy and Bess.”
He returned to the stage in the mid-1960s in a musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” a production that ran for 568 performances before closing in March, 1966.
Davis, meanwhile, had remained busy in films, producing the forgettable “A Man Called Adam” with his own company in 1966. He also appeared as revivalist Big Daddy in “Sweet Charity” and performed in the 1972 documentary “Save the Children.”
While moving between stage, television and movies, Davis also recorded dozens of albums and released several hit singles, including his all-time top-seller, “Candy Man.”
His was a familiar face in America’s living rooms as he turned up on television in shows ranging from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” to the soap opera “One Life to Live.” He hosted several specials of his own, sat in for Johnny Carson and did the brief and ill-fated “Sammy Davis Jr. Show” on NBC from 1965 to 1966.
He was a smash hit in “Sammy,” a television retrospective of his first half-century in show business. But his second try at a network show, “NBC Follies,” was canceled midway through the 1973-74 season.
Last year he published a second biography, “Why Me?” co-written, as was his best-selling first book, with Jane and Burt Boyar. In interviews discussing the new book, he acknowledged that racial prejudice had profoundly affected him.
He poignantly told a story of a man coming to his table at a nightclub to greet him after he had become an international celebrity. The man was the very person who had refused him admission to the same club some years before.
He felt he should have told the man “to get away from me with his hypocrisy.” But he was silent.
“So I went home and threw up,” he said. “I had stifled my own feelings and made myself sick. That night I vowed: ‘I’ll never let that happen again.’ ”
He said he began to fight the subtle prejudices he encountered, whether it was fellow board members of a company being surprised that he could do more than sing and dance, or making it clear to guests at a party that he could talk about more than what Carson or Sinatra are “really like.”
Still, by his own admission, he had mellowed in the last five years.
He overcame what he called his obsession with his career even as he was being increasingly called upon to accept yet another honor for his body of work or for his commitment to various social and political causes.
“I’ve been looking inward,” he said last year. “I’ve been counting my blessings. I no longer feel I have to do it all. I don’t yearn to be at the top of the mountain.”
Davis is survived by his wife, four children and two grandchildren. His mother and a sister also survive. Services are scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills. Burial will follow at Forest Lawn, Glendale.
The family suggested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Sammy Davis Jr. National Liver Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.
Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this obituary.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.