Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sammy Davis Jr.---Short in Stature, but a Showbiz Giant

A few days ago I watched the David Letterman 5th year anniversary show from 1987. This was Dave's NBC 12:35 am show that followed Johnny Carson. One of his guests was Sammy Davis Jr. I realized that this was only 3 years prior to Sammy's death, but he looked and sounded as good as ever.

Sammy Davis Jr. packed a lot of living into his too short 64 years on earth. At age 4, in 1929, he started performing with his father, Sammy Davis Sr. and his adopted uncle Will Mastin. They would travel to Vaudeville theatres and little Sam learned the ropes of how to be a performer. In 1933, at age 8, he acted in 2 short films, Rufus Jones for President and Seasoned Greetings. Due to being on the road as a kid, he never had formal education.

In 1954 he was involved in a car accident that caused him to lose one of his eyes. He wore an eye patch for awhile but then decided to have a glass eye implanted. At this time he converted to Judaism.

He developed into a multi-talented powerhouse who could sing, dance, act and play the drums. He had a lot of talent and personality packed into a 5'5" frame. He was a member of the showbiz fraternity known as The Rat Pack with fellow stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

During his stint in the military and afterwards, Davis fought against the closed minded racists that he came across. He once heard someone complaining about discrimination, and he said, "You got it easy. I'm a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it's like for me?"

He had many hits as a singer including The Candy Man, which was a #1 hit, Mr. Bojangles, I've Gotta Be Me, What Kind of Fool Am I, and many others. He acted in many films, some with the Rat Pack guys and some without. He appeared in Ocean's Eleven (the Rat Pack version, long before the George Clooney film), Robin and His Seven Hoods, Cannonball Run, and his final film, Tap. In his final movie he starred with another renowned tap dancer, Gregory Hines.

Like his fellow Rat Pack member Frank Sinatra, there were rumors of Davis Jr.'s ties to the mob. But, in the early days of showbiz, the mob had ownership of many of the nation's largest entertainment venues. So, entertainers could not help but have affiliations with the world of organized crime. Jerry Lewis wrote about this in his book "Dean and Me: A Love Story". Martin and Lewis were regulars at New York's Copacabana, owned by mobsters.

Davis made a lot of money over the years, but also lost a lot. He was notorious for being a Las Vegas high roller. When he died in 1990, he was deep in debt to the IRS. It was said that he earned $50 million over his lifetime but died with debts totalling $10 million. After his death, his family liquidated his estate and his last wife lived in poverty (Altovise Davis). According to an NPR interview with a Davis biographer, Sammy was a fantastic performer, but a rotten parent. He was distant with his kids and after his death there was considerable turmoil in his family battling over his possessions.

He was married 3 times and he had 4 children. Michael Jackson said that he idolized Davis for his massive talent. He was a regular on the Jerry Lewis telethon. Davis was a star of Broadway, film, TV and live performances. He appeared in a memorable episode of All in the Family where he kissed bigot Archie Bunker on the cheek just as their photo was being taken. He also appeared with Sherman Hemsley in The Jeffersons. His other TV appearances included: The Cosby Show, Batman, Laugh-In, One Life to Live, General Hospital and The Patty Duke Show. He died of throat cancer in 1990. He died on the same day as Muppets creator Jim Henson.

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