Sammy Davis Jr.
(1925 - 1990)
Son of a black vaudeville star and a Puerto Rican dancer,
Sammy Davis Jr. became a world-class actor, singer and dancer. At the
age of four he starred in a short act called "Will Mastin's Gang,
featuring Little Sammy."
In 1932 he made his debut in the Warner Brothers film Rufus Jones for President. Davis played the part of Rufus, a
little boy who dreams of becoming President one day. He continued appearing
with the Will Maustin Gang throughout the 1930s.
In 1943 he was drafted to serve in a Special Forces
unit during World War II. Davis' autobiography Sammy: An Autobiography,
describes in detail the racial prejudice he encountered during his years
in the army. This racial prejudice continued throughout his career and
lifetime. After the war he was supposed to be cast with Elvis Presley,
another war veteran, for Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. At
the last minute the casting was changed, however. Presley later confided
to Davis that the change of casting was racially motivated.
Despite these challenges, Davis' career flourished.
In 1946 he recorded "The Way You Look Tonight" with Capitol
Records. A few years later he opened for Frank Sinatra at the Capitol
Theatre in New York. Sinatra and Davis continued their friendship for
Soon after, Davis landed a tour with Mickey Rooney
and appeared with Bob Hope in a benefit show. The three performers appeared
together at Circo's in Hollywood and on the Colgate Comedy Hour.
Davis appeared solo at the Capacabana in New York, and was discovered
by Decca Records in 1954. He released two albums with Decca Records: Starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Just for Lovers.
Davis' career took off in the mid-50s. He appeared
on Broadway with the Will Mastin Trio (formely the Will Mastin Gang)
in 1956 in Mr. Wonderful. He made solo appearances on the Ed
Sullivan Show. He performed in The Benny Goodman Story (1955)
and Porgy and Bess (1959). His "Rat-Pack" group of
Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford starred with
him in Ocean's Eleven (1960), Sergeants Three (1962), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964). Davis also starred
in two serious dramas of Anna Lucasta (1958) and A Man Called
Adam (1966). He appeared again on Broadway in 1964 in a musical
version of Clifford Odets drama Golden Boy. In 1972 Davis made
a No. 1 hit on the Top 40 charts with "Candy Man."
In 1954 he almost died in a car accident where he lost
his left eye. While in the hospital, his friend Eddie
Cantor enlightened him on the similarities between the Jewish and
black cultures. Davis converted to Judaism after reading Paul Johnson's A
History of the Jews in the hospital. One paragraph about the
ultimate endurance of the Jewish people intrigued him in particular:
"The Jews would not die. Three centuries 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."1
As an African-American, his later affiliation with Judaism sometimes caused him personal
anguish. The Jewish community never fully embraced him as a member.
After his marriage to Swedish actress May Britt and involvement in the
Republican Party, the African-American community ostracized him.
Sammy Davis Jr. continued performing well into the
1980s, despite heavy drinking and drug use which contributed to his
poor health. In the early 1980s he performed in two Cannonball Run films with Dean Martin. In 1989 he performed in the movie Tap with Gregory Hines and then traveled on tour with Frank Sinatra and
He died from throat cancer in 1990.
Sources: Biography.com; Hollywood.com; Jewhoo; All About Jazz (February 2001)
Chris M. "The Life and Times of Sammy
Davis Jr." All
About Jazz. February 2001. p.