He was the hippest Jew in showbiz and he brought blackness into the white homes of segregated America while entertaining everyone.
As a kid I was totally enamored of “The Rat Pack”, an unofficial club led by Sammy Davis Jr.‘s old friend Frank Sinatra and included fellow savvy performers Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Shirley MacLaine. Their gigs were often improvised and when one member of the Rat Pack was scheduled to give a performance, other members would show up for an impromptu show. The love I feel for this group and their shenanigans endures.
Davis started in vaudeville when he was just three years old, and despite the barriers of racism, he conquered Broadway, Recordings, Las Vegas, Films and Television. He was a major figure in the entertainment industry for more than 60 years.
52 years ago, Davis appeared on the television special Movin’ With Nancy, where he greeted the star, Nancy Sinatra, with a kiss on the lips. As far as I can discover in my research, this was the very first black-on-white kiss broadcast on American television.
As an African-American and a Hispanic, Davis suffered from overt racism throughout his entire life. Davis claimed that his mother was Puerto Rican, born in San Juan. But in truth, Davis’s mother was born in Manhattan to Cuban parents. Davis feared the anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his record sales. He was a presence and a large financial supporter of early Civil Rights causes, yet he had a complex relationship with the black community. He attracted a lot of criticism after physically embracing our favorite dick, Richard Nixon, during a photo-op at the White House in 1970.
One day on the golf course with entertainer Jack Benny, he was asked what his handicap was. Davis answered:
Handicap? I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.
He made his film debut in Rufus Jones For President (1932) when he was seven, where he tap dances with the greatest tapper who ever lived. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, holding his own.
Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18. He suffered dreadful abuse and torment from his fellow soldiers, and was transferred to an entertainment division. He then found himself performing in front of the same soldiers who had painted the word “coon” on his forehead. Davis:
It was horrible and very frightening. I couldn’t have a white buddy, and I’d always had white buddies. It was at least a year before I saw a black officer. You’d never see us black cats in those patriotic war movies, but, man, we was in the Army, we was fighting the war.
That’s when I got my nose broken. Somebody said, ‘Hey, nigger, stand in the back of the chow line’. That was the second time it was broken, out of maybe five times. It was a guy bigger than me. It wouldn’t be a guy my size. There aren’t many guys my size! But I knew how to fight. My dad and my friend Sugar Ray Robinson taught me. Everybody told me: ‘Just stay in your place. You can’t change the world’. But I kept saying: ‘I don’t want to change the world, I’d just like to change my part of it’.
Davis was just the sort of entertainer that I have always loved the very most. He could sing, act, dance, do impersonations, make audiences laugh and make them cry.
I once had a reliable Hollywood insider friend who insisted that Davis sometimes liked to get it on with guys. Davis himself took on the issue and stated:
“The truth is I’m not a homosexual, but I’m not ashamed to say I have had homosexual experiences. It was like drugs, which I’ve tried too. You make a choice. I was in the Army. I was 17 years old, and I was little. A friend warned me: ‘Hey, Sammy, don’t ever do anything that’d get you busted. Little cats don’t make it past the front door in prison’. I didn’t know what he meant. But, I learned in the Army.
I wish he had made it to his 94th birthday today. It would have been so groovy to have Davis as a guest on my Netflix Holiday Special, A Very Stephen Christmas!. Davis would have done his very swingin’ version of My Favorite Things, and then we would have done a duet of the now forbidden Baby, It’s Cold Outside, before joining Liza Minnelli for a medley of We Need A Little Christmas, It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, and Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. I would have really loved that.
While he was seen as a sellout by many African-Americans, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 and in 1966, he was given his own network television show, which was unprecedented at the time. Davis, who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day throughout his lifetime, died in 1990 from throat cancer after refusing treatment that would have ruined his voice. He was 64 years old.
Sammy Davis, Jr. is not just one of my favorite entertainers, he’s one of my idols.