His nickname was Mr. Show Business, but Sammy Davis Jr. fondly called himself “the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.” Although he stood at a mere 5’6” and weighed only 120 pounds, Davis’ 60-year-long-career left a massive impression on the entertainment world. He starred in seven Broadway shows, appeared in 23 films including Ocean’s Eleven, regularly landed television roles and recorded dozens of albums. Although he died of throat cancer at the age of 64, his memory lives on as one of the greatest pop culture icons of the 20th century.
Samuel George Davis Jr. was born on December 8, 1925, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, with the infant initially raised by his paternal grandmother. Davis’s parents split up when he was 3 and he went to live with his father, who was working as an entertainer in a dance troupe. When his father and adopted uncle went on tour, Davis was brought along, and after learning to tap the three began performing together. They would eventually be dubbed the Will Mastin Trio.
Because of the group’s itinerant lifestyle, Davis never received a formal education, though his father did occasionally hire tutors while they were on the road. During their travels in the 1930s, the young Davis not only became an accomplished dancer but also a skilled singer, multi-instrumentalist and comedian and was soon the star of the show. Davis also made his first appearance in film during this time, dancing in the 1933 short Rufus Jones for President.
In 1943, at the height of World War II, Davis’s career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. Sammy was a slight man he directly experienced horrendous racial prejudice that his father had previously protected him from. He was constantly harassed and physically abused by white soldiers, with his fellow servicemen breaking his nose. He was also given the dirtiest and most dangerous assignments because he was a “Negro”. But Davis eventually found refuge in an entertainment regiment, where he discovered that performing allowed him a certain measure of safety and a desire to earn even a hateful audience member’s love.
During his teens, Sammy Davis Jr. first met Old Blue Eyes, when he helped open for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra — and Frank. The two became lifelong friends, enjoying a palpable chemistry both on and off stage. In fact, Sinatra was like a big brother to Sammy. In one instance, Sinatra tore up his contract when a theater barred Sammy Davis Jr. because of his race.
After the war, Davis resumed his showbiz career. He continued to perform with the Will Mastin Trio as the star of the act and also struck out on his own, singing in nightclubs and recording records. His career began to rise to new heights in 1947 when the trio opened for Frank Sinatra (with whom Davis would remain a lifelong friend and collaborator) at the Capitol Theatre in New York. A tour with Mickey Rooney followed, as did a performance after the Academy Awards that caught the ear of Decca Records, who signed Davis to a recording contract in 1954.
On November 19, 1954, Sammy Davis Jr. was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to record a soundtrack for the film Six Bridges to Cross. He never made it to the studio. Early that morning, his Cadillac collided with an automobile that backed out in front of him. He sustained massive injuries to his face, including a broken nose and damage to his left eye so severe that it had to be replaced with a plastic one. Life was different after Sammy Davis Jr.’s car accident. He believed that surviving the crash was a miracle and spent much of his recovery reflecting on his existence. While at San Bernardino hospital, he met a Jewish Chaplain and asked “a million questions about the miracle” of coming out of the accident alive. Although his parents were Christians, Sammy Davis Jr. was not deeply religious. But after learning about Judaism, he felt Jews and Blacks shared a similar history of oppression. Over the years, he studied more about the religion and eventually converted.
After SDJ had his car accident, Frank paid the medical bills. For Sammy, the admiration was mutual: “I wanted to be like him, I wanted to dress like him, I wanted to look like him, I took my hair and had it all done up, Sinatra style, with the little curl here and all.”
Davis’s injury did not slow his ascent. In 1955 his first two albums, Starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. Sings Just for Lovers, were released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, which in turn led to headlining performances in Las Vegas and New York as well as further appearances in films and on television shows, including Anna Lucasta (1958, with Eartha Kitt), Porgy and Bess (1959, with Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier) and The Frank Sinatra Show (1958). Around this time Davis made his Broadway debut as well, starring in the 1956 hit musical Mr. Wonderful alongside members of his family and another legendary dancer, Chita Rivera.
By 1960, Davis was a star in his own right. But he was also a member of the legendary Rat Pack, comprised of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey, the hard-partying superstars of the Las Vegas and Los Angeles nightclub scenes. He was a regular performer at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, but even his popularity could not save him from racial discrimination; he was not allowed to stay there because he was black. Hurt by such insensitivity, he refused to perform at venues which practiced racism.
Davis appeared with members of the pack in the films Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Davis was also a featured player in films outside of the pack, including A Man Called Adam (1966), having the titular role opposite Louis Armstrong. he was unforgettable in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity (1969, with Shirley MacLaine), in which Davis appeared as the charismatic, singing and strutting guru Big Daddy.
He was a regular performer at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, but even his popularity could The iconic performer also released a steady stream of albums on Decca and Reprise. (Davis was the first artist to be signed on the latter label, which was launched by Sinatra.) Davis was nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy for the song “What Kind of Fool Am I?” which reached the Top 20 of the Billboard pop charts as well. And Davis’s live stage work continued to earn him honors, as seen with his Tony Award–nominated performance in the 1964 musical Golden Boy.
In 1966, the entertainer hosted his own short-lived variety series, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. Years later, he played host again on the syndicated talk show Sammy and Company, from 1975-77.
Despite what appeared to be a free-swinging playboy lifestyle, a lifetime of enduring racial prejudice led Davis to use his fame for political means. During the 1960s he became active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and refusing to perform at racially segregated nightclubs, for which he is credited with helping integrate in Las Vegas and Miami Beach.
Davis also challenged the bigotry of the era by marrying Swedish actress May Britt at a time when interracial marriages were forbidden by law in 31 states. According to Davis’ 1989 biography, John F. Kennedy asked the entertainer not to participate in the 1961 Presidential inauguration, because the sight of the black entertainer alongside his wife, May Britt (who was white), would potentially anger Southerners. Being shunned by the president was a sore spot for SDJ, but those feelings were smoothed somewhat in 1987 when he was honored by the Kennedy Center.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the multitalented Davis continued his prolific output. He maintained his musical career, releasing albums well into the late ’70s and getting his first #1 chart hit with 1972’s “Candy Man.” Davis appeared in films such as 1981’s The Cannonball Run, with Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore, and 1989’s Tap, with Gregory Hines. He was also a guest on a wide variety of television shows, including the Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family and The Jeffersons as well as the soap operas General Hospital and One Life to Live. In 1972, the Rat Packer helped create one of TV’s most legendary moments — an on-screen kiss that appeared on the highly popular show All in the Family. The episode featured Sammy (as himself) visiting the Bunker household in order to retrieve a briefcase he left in Archie’s taxi. Although Archie makes several racist remarks throughout the show, Sammy keeps his cool and famously plants a smooch on Archie’s cheek before heading for the door. It was one of the show’s most famous episodes and went on to be nominated for two Emmys
Davis made another turn on Broadway during the summer of 1978 in Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, though overall some critics were turned off by what they perceived as hammed up appearances.
Davis was seriously involved with bombshell actress Kim Novak in the 1950s, though their union faced much harassment due to the racial climate of the day. Davis was ultimately married three times, first briefly to singer Loray White, then to Mae Britt in 1960, with the two having a biological daughter and two adopted sons. The couple divorced by the end of the decade and Davis remarried in 1970 to dancer Altovise Gore, who remained with him until his passing. They adopted another son as well.
A few years ago, reports surfaced that one of Sammy Davis Jr.’s adopted sons was actually his biological son. Fifty-five year-old Mark Davis said he first learned he was adopted after reading a Life magazine article in the 1960s that said the entertainer had adopted Mark around the age of two. But in 2013, Mark found his original birth certificate which listed Sammy Davis Jr. as his biological father. Much to his disappointment, however, a DNA test showed that Sammy Davis wasn’t his biological father. Maybe the distinction didn’t matter to Sammy. According to Mark, his father’s last words to him from his deathbed were: “You are my son.”
It’s no surprise that the world’s greatest entertainer had a passion for his work, but that passion often strained his relationship with his family. In a memoir about her father, his daughter, Tracy Davis, said her famous dad missed her fifth birthday party, and then tried to make it up to her by handing over a $100 bill. She also revealed that he skipped her college graduation and routinely lost track of her phone number. Although the two grew closer together later in life, for Tracy Davis, the scars remained. “I am not saying that he didn’t love us, but work was his driving force,” she said.
With the harshness of his early years not to be underestimated, Davis struggled throughout much of his life with addictions, succumbing to alcohol and drug abuse after his split with Britt and having a major gambling problem that ate up millions of dollars.
The entertainer published the well-known 1965 autobiography Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr. followed by Why Me? in 1980. Another autobiography, Sammy, was released posthumously in 2000, while the comprehensive Wil Haygood biography In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. was published in 2003.
But while his career continued, with the performer embarking on a lauded tour with Sinatra and Liza Minnelli during the late ’80s, Davis’s health began to fade. Davis was a heavy smoker, and in 1989 doctors discovered a tumor in his throat. The fall of that year he gave what would be his final performance, at the Harrah’s casino in Lake Tahoe. Shortly thereafter, Davis underwent radiation therapy. Though the disease appeared to be in remission, it was later discovered to have returned. On May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 64. Before his death he was honored by an array of his peers at a February television tribute. To pay for his funeral, most of his memorabilia was sold off.