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Starring Sammy Davis Jr. As Mr. Show Business: Inspiring Stories And Facts

Entertainment | December 8, 2019

LOS ANGELES - 1953: Actress Marilyn Monroe leans on a Singer Automobile as she watches entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. on the set of the movie "How To Marry A Millionaire." (Photo by Frank Worth, Courtesy of Capital Art/Getty Images)

Few stars earned better or more deserved nicknames than Sammy Davis Jr., or "Mr. Show Business" as he was called.  A singer, dancer, and actor, Davis was an old-school entertainer, bon vivant and civil-rights influencer like none other -- taking calls from Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King, Jr. while plotting his next stage show or TV extravaganza. Perhaps no other celebrity faced as much adversity or lived as diverse a life as Mr. Show Business.

Born in Harlem to African American and Cuban parents, he got his first taste of show business when he was just three years old and never received formal schooling. The further the world gets from the life of Sammy Davis Jr., the more incredible his life appears in hindsight. Here’s to the life of the only self-proclaimed “Black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world." 

The School Of Hard Knocks

Life threw a lot of difficulties Sammy's way (clevelandfilm.org)

Sammy Davis Jr.’s parents split when he was very young. His father, afraid to lose him in a custody battle, took him on the road with him. Both his parents were vaudeville dancers and his education into the world entertainment began before he could fully speak. He learned to dance from his father and "uncle," Will Mastin.

Davis took to show business quickly and almost immediately became part of the act, which turned into the Will Mastin Trio. Those early years for Sammy were formative, educational, and sheltered. His older compatriots protected him from the virulent racism that was widespread at that time. But once he was drafted into the Army, his father and fellow performer could not shield him any longer. 

Turning The Other Cheek

It's hard to imagine anyone getting drafted today much less someone like Sammy Davis Jr. (blog.crownandcaliber)

If the first 18 years of Sammy Davis Jr.’s life built the foundation for his beloved performances, the next few would severely test his temperament and perseverance. Once drafted into the Army, Davis realized how safeguarded his unorthodox childhood had been, "Overnight the world looked different," he recalled. "It wasn't one color anymore. I could see the protection I'd gotten all my life from my father and Will. I appreciated their loving hope that I'd never need to know about prejudice and hate, but they were wrong. It was as if I'd walked through a swinging door for 18 years, a door which they had always secretly held open."

In the Army, Davis was beaten regularly, "I must have had a knockdown, drag-out fight every two days.” At five foot six and 120 pounds, Davis didn’t stand much of a chance. Eventually, he was transferred to the Army’s Special Services branch, which put on shows for the troops.

At times, he was performing for the same soldiers who viciously beat him and even urinated into his drinks. In the face of those hellish times, Sammy discovered his special abilities and their ability to turn the tide his way, "My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking." During his time in the military, he earned the American Campaign Medal and the World War II victory medal.

The Rat Pack Assembles

The notorious Rat Pack (hollywoodreporter)

After the military, Davis returned to the Mastin Trio but his undeniable talent started outstripping acts he was opening for, like Janis Paige. Crowds demanded Sammy; his act of singing and impressions gained critical acclaim. Davis had met Frank Sinatra as a teen opening for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra; they quickly rekindled their friendship and became fast friends. Alongside Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, they were first dubbed “The Clan.”

Naturally, Davis wasn’t a big fan of the name as it rang too close to the Ku Klux Klan. Sinatra relented and came up with a name almost as bad: the Summit. The group was actually descended from the Rat Pack, a larger, co-ed group (which had included Sinatra) of hard-partying Holmby Hills celebrities led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The five-man outfit led by Sinatra inherited the Rat Pack name, although it's said they didn't actually call themselves that.

Still Black In A Very Racist World

Davis persisted through it all, even after losing an eye! (blackgirlnerds)

Despite finding great success at an early age, Davis still was forced to face the loathsome behavior of the ‘60s. Although he was the headline act at The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas, Davis was not given a room in the hotel and was forced to stay outside the city. Black performers were banned from casino grounds when they weren’t performing and refused simple amenities like a changing room, food or drinks. Once Davis gained the leverage required, he refused to perform anywhere that practiced racial segregation. 

Branching Out And Breaking The Kiss Barrier

The kiss heard around the world (humorinamerica.wordpress)

After his singing success began to wane slightly, Davis found other outlets for his massive talent. He acted on Broadway, appeared on television shows, even hosted his own talk show. All the while he recorded songs. His last great musical hit was “The Candy Man” which made it to No.1 in 1972, but Davis was never proud of it and slightly embarrassed it received such praise. Nonetheless, ever the smart performer, Davis parlayed that hit into a host of appearances on television.

Perhaps his two most famous appearances included a pair of smooches. The first kiss was for the incorrigible Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor. After Bunker threw some racially insensitive comments toward Sammy, Davis blithely allowed them to roll off his back before planting a peck on Archie’s cheek. At that time, that kiss made waves around the country and hopefully, helped many people living in the dark see a black man as just that, a man.

His next kiss was equally famous and came on the NBC variety show “Movin’ with Nancy.” The show’s star was Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank. When Davis came on stage, Nancy greeted him with a kiss, which became one of the first interracial kisses in television history. In many respects, the tiny Sammy Davis Jr. played a similar role to baseball player Jackie Robinson in breaking so many color barriers.

Other Highlights And Lowlights

Sammy just wanted to be Sammy but the world wasn't ready. Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife May Britt (smithsonianmag)

The life of Sammy Davis Junior was truly unbelievable. So unbelievable it’s difficult to fit all the happenings into a single article. Here are some can’t miss facts and stories about Mister Show Business.

• Organized crime bosses threatened him over his relationship with white actress Kim Novak 1958. He asked for protection from Chicago mobster Sam Giancana who said he could only protect Davis in Chicago or Las Vegas. To appease these gangsters, Davis entered into a sham marriage with Loray White, which lasted a year. Reportedly, he paid White between $10,000 and $25,000 to go through with it.

• John F. Kennedy refused to let Davis appear or perform at his inauguration due to his marriage to a white woman, May Britt, at a time when interracial couples were still illegal in 31 states.

• In 1954, Davis nearly died in a car accident which left him blind in one eye. Ever the trooper, Davis believed that God had saved his life and converted to Judaism. That’s where his famous line being “The only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world" came from.

• Davis was very close to Sinatra despite the occasional racial joke Sinatra threw his way. In all likelihood, Davis understood the audience that Sinatra was forced to play to from time to time. However, Sinatra really watched over Sammy. Once he tore up his contract with a theater because they barred Davis from playing it. Sinatra also paid for Sammy’s medical bills from his near-death accident. 

Tags: Brat Pack | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Sammy Davis, Jr. | The Civil Rights Movement | US Military | What Did He Do?...

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!