Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.by Gary Fishgall
A major reappraisal of the life of legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., Gonna Do Great Things is at once an intimate portrait and an exuberant celebration of a wholly American icon. Through his multifaceted talent and personality, Sammy became one of the most magnetic and contentious figures in modern entertainment history. His outstanding talents as a dancer, singer, actor, impressionist, and comedian, combined with his close association with megastars and his interracial marriage, made him a celebrity in the truest sense.
Born in Harlem in 1925, Sammy debuted onstage with Will Mastin's vaudeville troupe when he was only three years old. He was an instant hit, and his talent propelled him into one of the most luminous entertainment careers of his generation. No one could please a crowd like Sammy, whose overwhelming energy and infectious humor exhilarated audiences for sixty years. However, Sammy's life was not without hardship, and his high-spirited attitude often masked a fragile ego. From an impoverished, broken home, he lacked even a single day of formal education, and the rigors of his blossoming show business career denied him the traditional pleasures of childhood. Racism constantly affected his life, particularly when he joined the army in 1943. Because he refused to acknowledge any race-related restrictions, his very existence became a political statement. An active member of the Civil Rights movement and America's first African-American superstar, Sammy paved the way for other black entertainers.
As a charter member of the Rat Pack, Sammy spent the 1950s and 1960s basking in an image of "cool" and endearing himself to the public. But by the 1970s he was relying on cocaine and alcohol, flirting with Satanism, indulging in scandalous sexual behavior, and becoming the punchline of jokes on Saturday Night Live. Though his fans still adored him, his performances suffered. A four-pack-a-day smoker, Sammy succumbed to cancer when he was sixty-four, shortly after celebrating six decades in the spotlight.
Renowned biographer of Hollywood giants Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, and Gregory Peck, Gary Fishgall brings an actor's and director's understanding of the entertainment industry to Sammy's complicated existence. Meticulously researched and filled with insights gathered from interviews with those who knew Sammy best, Gonna Do Great Things reveals the fascinating and controversial life of this beloved entertainer.
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Read an Excerpt
"Whata ya say we go camping?" a pal once asked Sammy Davis, Jr. "We'll rough it."
"Rough it?" the entertainer replied. "My idea of roughing it is when room service is slow."
The fact is, Sammy loved the good life. He relished palatial homes, good food, premium booze, fast cars, pretty women, fancy guns, and the latest in electronic gadgetry. If it was expensive, he wanted it. At home, he steeped himself in a treasure trove of quality merchandise. Not just for his own enjoyment, but also for that of his guests, for he was, indeed, a generous host who constantly surrounded himself with people. A journalist once likened his home to "Penn Station at rush hour."
When he traveled, he took his life with him. His fleet of suitcases and trunks -- naturally, by Gucci or the equivalent -- typically included a stereo record player and dozens of record albums, a motion picture projector and films (later replaced by a VCR and videotapes), photography equipment (later replaced by cooking paraphernalia), and, of course, clothes: outfits for every occasion imaginable, with hats ranging from Stetsons to derbies. As to the places he stayed, he was fond of saying, "They haven't built a hotel glamorous enough to suit me."
Keeping himself in the style to which he'd become accustomed was a costly proposition, but Sammy Davis was up to the challenge. "I'm not going to hang onto my money until I retire," he once said, "then sit back like an old man, burping, and say: 'I got $42 million in the bank, burp, burp.'" He raised spending money to the level of high art. He didn't just buy one suit at a time, or two or five. He bought twenty. He had enough watches to open his own store.His many pairs of shoes were housed in their own closet. And his jewelry collection -- rings, medallions, gold chains, and the like -- was legendary.
Davis was a collector of people as well. Hating to be alone, he made friends easily. As singer/actress Meg Myles put it, "Sammy treated everybody like a pal." He got a particular kick out of all the celebrities who were his buddies. His friendship with Frank Sinatra was a thing apart. But, at various times, he also hobnobbed with Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Kennedy clan, Richard Nixon, and Michael Jackson, to name just a few. He didn't take such relationships for granted; he'd think to himself with unabashed glee, "Hey, dig this: I'm having dinner with Elizabeth fucking Taylor. Cool, baby."
Of course, he was as big a celebrity as any of them. And, God, how he loved it. Being Sammy Davis, Jr., was the most important thing in the world to him. Not only did fame bring in the money that gave him the life he craved; it was a major kick. When he walked down the street in New York or anywhere else in the world and people called out, "Hey, Sammy," he knew that he was esteemed. He could never get enough adoration. As his friend Shirley MacLaine once put it, "Sammy was a man who would do anything to be loved, and we all knew it." Why else would he regularly perform on stage for two hours, two and a half hours, three hours or more -- when sixty to ninety minutes was expected? He didn't want to leave the stage because he didn't want the applause, the cheers, and the approval to end. He was so addicted to the spotlight, comedians liked to say, that when he opened his refrigerator, the light would come on, and he'd do twenty minutes.
Late in his life, Sammy told reporter Lerone Bennett, Jr., "I didn't like me." To which his friend actress Nichelle Nichols added, "There was a private Sammy that ached and resented the way the world worked."
His need for the limelight and the fans, the large coterie of friends, and the nonstop spending all seem symptomatic of a fragile ego, the origin of which can be traced directly to his childhood, which was anything but normal. From an impoverished, broken home, he lacked even a single day of formal education. Nor did he experience any of the traditional joys of youth -- sports, dances, hanging out with friends, dating. He also had to confront his tiny stature and unconventional facial features. Not to mention the color of his skin. Being black in a country where many people considered African Americans second-class citizens at best was his ultimate reality. The result: a man afraid to be alone, driven to succeed, wanting desperately to be chic, a nonstop fireball of energy with an overwhelming desire to please, to be where it was happening, to define who he was by what he owned -- and what he could accomplish.
Fortunately, Davis could do almost anything on a stage that people would pay to see. From the sixties on, he was best known as a song stylist. But he started his career as a hoofer, then added impressions of famous actors and singers, filled in with turns on the drums, the trumpet, and other musical instruments, and even threw in the occasional display of gunmanship, demonstrating his ability to draw, twirl, flip, toss, and catch a pair of six-shooters. The depth and breadth of his talent was overwhelming, all rendered with such force and energy that he left audiences breathless. Such was his skill that Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Charles Champlin once described him as "all the floats in the big parade, a cast of hundreds (it sometimes seemed) contained in one slight frame."
Davis also had the gift of gab, entertaining audiences with anecdotes about his life and his take on current events. Talking, in fact, may have been his single greatest skill. His ability to get on a stage and to present himself in a way that people found funny and endearing became the glue with which he appended all of his other talents. To be sure, he had a delightful sense of humor. His jokes, aimed first and foremost at himself, often had a racial cast, particularly from the sixties on.
But he did more than joke about race. When Martin Luther King, Jr., and his colleagues forced a nation to examine its conscience and change, Sammy became a familiar presence at rallies, marches, and demonstrations. He also gave generously to the cause. But his greatest contribution lay in who he was. Arguably the first African American superstar, he opened doors for the many other entertainers who followed. By refusing to acknowledge that there were places he couldn't go, things he couldn't do, people he couldn't befriend, date, or marry, his very existence became a political statement. Any time the world said, "You can't do this or that," Sammy said, "Yes, I can" and moved ahead undaunted, with his head held high. So much so that "Yes I Can" became the title of a tune written for him by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and the title of his first autobiography. It was the credo by which he lived his life.
During the heyday of the civil rights era, from the late fifties to the mid-sixties, the man was everywhere. Not just at sociopolitical events, but also in nightclubs, on records, at charity gigs, on television, at book signings, treading the Broadway stage. Everything he touched, it seemed, turned to the gold he craved so badly. He was a powerhouse entertainer, a charter member of the Rat Pack, and the epitome of cool. By the mid-seventies, however, the Sammy Davis persona was somewhat different: he was the cat who donned Nehru jackets, sported rings on every finger, and peppered his language with words like "groovy" and "far out" long after they were passé. He hugged Nixon and laughed too hard at unfunny jokes. He'd become so cool he was cold. Worse, he'd grown overly fond of cocaine, was addicted to booze, enjoyed kinky sex, and even dabbled in Satanism.
Sammy still had legions of devoted fans; his concert engagements still sold out. But his performances suffered. In time, he was able to kick the excesses -- except smoking and spending money. But the impression of a sycophantic Uncle Tom, epitomized by Billy Crystal's skits on Saturday Night Live -- rendered in black face, yet -- lingered. The worldwide idol was now an object of ridicule.
Who knows what further turns his life would have taken had Sammy Davis, Jr., pressed on into the nineties. But cancer cut short his life at the age of sixty-four.
Ironically, shortly before he died, he'd celebrated his sixth decade in show business at a gala carried on network television. It featured virtually a Who's Who of American entertainment. During those tumultuous years, Davis had known more triumphs -- and hurts and disappointments -- than most people could even imagine. Up or down, he remained a figure of great controversy. As Sammy himself observed, there "is something in my makeup that causes strong reactions, something makes people care about me." Although he was hailed for his talent, he was almost always vilified by somebody or other for something he said or didn't say, something he did or didn't do, or something someone thought he should have said or done. Why couldn't he stay in his place? they wanted to know. Did he want to be white? How dare he date a white movie star? Why didn't he stick to black women? Why did he spend so much money? How could he hang with Richard Nixon? Was he joking with that Jewish business? And on and on and on. An avid TV buff, Sammy knew what was being said about him. Many of the attacks hurt him badly, but he was who he was. The son of show folk, a child of show business himself, he was completely at home on a stage, in a concert hall, behind the mike in a recording studio, or in front of a television or movie camera. These realms are all about glamour and make-believe, fantasy and illusion. Daily life was another matter. There, it often helped to have a cool head, sound judgment, and the ability to postpone immediate gratification. Sammy was somewhat deficient in these areas. He was perhaps first getting a handle on the real world as he neared his sixth decade -- and shortly thereafter, he was gone.
But right or wrong, good or bad, he was Sammy Davis, Jr. He was a husband, a father, and a very good friend. He was a complex human being: driven, loving, insecure, generous, needy, kind, thrilled with his life and yet never fully satisfied. He was a civil rights pioneer and a humanitarian. But, above all, he was, as it says on his tombstone, an entertainer, one whom comic Alan King called "the greatest entertainer of all."
Perhaps his friend, television producer George Schlatter, put it best: "Sammy was a phenomenon. There was never anything like him before and there hasn't been anything like him since. There were people who approached it in different areas before. There was Bill Robinson. There was certainly Nat Cole. There were singers, there were dancers, there were comedians. No one performer encompassed it all the way Sammy did. Sammy created the need for new superlatives. Just talented, just genius, just legend doesn't quite cover it, because the totality of what made up Sammy Davis, the story -- his beginnings, his early life, his experiences in the army, the environment, the climate, the evolution of show business, and the evolution of the black race -- all came together to create this phenomenon. The phenomenon that became known as Sammy Davis, Jr."
This is that story.
Copyright © 2003 by Gary Fishgall
Meet the Author
Gary Fishgall is the author of Gregory Peck: A Biography, Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart, and Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster. He has been an actor, director, drama critic, and reporter. He lives in St. Louis.
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