On March 24, 1962, I got my first crush. I was 12 years old. Dad had taken Mom and me to the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle to see a one-man show put on by the greatest entertainer on earth. His charisma and joy performing filled the very air and I was so transfixed I snuck away from home and onto a bus after school on Monday to just sit in the lobby of his hotel.
On the night I saw him, Sammy Davis Jr. had dyed his hair dark red, converted to Judaism, and had recently married May Britt, a Swedish actress based in Hollywood.
He tap-danced even when doing backwards push-ups, sang with a deep luxurious texture, and did hilarious impressions of Brando, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bogart and Jerry Lewis. He played different instruments including the trumpet and the drums. His non-stop energy, intermittently fed by an on-stage supply of cigarettes and alcohol, was inspiring and mesmerizing. I either wanted to marry him or be like him.
The bio-doc, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta be Me” premiering Feb 19 on PBS, includes clips from his electric performances and a behind-the-scenes expose that even I, who followed Sammy throughout his career, was surprised to learn.
The most shocking and frustrating moment in the film is when Davis is interviewed about his military experience. Mean, sick behavior was perpetrated on him at 18 years of age that changed his psychology forever. It wasn’t about being just 5-foot-3, a challenge enough, but about being black. There was no guardian angel or army protocol to protect him from the vulgar cruelty of the white soldiers.
But never did a man try so hard to be accepted. He hoped that through his talent he could change hearts about him and about his race.
“Sammy” examines his psychology and life events. His early show biz life, beginning at three years of age, his estrangement from his parents, his lack of an education, his marriages and irresponsible lifestyle, his car accident, his friendship with Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and his foray into politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and his attempts at breaking barriers are all discussed in depth.
Kim Novak, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal are among the greats interviewed with insightful observations and commentary.
I still hunger for more information about his mother, his daughter, his adopted children and his wives. The bio does not include it all, but it is a grand introspective look at the best performer who ever lived.
PBS, as part of the American Masters series, will premiere “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me” on Feb. 19. On that day, it will also become available on DVD and on Feb. 20 via Digital release.
Director: Samuel D. Pollard
Writing credit: Laurence Maslon
Producers: Michael Kantor (executive producer), Nicole London (associate producer), and Sally Rosenthal
Film Editing: Steven Wechsler
Awards: 2019 Black Reel Award for Outstanding Independent Documentary, 2018 Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Best Documentary, 2018 Nashville Film Festival Special Presentation, 2018 Louisiana Film Festival Best Documentary and 2018 Cleveland International Film Festival Best Documentary.
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He lived as part of his own measured rhythm.