Sammy Davis: I’ve Gotta Be Me

On the Sunday following the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shootings this past October we saw the documentary Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me at the Sabes Minneapolis Jewish Community Center. I mention the shootings because they accounted in part for the emotional reaction I refer to below. The film is finally to be broadcast tonight at 9:00 p.m. (Eastern) as part of the PBS American Masters series. This is what I wrote about the film this past October immediately after seeing it.

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I don’t recall a time when Sammy Davis, Jr. was not a celebrity along with the rest of the Rat Pack. Although I learned as a teenager that he had overcome obstacles galore on his way to the top — I read his memorable autobiography, Yes, I Can — the story stopped with his marriage to May Britt, and he left out a lot of the pre-Britt story in any event.

In 2003 the New York Times Book Review carried Gary Giddins’s review/essay on Davis and two biographies about him under a headline that alluded to Davis’s memoir: “Yes he could.” If you haven’t read it, please take a moment from your day to do so now. Giddins is a gifted writer; his essay is probably superior to either book. His take on Davis’s life was brilliantly sympathetic, and Davis’s life is worthy of consideration at least in part because of the great human story and in part because of the angle it provides on important pieces of American history.

Take, for example, Giddins’s account of the event that made Davis an overnight star after 20 years in vaudeville and on the road:

Davis had to wait until 1951 — after two decades on the road — for his breakthrough. Janis Paige was opening at Ciro’s, a much-publicized event and a good bet to be seen by Hollywood powers. As Paige had the only dressing room, the [Will Mastin] trio [including Davis and his father] was consigned to a corner of the attic. Still, it was the most elegant place they had ever worked. Fishgall [the author of the better of the two biographies under review] writes that Davis refused to rehearse at the club, not wanting to reveal the power of his performance and frighten the star. After one mock rehearsal, the owner said, “I still don’t know what you boys do. I’ll tell you what. You open the show, make it fast and take only one bow.” Paige’s contract forbade them from taking more than two bows. In the event, they took eight. A stunned Paige had the sense to reverse the order of the show; on the second night, she opened for the trio.

Or take his account of the event that made Davis a laughingstock — his hug of Richard Nixon and extraordinarily uncool endorsement of him for president in 1972:

[H]e embraced Nixon, a story with a personal dimension worth exploring. As vice-president, Nixon had attended the trio’s show at the Copa in 1954, introducing himself afterward and impressing Davis. In 1960, along with the Sinatra gang, Davis worked diligently to elect Kennedy, who treated him abominably. Fishgall says that he was disinvited from the inauguration so as not to upset the Dixiecrats; Haygood [the author of the other biography under review] recycles Richard Reeves’s account of Kennedy demanding May Britt be hidden at an unpublicized meeting of Negro leaders before photographers saw her. When, nearly a decade later, Nixon asked for his support, Davis felt honored.

The reaction among blacks especially was devastating, and Davis was horrified and confused by it. In Haygood’s account, Jesse Jackson requested a $25,000 contribution “for my charity” in return for repatriating Davis at a convention of Jackson’s organization, Operation PUSH. It didn’t work; insistent as he was, Jackson could not still the relentless booing as Davis stood silently. Fishgall, who says nothing about this financial transaction, quotes Davis’s response: “Nothing in my life ever hurt me that much” — not even, he said, the accident that cost him an eye. He never completely recovered…

The last story includes an element that has not yet receded entirely into history. Giddins’s reference to it is the only description I recall reading in the Times of Jesse Jackson’s long-perfected modus operandi.

The foregoing is a prelude to this preview. Over the weekend we went to see the penultimate film presented at the 10-day Twin Cities Film Festival that concluded on Sunday. We saw the film along with an emotional audience at the Sabes Minneapolis Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. The film is Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me; the trailer is below. It constitutes a forthcoming installment of PBS’s American Masters series. At not quite two hours, the film is simply too short to cover the story. On the other hand, it is penetrating. It lacks a dull second. It is riveting from beginning to end and so painful to watch it left most of the audience in tears. Keep an eye out for it. You won’t want to miss it.