TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Eleven — Sammy Davis, Jr.

Mr. Entertainment.

Sammy Davis, Jr., wasn’t just a singer, or a musician, a dancer, or an actor. He wasn’t just a star.

He was a superstar.


In Harlem, New York, on December 8, 1925, Samuel George Davis, Jr., was born into a show business family. His father, Sammy Davis, Sr., was a dancer in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland, an “all-colored” vaudeville revue, and his mother, Elvera, was a member of the chorus. His parents split up when Sammy was two years old, and he joined the act headlined by his father and “Uncle” Will Mastin, billed as “Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget.” By the time he was 15, he’d crossed the United States 23 times with the touring act.

During World War II, Davis was assigned to one of first integrated units in U.S. military history, and was confronted with racism for the first time in his life, enduring both verbal and physical attacks from some of his fellow soldiers. After first trying to fight back with his fists, he later tried battling with his talent, making his adversaries laugh with his impressions of James Cagney, James Stewart and others.

The Will Mastin Trio.

After serving in World War II, Davis reunited with his father and Mastin (the three were now billed as the Will Mastin Trio), and began adding singing and comedic impressions to his repertoire. In March 1952, the Will Mastin Trio opened for Janis Page at the popular Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood. Davis turned in a tour de force, complete with singing, dancing, vaudeville impressions, jokes, and playing every instrument in the band. The act was supposed to only last 20 minutes, but Davis performed for nearly an hour. His career took off after this, and a short time later, he was signed to a longtime contract with Decca Records.


  • Davis made his screen debut in Rufus Jones for President, a 1933 Vitaphone short.
  • In 1941, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., were on the same bill at a venue in Detroit. Sinatra introduced himself to Davis. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.

    With second wife May Britt.

  • Davis lost his left eye in a car accident in San Bernadino in 1954, while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Less than three months later, wearing an eye patch, he returned to Ciro’s, where he performed before a star-studded crowd that included his friends Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Humphrey Bogart. He was later fitted with a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.
  • Davis’s second wife was Swedish actress May Britt. They married in 1960, deliberately postponing their wedding day until after the presidential election that year. Davis had campaigned for John F. Kennedy and didn’t want the interracial marriage to impact Kennedy’s election chances. Davis was rewarded by being uninvited to the all-star Kennedy inaugural; Kennedy’s aides reportedly didn’t want to offend Southern politicians by having Davis and Britt there.

    At the 60th Anniversary Celebration.

  • In February 1989, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration aired on ABC-TV. Produced by George Schlatter (of Laugh-In fame), the gala featured an impressive litany of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Goldie Hawn, Ella Fitzgerald, Lola Falana, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine, Magic Johnson, Whitney Houston, Nell Carter, Quincy Jones, Clint Eastwood, Dionne Warwick, Diahann Carroll, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Mike Tyson (huh?), Stevie Wonder, and Jesse Jackson (who performed the ceremony at Davis’s marriage to his third wife, Altovise, and also performed the eulogy at his funeral). The event marked the last time that Davis danced in public – he did an impromptu tap number with Gregory Hines, who kissed his shoes at the end of the number. Davis died the following year of throat cancer, at the age of 64.


Catch Sammy in Anna Lucasta. I know I will.

As big of a Sammy Davis, Jr., fan as I am, I have to confess that I’ve never seen one of his films. Oh, I’ve seen clips from Rufus Jones for President, Porgy and Bess, and a few others, but I’ve never seen a feature film starring Sammy Davis, Jr., from beginning to end. I plan to remedy that on his Summer Under the Stars Day with several features, but I’m most looking forward to seeing Anna Lucasta (1958), a drama starring Eartha Kitt in the title role. I remember coming across a still from the film one day while looking for photos of Kitt. I wondered then what the movie was about; I look forward to finding out. (Also, if you have any recommendations, please let me know.)

And join me tomorrow for Day 12 of Summer Under the Stars!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 10, 2020.

9 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Eleven — Sammy Davis, Jr.”

  1. The double bill of the evening with Anna Lucasta and A Man Called Adam are both excellent dramas. Like the best of that genre, the talented cast make you feel and it is not a happy feeling. Although, it is not contradictory to say “enjoy.”

    We watched Rufus Jones for President recently and it is incredible to see little Sammy already more talented than just about any other three people on the planet.

    New to me today will be Convicts 4 and I’m looking forward to it.

    • Little Sammy was a pip! What did you think of Convicts 4, Paddy?

      • I thought Convicts 4 was well-acted, particularly with Sammy and Ben. Stuart Whitman had a nice quiet authority and Ray Ralston was a tad OTT.

        The story is an interesting one, but something about the script felt half-baked. Perhaps it wasn’t the script at all, but the cheap production values. My first viewing, but something was off.

        • I struggled with Convicts 4, too. Everything was getting on my nerves, LOL. I do like the fact that it was based on a true story, though — I always love finding out more information after I see these movies.

  2. Wishful thinking but it would have been wonderful if TCM could have gotten a one-time only permission from (the Goldwyn Estate? the Gershwin Estate? the Hayward Estate?) to air PORGY AND BESS.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post on Sammy Davis, Jr. I had the tv on from “One More Time” through most of “Tap”. My highlights were also “Anna Lucasta” and “A Man Called Adam”. (Note: The 1959 ”Porgy and Bess” is available on YouTube. I’m going to try to watch it there before someone takes it down)

  4. […] Day 11: Sammy Davis, Jr. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: