Samuel George "Sammy" Davis Jr. (December 8, 1925 May 16, 1990) can lay claim to being one of the most successful "triple-threat" entertainers in American history. As a singer, dancer, comedian, actor, celebrity impersonator, photographer, and member of the Rat Pack, Davis entertained audiences on stage, screen, and disc for more than four decades, and is still fondly remembered by legions of fans.
Born to vaudeville dancers Sammy Davis Sr. and Elvera "Baby" Sanchez in Harlem, he learned to be a performer from a very early age, and performed with his father and uncle in the Will Mastin Trio. Davis also faced racism from a very early age, especially when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was eventually assigned to a Special Services unit that performed shows for the troops, and found that he faced less prejudice on stage.
After being discharged, Davis released a series of acclaimed albums, which included hits like "Love Me or Leave Me", "Something's Gotta Give", "What Kind of Fool Am I", and "I've Gotta Be Me" among others. This culminated in him being brought on board by Frank Sinatra to be a part of the Rat Pack in 1959. The group would go on to be one of the defining groups of the '60s, via their stage performances and collaborative appearances in films like Ocean's Eleven and Robin and the Seven Hoods. This would also effectively end segregation in Las Vegas, as Sinatra refused to perform anywhere Sammy wasn't welcome or blacks couldn't come to watch the show. During this period, Davis was performing with the Pack, starring in Broadway productions, recording, shooting his own daytime talk show and appearing in several variety specials. This multidisciplinary career lasted through the '70s and early '80s, punctuated by a upsurge in interest when his version of "The Candy Man" (the opening theme to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) became a smash hit and revitalized his work.
Aside from his film and musical work, Davis appeared as a notable guest on several television shows and TV movies, including cameos on All in the Family, Batman (1966), Charlie's Angels, The Cosby Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Sanford among others. Davis passed away from throat cancer at the age of 64 on May 16, 1990, the same day as another beloved performer — Jim Henson.
- Porgy and Bess (1959), as Sportin' Life
- Ocean's 11 (1960), which starred the other members of the Rat Pack, as Josh Howard
- Johnny Cool (1963), as Educated
- Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), also starring the Rat Pack, as Will
- Sweet Charity (1969), as Big Daddy
- Salt and Pepper (1968) and its sequel One More Time, as Charles Salt
- The Cannonball Run (1981) and its sequel, as Morris Fenderbaum
- Alice in Wonderland (1985) as the Caterpillar
Tropes embodied by Davis and his work include:
- As Himself:
- In a famous episode of All in the Family ("Sammy's Visit"), and again in the Archie Bunker's Place episode "The Return of Sammy".
- In the Batman (1966) episode "The Clock King's Crazy Crimes".
- In the Charlie's Angels episode "Sammy Davis, Jr. Kidnap Caper".
- In the TV movie Sammy Davis Jr.: The Golden Years.
- In The Patty Duke Show episode "Will the Real Sammy Davis Please Hang Up?"
- In "The Benefit" episode of Sanford, and in "Dinner at George's" episode (which he co-directed) playing an uncredited extra as one of the diners at the restaurant.
- The Caper: A main plot point in many of the films he appeared in.
- Celebrity Endorsement: Notably shilled for Alka-Seltzer, Suntory Whiskey, a Chicago car dealership and President Richard Nixon's 1972 election campaign, although the last example backfired when he ended up being publicly chewed out for it by his fans.
- Celebrity Paradox:
- At the end of Oceans 11, Davis and the rest of the Rat Pack (who are playing a group of thieves) walk past a marquee advertising the Rat Pack's show.
- In the aforementioned Charlie's Angels episode, Davis plays a liquor-store owner who wins a Sammy Davis, Jr. lookalike contest, and is given an award by... Davis, which is filmed in split-screen.
- Celebrity Star
- Eye Scream: He nearly died in a car crash in 1954, and lost his left eye when the car's horn button punctured it.
- Glass Eye: After the crash mentioned above, he wore one for the rest of his life.
- Good Luck Charm: Davis became friends with Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor in 1953, and Cantor gave him a mezuzah (a little scroll of Torah verses). Instead of putting it near a door at home, the traditional Jewish practice, Davis wore it around his neck for luck. The only time he forgot it was the night of his accident.
- Guest Host: On an episode of the Richard Dawson version of Family Feud.
- Gun Twirling: One of Davis' signature tricks - he could spin two guns while singing.
- The Mafia: Supposedly had run-ins with them due to his association with the Rat Pack, including an incident where he was threatened by Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli to dissolve his relationship with Kim Novak because of the taboo against miscegenation.
- Man of a Thousand Voices: Crushed this trope with his wicked rendition of "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" on the 1963 album Sammy Davis Jr. at the Cocoanut Grove, in which he starts out singing the song straight, then launches into a series of impersonations of other people doing it, including (but not limited to) Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Jerry Lewis, James Cagney, Marlon Brando...
- Non-Actor Vehicle: The 1956 musical Mr. Wonderful, where part of Davis' nightclub act is replicated wholesale.
- Overly Narrow Superlative: He used to describe himself as "the world's greatest one-eyed, black, Jewish entertainer".
- Self-Deprecation: A favourite trope of his, sometimes toppling over into Compliment Fishing.
- Smoking Is Cool: Davis was rarely seen without a cigarette, and smoked four packs a day for many years. He eventually died of throat cancer, but not before refusing to have part of his throat removed (explaining that he didn't want to lose his voice).
- True Companions: With the rest of the Rat Pack.
- Twofer Token Minority: In his words:I'm black. I'm Jewish. I'm Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.
- His mother was actually of mixed black and Cuban heritage, so he may have claimed to be part Puerto Rican to avoid anti-Cuban sentiment.
- Where Da White Women At?: (In)famously dated Kim Novak and Swedish actress May Britt, at a time when unions between whites and non-whites were outlawed in half the country.
References in other works:
- Portrayed as a ghost (played by Tim Meadows) in Wayne's World 2.
- Played by Don Cheadle in the HBO drama The Rat Pack.
- Portrayed by Phil La Marr on Mad TV, most notably in a sketch depicting what would have happened if Star Trek: The Original Series had been revived as a Variety Show in the vein of Laugh-In. (The sketch was a parody of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.)
- An episode of The Boondocks, in which Jazmine wants to buy a pony and name it "Sammy Davis Jr. The Pony".
- In Epic Rap Battles of History, he is played by Tay Zonday.
- Sausage Party features a character named after him called Sammy Bagel Jr. who is a Jewish stereotype.
- The robotic assassin Scaramouch in Episode XCII of Samurai Jack is patterned after him.