He would have been successful just as a singer, a dancer, or an actor, but Sammy Davis, Jr., born into show business, was adept at all three. And he became a political activist as well.
It can and should be argued that while he was all of the above (there he is with Martin Luther King Jr.), and was a consummate entertainer, he was NOT strictly speaking a movie star. And certainly not the equal of the other members of this week’s all-star quartet — Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
His career principally spanned four vehicles of live entertainment: vaudeville, tv, live theater and night cubs, adding movies as more or less a sideline. Davis was an explosive live performer from childhood — Frank remembers seeing him as a youngster with his father as part of the Will Mastin Trio on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night tv shows — and grew up to be dubbed as “the greatest living entertainer in the world.”
He certainly lent a certain private brio to his offscreen life, wedding Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, a time when interracial marriage was frowned on. Prior to that, his romance with Kim Novak created such a stink that the mob got involved with breaking things up, with Davis pal Frank Sinatra called in to mediate. Novak at the time was too big a star to risk by such a “scandalous ” liaison.
Perhaps Davis’ most relaxed years were spent with Sinatra and “the Rat Pack” of Sixties Las Vegas. His best movie appearance, in Ocean’s 11, was filmed during this period with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joe Bishop along as Army buddies reuniting to coordinate a complicated robbery of five Las Vegas casinos.
Davis gets to drive a garbage truck throughout the picture, and very effectively sings the picture’s exit theme over the final credits. Nice work.
Davis’ career was not without its twists and setbacks. He was a convert to Judaism. In 1954, a car accident cost him his left eye, famously replaced with an immovable glass replacement. He died of cancer in 1990, at age 64, deeply in debt with many of his belongings sold off to pay the bills.
But no question: Sammy Davis Jr. spelled talent galore.