Sammy Davis, Jr., boldly strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me director Sam Pollard, writer and co-producer Laurence Maslon and executive producer Michael Kantor revisit some of his biggest controversies through rare interviews with Davis conducted by his biographer Burt Boyar.
American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is now streaming until March 19 via pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS apps.
Josh Hamilton: I’m Josh Hamilton, and this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today we talk about the complicated legacy of entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and we hear from Sammy himself through rare audio recordings captured late in his life.
Sammy Davis, Jr.: An atmosphere of interplay between people. An atmosphere of linkage between cultures. That’s called utilizing what you’ve got. And I’m not talking about being a professional do-gooder. I neither want to be a professional Jew, nor a professional Black, nor a professional do-gooder. The only thing that I want to be a professional at is my performance.
Josh Hamilton: We’re here with executive producer of American Masters, Michael Kantor, director Sam Pollard and writer/co-producer Larry Maslon, three members of the film team behind American Masters – Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. Michael, how did this project get started?
Michael Kantor: I think way back I gave Larry, a copy of the book of photos that Sammy took. Throughout his life Sammy was an amazing amateur photographer. And then we discovered there was this cache of audio recordings that Burt Boyar had saved from his conversations with Sammy around Sammy Davis, Jr’s second autobiography, Why Me?, and between those two invaluable assets, the photos, the way Sammy saw the world, and the recordings where he explained the world, once we had a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities for production funding, we were off to the races.
Josh Hamilton: So these recordings haven’t been heard before?
Michael Kantor: No, these were done by Burt Boyar, who gave us permission to use them, as did Sammy’s estate, and they fed into this second autobiography, but no one’s really heard them. When did you first hear those Sam and what did you think?
Sam Pollard: I was amazed at listening to those tapes at the level of honesty and forthrightness that Sammy brought to those tapes. I mean in talking to Burt. I mean I thought that a lot of the things he said were things that obviously were not in his books. And as I listened to those tapes I realized there was really juicy stuff that we could use in the documentary.
Michael Kantor: Larry, where would you say Sammy was in life during these 1986 recordings?
Laurence Maslon: Well he was actually at a tipping point. Burt went and followed him in the mid-1980s and Sammy would be in Vegas at The Sands or wherever and he'd go back to his hotel room and record his thoughts from 3 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. in the morning often with a glass of bourbon and some ice. You can hear the ice tinkle on some of the some of the recordings. And it was him in many ways filling up everything from 1965 when Yes I Can came out 20 years later and going back over some of the things in Yes I Can that he wasn't, as Sam says, completely honest with the first time around.
Michael Kantor: Let’s hear from Sammy.
Sammy Davis, Jr.: We talked about it in the old book. We talked about the pressure, the real and the imaginary, of being treated unjustly. The frustration of not being able to work alone. And I knew that I had growth in me, and I wanted to go and stretch and there were things I wanted to do. I didn’t want to offend, I want to bust out and I’m being confined. The other thing about booze is it makes you very sentimental and morose. You know, here I am, running away from success, while trying to grab it.
Michael Kantor: So Larry, Golden Boy is a really important moment in Sammy's career. Why is that a pinnacle for him?
Laurence Maslon: He wanted to stretch, himself he wanted to do the kind of things he witnessed Frank Sinatra - his idol – doing, which was becoming a serious actor. So when this opportunity came to update Clifford Odets 1937 play as a musical but set it in the 1960s, have an interracial love relationship at the center of it, be a boxer, have ten songs, have a big fight at the end, big emotional draw, be an actor, a leading actor. He found that absolutely, you know one of the greatest temptations of his life and he did it and he wound up doing Golden Boy on and off on Broadway London Chicago for about four years.
Michael Kantor: What's Golden Boy the musical about and how did the creators create this interracial love story?
Laurence Maslon: In the 1960s you still had a long tradition of musical comedy. People came to see musicals to have a good time laugh and kind of forget about it by the time they hit the pavement. Golden Boy was a serious musical about a serious topic, which was in this case, how would a young Black man with ambition deal with the fever heat of his ambition? So it wasn't just his ambition as a fighter he wanted to make it as a fighter but he also wanted to make it as a man and he fell in love with a white woman, who was the mistress of his manager, and that was a line you didn't see crossed anywhere in pop culture at the time. You didn't really see it in movies, didn't really see it on the Broadway stage, you certainly never saw it on television. And it's sort of hard to imagine in our 21st century world which anything everything goes anything comparable to the risk that he took. And he not only took the risk, but he met the challenge and he really embraced it literally and figuratively. And it's a great moment in American theater history.
Sam Pollard: Take a listen to Sammy Davis, Jr. talking about Golden Boy
Sammy Davis, Jr.: I was on top of the world, and as a new boy in town and everything else, there was no door that wasn’t open to me, there was no luxury that wasn’t open to me. I was the prince of Broadway man. And we knew we had a hit. We had three, four moments in the show, in the musical, where people just stood and cheered. My life was show business. You knew you were in something important. The denial of his blackness, was going to be the conflict. He’s a fighter, he’s Black, he lives in Harlem, and he wants all of the glamour from the world. He wants to fight his way out of there. It was 26 hours a day, that I was with Golden Boy. We do that second act the first time in Detroit and it rivets them. It rivets the audience. Detroit, being a town where a race riot was, and we do the riot scene, and we’re going downtown, we scared the shit out of people with “We Ain’t Bowing Down No More”, and at the end of “I Want To Be With You”, we grabbed each other and we kissed, and it was the first time a man and a woman of different races had done that on the stage. Full on the mouth, embrace, in Detroit, Michigan. Scared shit. We got threats, we got letters. Paula Wayne, poor darling, she had threats from the time the show opened, I think. It was constant. New York was no better. It was so bad in Detroit she had to have a bodyguard with her.
Michael Kantor: Paula Wayne was subjected to racism that she didn't expect at all. What did you learn about that Sam?
Sam Pollard: Well you know here she is, an actor on the stage, you know one of the supreme entertainers in this play and then she's kissing a Black man on the stage. She didn't realize that there's still all this rage and anger toward Black people. So she was baffled. From reading the book you know and listening to her it had to be a very terrifying moment for those two on that stage.
Laurence Maslon: She said that at one point she came to the theater one day and they were taking her poster outside down and she said, “why?” Because someone had machine gunned it the night before. She certainly got death threats and she certainly got letters and she just started her career. Sadly we lost her since we made the movie. But she was a young girl from Texas. This was her big break. It's probably not what she signed up for, which was to get death threats and need 24-hour security playing the lead opposite one of the greatest entertainers in America in 1964.
Michael Kantor: And one night in Detroit actually a klieg light exploded right at a key moment in the play. And here's Paula describing what Sammy Davis, Jr. did when he thought that a shot was ringing out.
Paula Wayne: We landed in the middle of the Detroit riots. So I went to work in a bulletproof police car. That’s how I went to work. And we were in the middle of the show, in “I Want To Be With You,” the love scene, and Sammy kissed me. It was part of the scene. And a big klieg light blew, it went like that. And it sounded like a rifle shot. And the audience went, aaaahhhh. But quickly Sammy turned me around and put his back to the audience and tried to cover my body. And I started to laugh. And he said, “what the hell are you laughing at?” And I said, “Sam, no matter where that bullet goes it’s got to hit me, I stick out on all sides of you.” And the audience got hysterical laughing. And it blew away the moment and we went right back and did the rest of the show. But that says what I know about Sammy Davis. His humanity and his bravery. And aside from all of the talent, which has been covered numerous times, I knew him as a wonderful, wonderful human being, who put himself out on a limb for me a lot of times.
Michael Kantor: Why do you think Sammy was such a lightning rod for controversy?
Sam Pollard: Think about it. He's living during a period of intense segregation in America, where you know Black people and White people were basically separate, primarily in the South but also in the North. And here he comes. You know like a lightning rod, comes up in the 50’s and becomes a major dynamo in terms of entertaining. You know and people recognize he's a fabulous entertainer and then he makes all these connections, the Sinatra connection, the Kim Novak connection, the Rat Pack connection, and he's a guy who was just standing out there front and center. So everything he does is watched. From the Black community and the White community. In the Black community sometimes there were saying, “Sammy forgot where he came from.” And the White community says, “Who's this Black guy who thinks he can hang out and go to Sardi's, go to these clubs you know.” So he had to deal with both sides of the road all the time. So that's why he was such a lightning rod. I mean when there was a controversy that he was dating Kim Novak, the people in the Black community said he forgot where he came from. You know when he married May Britt there were Black women saying, “Well why is this Black man marrying a white woman?” When he was with Sinatra, people were sort of denigrated Sammy in the Black community. He always had to struggle with this sort of dual identity, in some ways what DuBois calls double consciousness of America, for Black people in America.
Michael Kantor: What happened with Richard Nixon?
Sam Pollard: You know I find it pretty fascinating, because this was another element I didn't know about Sammy's story, about how he was treated by the Kennedy administration when Kennedy won the presidency and he had the inaugural ball and he was disinvited. So here he is. You know obviously a Democratic supporter of John F. Kennedy supporting his presidency and then he's disinvited. Now fast forward to Richard Nixon being the president of the United States and he embraces Sammy Davis Jr. So when he's doing his campaign rally in Florida and Sammy comes, Sammy who as we all know would hug anybody, he would hug anybody, he comes out and Richard Nixon introduces him and he hugs Richard Nixon. Now that hug became a major lightning rod for Sammy and particularly the Black community. You know he had done something that he wasn't supposed to do particularly in terms of who Richard Nixon was. So we fast forward to 2018 and here is another formidable super talent, Kanye West, who's in the White House with Donald Trump and he's catching the same kind of hell that Sammy caught because all of a sudden you're forgetting who this man is. He doesn't care about Black people. And now you're there supporting him, hugging him, going on and on about how great a man he is for Black people and not even understanding the history. When Kanye says that slavery wasn't such a horrible thing we all threw up of our hands. (Laughs). Take a listen to Sammy talking about his time with Richard Nixon at the White House.
Sammy Davis, Jr: The things that I asked for was what could we do in terms of positive programs in America that would make the disenfranchised, the Blacks, the Hispanics, feel like they have a part of this country? That they have a stake in the country. And he’s thanking me for what I had done for the campaign, and this year I had been the catalyst for bringing more colored people in- And I said Black people. And he said, “Black? Is it okay to say Black?” And I said yeah. And he wrote it down. I said Black is preferred and I did the rhyme. In the old days it was if you’re White you’re right, if you’re Brown you can stick around, but if you’re Black, get in the back. I said it’s all changed around. I said in the old days when I was growing up Mr. President, no one wanted to be called Black. Everybody wanted to be called colored. Now colored to the young person on the street, or the student, it’s an insult. He wants his blackness. He wants to be proud of his blackness. And I said most of the people even the militants, they want to feel like they got a stake in America. I think they look at you in terms of being the head of our nation, they want to know that you care about what they’re doing. He said, “You know I have people who take care of- we have committees, we have this, we have that.” I said I know Mr. President, but you’ve got to- you’ve got to be there to lend some sort of credence to it.
Laurence Maslon: One of the things that's so admirable about Sammy is his longevity. He started as a performer during the Depression and wound up becoming so prominent in his field that he was brought to the White House to kind of school Richard Nixon in the early 1970’s about how to relate - as ineptly as Nixon was - how he could relate better to the Black community and he had to cycle through his own decades of how Black people were thought of and what they were called and what Black people called themselves. Maybe you could talk more about that Sam.
Sam Pollard: The attitude from the Black community back in the 30’s, 40’s and 50s, even in the early 60’s with the word Black, it sounded ugly. It was negative connotation. But when Stokely Carmichael in Selma, Alabama, started using the term Black power, it became a word that people started to embrace. I mean we were embracing not only the word Black but Afro-American African-American those became prominent words. And for someone from Sammy's generation it's a hard words to change around. I mean I was with someone in Atlanta this past week and she still uses Negro.
Michael Kantor: What's interesting is James Brown is also a Nixon supporter right? And isn't it James Brown who you know, “Say it loud I'm black and I'm proud.” Do you think Sammy took something from that or are they at other ends of the-
Sam Pollard: I think they both understood the idea that we live in a capitalist nation and capitalism was a very important part as we all know of what America is all about and that's what James Brown is all about. And Sammy in some ways was about that too. When James Brown you know was seen with Nixon at the White House the Black community was also upset with him but not to the same level that they were with Sammy Davis, Jr. I mean Sammy Davis, Jr. was booed. You know people would cross the street when they saw Sammy Davis, Jr. But James Brown didn't suffer like that.
Laurence Maslon: Do you think that was part and parcel of Sammy's dilemma that he worked so hard to assimilate for decades that when he embraced the Black Power movement he was seen as somehow inauthentic?
Sam Pollard: Yeah. An outlier. Because James Brown was always considered a part of the Black community. I mean he was like you know he was like embraced by the Black community. Everything he did was Black in the sense. The songs the style. Here was Sammy singing Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, you know. Unless you're of that generation it was like passé by the time the 60’s came along.
Michael Kantor: You know I always wanted to ask you Sam, I saw that at that Kennedy inaugural ball doesn't Harry Belafonte bring his white wife, or Sidney Poitier, and that's not a big deal for them? Why do you think Sammy was excluded?
Sam Pollard: The difference… The complexion in terms of here is a short dark Black man. Jewish man. With a tall beautiful blond wife. Now Harry's wife Julie Belafonte was a White woman. But the thing that people don't remember is that she always had a constant tan. I didn't think she was White when I was growing up you know until later I realized she was White. But that's why Sammy wasn’t invited. It was just such a difference to see these two together. It was like whoa.
Laurence Maslon: I think Sammy was also more provocative as an individual. He had courted all this kind of tabloid press in a way that I think neither Nat King Cole nor Sidney Poitier nor Harry Belafonte ever did for anything.
Michael Kantor: Sam when you think of Sammy Davis, Jr. he started so young. Who do you think were his heroes growing up and who were most influential in his career?
Sam Pollard: I think for Sammy Davis, Jr. coming up you know he’s a song and dance man. Being on the circuit, the chitling circuit as it was called back then, with all the Black entertainers, you know he was impressed with Al Jolson. He was impressed with Eddie Cantor. You know he was impressed with Sophie Tucker. He's impressive all these people who had really you know made a name for themselves on the Broadway circuit as dancers as actors and singers. It's amazing to see that he was at the age of four out there performing with his uncle and his dad. And then to see Sammy sort of grow into becoming this phenomenal entertainer. Originally it's the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. By the late 40’s it’s the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis, Jr. Because he was the headliner. He became the headliner. And you can see his influences as he got older. I mean Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstein and, obviously, Frank Sinatra.
Michael Kantor: When you think back on your own lives when did you first hear of Sammy or get to know Sammy?
Sam Pollard: For me it was. It's got to be 1961, 1962, I must have been 11 or 12 years old. I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show and here he comes on the stage singing and dancing and doing impressions and playing his instruments, trumpet and the bass and the piano. That's when I recognized Sammy Davis, Jr. and I also had seen, by that time, Ocean's 11 with Sinatra and Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, you know, and Dean Martin. So Sammy was someone who in our household, everybody knew about. We all knew about Sammy Davis, Jr. because here he was the Black entertainer, the major figure, the only black figure in the Rat Pack. That was a big thing. That was a big thing because Sinatra was a god to us in our household.
Michael Kantor: How about you Larry?
Laurence Maslon: I remember Sammy Davis, Jr. appearing in the mid-60’s in all the shows I loved. There he was on Batman. There he was in I Dream of Jeannie. There he was cutting up like this court jester on Laugh In. And I thought he was a kind of goofy guy, I thought oh he's the goofy comedy guy, Sammy Davis. Or you'd see him on a talk show slap his knee and laugh uproariously at something that wasn't terribly funny, and then I think I was about 9 or 10 and I came across the cast album to Golden Boy in the public library and I thought wait a minute this can't possibly be the same Sammy Davis, cause this guy is serious, this guy is passionate. This guy is fighting for Civil Rights. And then I would say the journey for me personally over the last 50 years was to try to understand how this guy could be both guys. And of course Sammy Davis was many many guys, many personalities, many of them contradictory. And I think that's what Sam really captures in this documentary.
Sam Pollard: He was really a chameleon. I mean you think about it you know when Larry’s talking about seeing him on Laugh In and all those shows, I remember him not only on the Ed Sullivan Show but seeing them on these half hour dramas like the Rifleman and Law Man. That’s where I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. as an actor I said wow this guy's got chops you know and then I could see him on the Ed Sullivan Show doing Jimmy Stewart, doing Edward G. Robinson, doing Jimmy Cagney. You know impressions and then dancing and then playing instruments.
Michael Kantor: What do you find heroic about Sammy?
Sam Pollard: This man saw nothing that he like get in his way. There was no obstacle he wasn't going to try to overcome. It wasn’t that he wasn't afraid. He was. You know I mean he would tell stories about the fear of going out every day with May Britt and the reactions they were going to get. He talked about the trauma that he had to deal with when he was in the service. He talked about you know going out to perform with a crowd that he thought might be hostile to him. You know he always wanted to embrace people and he said that it was his talent… He knew that his talent could help him overcome anything. So to me that’s tremendously heroic, tremendously heroic. I mean, it's an interesting thing for me to be at this stage of my life to look back at this man, who some people would say was an Uncle Tom in the 70’s when he embraced Nixon, but he wasn't. He was a man who had a lot of ambition you know who had a lot of conflicts you know who made mistakes but he kept charging ahead. And no matter what obstacles he faced, you know be it in terms of relationships with the Black community, or his relationship to the White community, or his relationships during the Civil Rights movement. His relationships after he hugged Nixon. He was always going to be who he was. You know, he never changed.
Michael Kantor: Sam Pollard, director of Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, and Larry Maslon, writer and co-producer of the film, thank you all for coming to the American Masters Podcast.
Sam Pollard: Thank you.
Laurence Maslon: Thanks Michael.
Michael Kantor: So Josh, what do you think we should end the podcast with this week?
Josh Hamilton: Well I thought it would be interesting to hear this outtake from the American Masters Digital Archive, and it’s the late Paula Wayne, as she remembers auditioning for her role in Golden Boy.
Paula Wayne: So I got an audition for Golden Boy and I auditioned for a year. Finally I was going to do the final audition for Sammy Davis. Sam said, now we’ll do “I Want To Be With You.” And he walked across the stage and I... couldn’t do anything. I was in such a panic. I mean that was like for me in show business, like the Statue of Liberty walking to you, you know. It was just unbelievable. So I, I ran off the stage. And I ran across the street to Sardi’s, cause Vincent Sardi has always been very nice to me. And I’m sitting at the bar and I’m crying my eyes out, cause I blew it, I blew a whole year of my life and I made a fool out of myself in front of the biggest star in the world. And I feel this arm around me and I looked, and it was Sammy. And he said, honey, am I that bad? And I said, well I don’t know if you’re that bad, but you’re certainly that big. And he said, come on, we can do this. Can you imagine that? That was Sammy Davis to me. So we walked across the street and we went back up on the stage and I sang my heart out with him. And I got the part. And I believe firmly that Golden Boy made a lot of difference, in a lot of areas. Which theater can do. That’s the beautiful part of theater. Theater can make a difference. And I think we did. I know in my case, it taught me a lot about compassion. And about, oh what is the word I’m looking for… Acceptance.