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Sammy Davis Jr. Kept His Cool in a Less-Tolerant Era

If “cool” is defined as grace under pressure, then Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the coolest guys ever. The Rat Packer was one of the coolest cats ever however you define it — and, today, December 8, would have been his 90th birthday. (Davis died of throat cancer in 1990.)

Davis was famously on the golf course with Jack Benny one day when the latter asked him about his handicap. “Handicap?” Davis responded. “Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.”

Like many African-Americans making their way into white-dominated arenas throughout the 20th century, Davis continually faced racism; he put the money he made in showbiz to use and provided significant financial support to the civil rights movement.

He married beautiful Swedish actress May Britt in 1960, at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in 31 U.S. states and such marriages were exceedingly rare even where they were legal. (Davis’ daughter claimed in a 2014 book that after the marriage, JFK refused to allow Davis to perform at his inauguration.) As a result of the marriage, he received hate mail a few years later when starring in the Broadway musical adaptation of “Golden Boy” (he received a Tony Award nomination for best actor).

When the Frank Sinatra-led Rat Pack entertained in Vegas, mixing music and comedy, some of the humor was racial, and it was at Davis’ expense, even though this was supposed to be a group of friends. Still, at least on stage, Davis let roll it right off him in a way that just made him seem cooler (now, no entertainer would tolerate such treatment, but times have changed).

Don Cheadle, one of the coolest cats working today, played Davis in the 1998 HBO movie “The Rat Pack,” with Ray Liotta as Sinatra. The New York Times reported that Cheadle had initially refused the part because ”the original script barely mentioned the humiliations he endured or how they affected him.”

In the 2010 Dangerous Minds article Sammy Davis and the Gospel of Cool, Marc Campbell wrote, “Whitebread American suburban life in the sixties deadened my soul. Rock and roll and rhythm and blues changed all that. Sammy Davis Jr. was accused by some of being an Uncle Tom, a sellout to the man. But, for kids like me, seeing Sammy on hipster TV like ‘Laugh In’ was the beginning of a process of breaking down age old racial barriers that reached its apotheosis with the powerful energy of Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Huey Newton and Martin Luther King. I didn’t give a shit what anybody said, Sammy Davis was a god.”

Variety reported in October that Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios is developing a movie, TV series and documentary on Davis, based on Matt Birkbeck’s biography “Deconstructing Sammy.”

 

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