Sammy Davis Jr. 1925-1990: The Legacy of the World's Greatest Entertainer

Article excerpt

SAMMY DAVIS JR. 1925-1990

GEORGE Burns said "a phenomenon like him" comes along once in a lifetime.

Milton Berle called him "the world's greatest entertainer."

Little Richard said he was "the greatest entertainer who ever lived - bar none."

Janet Jackson said he was "the Martin Luther King of the entertainment industry."

And Speaker Willie Brown of the California Assembly said he was the godfather of the Black superstars of today. "Cos," he said, "would not be Cos [Bill Cosby], and Sidney [Poitier] would not be Sidney, if Sammy had not been Sammy."

Sammy Davis Jr., the rare and extravagant spirit who was the object of these rare and extravagant appraisals, was an American original. He was of that rarest of all races, the race of great creators. It was the instinct of his life to dance and give joy, as it is the instinct of water to flow.


In his life and death, Sammy marked a major milestone in our common cultural history. For he was a crossroads figure who almost single-handedly created a civil rights revolution in the entertainment world.

For 36 daring, dramatic, tragic, triumphant, controversial, go-for-broke, what-the-hell years, he inhabited center stage in our national psyche. And when he died in his Beverly Hills mansion, after a long struggle with throat cancer, he was a legend who lived in a time on the other side of time.

He spent his last days in his Beverly Hills home, attended by medical personnel and members of his personal staff, including manager Shirley Rhodes and longtime aide Murphy Bennett. When, at the end, extra medical support was discontinued, the great heart continued to beat for several days. His final joy was the benediction of new life in the person of a grandson, Sam Michael, who was born to his daughter, Tracy, shortly before he died.

His death triggered an unprecedented national tribute. The lights on the Las Vegas Strip went dark for 10 minutes in his memory. This had happened only two times before - after the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. And the Davis funeral, which will be talked about for years, enlarged on the legend, attracting thousands of ordinary citizens - Black, White, Brown, Jew, Gentile, Protestant and Catholic - and a Who's Who of the entertainment industry (including Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin and Cicely Tyson) to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

In a moving, tear-filled ceremony, punctuated by applause and the standing ovations that characterized his life, Sammy was eulogized by close friends, including Amy Green, Speaker Willie Brown, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and this writer. "He is not," Rev. Jackson said, "the last of a kind. There was no Sammy before Sammy. Sammy was the only of a kind."

Perhaps the most moving and memorable moments occurred offstage. The bronze casket was closed during the Friday services, May 18, but on Thursday night a handful of Davis' closest friends and associates viewed the body in an elegant little chapel on the crest of a mini-mountain in the Hollywood Hills. Sammy, as almost everybody knows, lost weight during his eight-month battle with cancer, but he looked remarkably well in a dark, pinstripe suit, a red-figured tie, and a red pocket handkerchief.

Before the casket was closed for the last time, his widow, Altovise, kissed him, said a private and tearful goodbye. …