Director Sam Pollard can’t believe the acclaim being heaped upon his new film about the late Sammy Davis Jr.
But with the multifaceted legacy left by the performer — from breaking down barriers faced by African-Americans, to converting to Judaism in the wake of a gruesome 1954 car accident — maybe Pollard shouldn’t be so surprised.
Davis’s story made its reappearance in the new documentary, “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” the opening night feature at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on January 24.
None of the 10 films Pollard, a longtime collaborator with Spike Lee, has made in the last 15 years have been met with “such a huge response and popular reception,” he said. The feedback, he said, has been “mind-boggling.”
Maybe that’s because Davis had such mind-boggling talent. “I think he should be remembered as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, up there with [Frank] Sinatra, Nat ‘King’ Cole, those great performers,” Pollard said.
He called Davis “the Michael Jackson of his day.” And he sees parallels with contemporary stars: “Bruno Mars is another example. He understood what Sammy Davis did. And someone like Justin Timberlake — his talent, multi-talented experience. He’s someone like Sammy Davis, too.”
Davis’s success was considerable — appearances with Sinatra’s Rat Pack, dead-on impersonations of Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart, and a voice that recorded a No. 1 hit in “The Candy Man.” Yet, “I’ve Gotta Be Me” seeks to go beyond Davis the celebrity.
The film was conceived by executive producer Michael Kantor some five years ago, Pollard said When Kantor asked him to join as the director, “I was very excited. I grew up watching [Davis’s] movies and music.”
Davis left a trove of archival material that helped tell the story. There were TV appearances on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “Laugh-In,” and “All in the Family” — where he famously kissed Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) on the cheek.
There were also movies with the Rat Pack: “Ocean’s 11,” “Sergeants 3” and “Robin and the 7 Hoods.”
Contemporaries, including Norman Lear, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal shared their impressions in interviews for the film.
“All in the Family” creator Lear called Davis’s appearance on the show “an iconic TV moment, a black man putting his lips on a white cheek.” Crystal described Davis as “a giant of a guy who spoke Yiddish, converted to Judaism, had great knowledge. He could talk to me like one of my uncles.”
Poignantly, Davis’s fellow legend Jerry Lewis gave an interview before his death last year.
The film also features Davis’s own voice, through audiotapes from his estate. Pollard said these tapes gave “insight into his personality,” providing “lots of material.”
Asked how Davis rose to stardom, Pollard said, “It was a combination of hard work and luck.”
The big break
In 1951, Davis was performing with his father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and his father’s business partner, Will Mastin (whom the younger Davis regarded as an uncle). Their opening act at Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood was scheduled to last 40 minutes — but proved so popular that they performed for an hour and a half.
Relatively early in his career, Davis met Frank Sinatra — a pivotal moment in his life.
“Frank Sinatra was like a big brother, a mentor to him, who watched over him. He got some breaks. It was hard work, perseverance and lucky breaks,” said Pollard.
But as a black man, Davis faced an unfair burden.
“Here was a young man, born in 1925, who had to deal with sitting on the back of a bus, segregated hotels and bathhouses,” Pollard said. “It was the height of segregation in America. Even with success, there were barriers. Certain clubs in New York and Las Vegas were not integrated. He had to go to the black part of town.”
And then, in 1954, Davis was involved in a car accident in which he lost his left eye. While recuperating, he realized there was a spiritual vacuum in his life, and turned to Judaism, Pollard said.
“He grew up with lots of Jewish people,” Pollard said. “He was very close to [entertainer] Eddie Cantor.”
According to Pollard, while in the hospital after the car accident, a rabbi visited him.
“Talking to the rabbi… I think he really found himself in a spiritual way. Judaism seemed to be the way for him. He converted,” said Pollard.
Pollard said it was a watershed moment for America and for African American youth, including the then 15-year-old director.
“That’s not to say there weren’t black Jews before Sammy Davis, Jr. But since he was such a well-known celebrity, it was an amazing surprise, a black man that most people think is probably Baptist or Christian, and here he is, Jewish.”
Davis could quip about his new life. In a widely reported anecdote, he played golf with comedian Jack Benny, who asked about his golf handicap. He replied, “Handicap? Talk about handicap — I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew.”
But for people in both the African-American and Jewish communities, “they had in him someone they could embrace,” Pollard said.
A new era for civil rights
Pollard said that the anti-Semitism that Jews faced, and the racism that African-Americans faced, resulted in “a kinship that brought people together” in the 1950s and 1960s.
When Pollard attended church growing up, he read about the historical struggles of the Jewish people in Scripture. He noted that when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began his civil rights advocacy, his advisers included Jews such as Stanley Levison. Relations between the communities, he said were strong in the ‘50s, early ‘60s.
“They fractured later. Times were changing,” he said.
Davis was impacted by the changing times.
“He loved Dr. King,” Pollard said. However, in contrast to activists like Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, “he had to be pulled into the civil rights [struggle] in a way.”
When Belafonte wanted Davis to joinvKing on his 1965 march to Selma, Alabama, Davis demurred; he was starring in the Broadway show “Golden Boy.” (The production featured what was reportedly the first on-stage kiss between an African-American man and a white woman, Paula Wayne.) Belafonte bought all the tickets to the show, ensuring Davis would not lose money and could join the march.
“He didn’t want to go to Selma, but understood he had to be an activist,” Pollard said. Davis , he said, was the largest philanthropist to King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights organizations of that time.
Pollard said that after the King assassination in 1968, a program was launched to increase the visibility of people of color in the film and television industry. This initiative spurred Pollard to begin work on documentaries as a young college student in 1971.
“I was on a path to become a businessman,” Pollard said. “My whole life changed.”
Pollard’s previous subjects have included playwright August Wilson, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and director John Ford.
“The thing I always feel is important when making a documentary on someone is to really not make it a puff piece,” said Pollard, whose work has earned Emmy and Peabody awards as well as an Academy Award nomination.
“Dig into their complications as a human being, about their entire life. That was the biggest challenge [about Davis]. He was a great singer, dancer, impersonator. I wanted to show his complications, his sense of identity as a black man in America,” he said.
A hug offensive
The complications included when Davis hugged Republican president Richard Nixon — who was campaigning for reelection in 1972 and was seen as hostile to civil rights — and became the first African-American man to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.
“I think, here is a man who loved to be loved,” Pollard said. “He needed affirmation, needed to be loved. If a Klansman in a white sheet said, ‘I love you, Sammy,’ he would have hugged him. His whole life, a hug was an act of being accepted. It was a reflexive act to hug Nixon in Florida.”
Pollard said that while he did not think Davis hugged Nixon out of anything but love, he faced a backlash afterward.
Pollard said that Davis also faced a backlash from both African-Americans and whites who did not approve of his romantic relationships with white women, including Kim Novak (who was interviewed in the film) and May Britt (the second of Davis’ three wives).
“He was in love with Kim Novak,” Pollard said. “At the time, it was a big thing… It caused a lot of eyes to do a double-take.”
It also outraged Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, who reportedly took out a mob hit on Davis and threatened to put out his other eye if he continued his relationship with Novak.
To save himself, Davis paid African-American singer Loray White to marry him. They were divorced within four years.
Davis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse during his life, and died of throat cancer at age 64 in 1990.
Pollard reflected on his legacy.
“Was he an Uncle Tom to some?” Pollard asked. “Yes, he was. Was he progressive? Yes. Was he a civil rights activist? Yes. Was he misogynist? Yes. Was he a drug abuser? Yes. Was he a man who loved black people? Yes.
“He was a complicated human being,” said Pollard. “Most of us are, but we only see one side.”