It’s no wonder legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. became the superstar that he was—he was already on tour when he was still a tot. As an adult, he caught the expressway to stardom: made some cool cat friends, drank a lot of cocktails, and even had time to fight for what’s right. He loved, he lost, he even got lost—all while singing and dancing his heart out. He had talent for days, but sadly, those days always had a number. Read on for some sweet and stormy facts about Sammy Davis Jr.: “The greatest entertainer ever to grace a stage in these United States.”
Sammy Davis Jr. Facts
1. He Grew Up On Stage
Sammy Davis Jr. came into this world on December 8, 1925 in Harlem, New York. His parents were both vaudeville performers, so Davis spent his early years at his grandmother’s house—mom and dad were too busy entertaining other people. When Davis was just three years old, his parents divorced, which made dad do something extremely unusual.
2. He Hit the Road
Davis’ father, not surprisingly called Sammy Davis Sr, wanted sole custody of his son, but also wanted to stay in show business. He fretted about losing his son because of his constant touring. So, Sammy Davis Sr. came up with a scheme: He would take young Sammy on tour with him and therefore be able to keep his son. The solution, as it turned out, worked even better than he could’ve imagined.
3. He Joined The Act
While on the road with dad and show biz partners Will Mastin and Howard M. Colbert Jr., Davis learned how to perform. It wasn’t long before young Davis Jr. was part of the act. Colbert was Davis’ tap-dancing teacher and became an uncle figure to him. Learning dancing was all well and good, but what about those three Rs?
4. He Skipped School
Touring, performing, and learning about show business was an amazing education for young Davis. He wasn’t, however, getting much formal schooling. His father would occasionally hire tutors to educate him, but these lessons were few and far between. As a matter of fact, Davis didn’t learn to read and write until he served his country in the army.
5. He Painted His Face
Davis was too young to be performing in clubs, so his father came up with an outrageous scheme: he painted his son’s face jet black. The idea was to sell young Davis as a 44-year-old dwarf. Hey wait, wouldn’t his young squeaky voice give him away? Davis Sr. named the dwarf Silent Sam so he would never have to speak on stage. Davis Sr. took care of everything—including keeping a huge secret from his son.
6. He Didn’t Know Hatred
Eventually, the act consisted only of Davis—both junior and senior—and Mastin. All the time they were dancing together, the two adults kept something from Davis Jr: They didn’t want him to know about prejudice against Black people. They tried their best to keep it from Davis, and whenever something happened, they explained it away as jealousy.
While they did it to protect young Sammy Davis from a harsh reality, it would later have a devastating effect.
7. He Saw The Real World
In 1943, Uncle Sam called Davis to serve his country, and neither his father nor Mastin could protect him any longer. The hatred and prejudice Davis found while serving was beyond shocking to him. He fought constantly with the other men, and even had his nose broken several times, sustaining permanent damage. Davis needed a secret weapon—and he found it.
8. He Served His Way
The army finally realized that they had someone useful on their hands. When they discovered Davis’s enormous talent, they assigned him to Special Services, which enabled him to do what he did best—entertain. There he was, performing for and accepting applause from the very same men who’d tormented him. The army eventually decorated Davis with medals for his service and discharged him in 1945.
9. They Wanted More
After his time in the army, Davis rejoined the Will Mastin Trio. In 1951, they played for a celebrity-filled crowd at Ciro’s in West Hollywood. That night changed Sammy Davis Jr.’s life forever. The club wanted them to play just a 20-minute set, but the adoring audience wouldn’t let them stop performing encore after encore. Davis Jr. was the crowd’s favorite—especially his impressions.
Critics in attendance that night agreed, and this one performance catapulted him into solo stardom.
10. A TV Station Wanted HIm
In 1953, ABC TV offered Davis and the Will Mastin Trio a show. It was going to be unlike other shows featuring African American performers. There would be no slapstick comedy and none of the stereotypical roles of the time. ABC sunk $20,000 into the pilot. This was going to be another huge break for Davis—there was just one thing missing.
11. His Show Failed
Davis’ TV show didn’t get past the pilot stage. ABC was ready to go, but they couldn’t find a single company to sponsor it—likely because of the color of Davis’ skin. But Davis didn’t let it get him down. He went on to appear in a Broadway performance of Mr. Wonderful and sing the title song for the 1954 film Six Bridges to Cross. His star was rising and he was ready to join a pack.
12. He Joined A Clan
As Davis continued to get more well-known, he made some pretty famous friends. His hang-out buddies consisted of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The guys were heavy drinkers, womanizers, and gamblers. It was Sinatra who came up with a moniker for their little social group—except he chose a truly horrible name: The Clan. Excuse me? Davis was having none of that.
13. He Demanded A Change
Davis found that the name The Clan had too many negative associations—for obvious reasons—so he put a big veto on it. The nameless group was playing poker until all hours one night and probably looked terrible. Actor Angie Dickenson walked up and told them they looked like a pack of rats. Eureka! The Rat Pack was born. Sadly, Davis couldn’t be a full member.
14. He Slept Elsewhere
When Davis was performing in Las Vegas, he got special treatment—but not the good kind. Because of his race, he couldn’t stay at the hotels where he performed, couldn’t gamble at the casinos, or even eat in the restaurants. After performing, Davis would head to the other side of town and sleep at a rooming house. In response to this treatment, Davis took a stand.
15. He Wouldn’t Take The Stage
Davis had had it with the inferior treatment he was getting in comparison to his white co-performers. He decided to create a one-person protest—which is easy to do when you’re as famous as Davis was. His idea was simple: He’d just refuse to perform in any clubs that segregated performers by race. His protest worked and helped de-segregate some venues in Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Davis’s fame was starting to make some real change—but he wasn’t on easy street just yet.
16. He Received A Good Luck Charm
Davis made friends with comedian and host Eddie Cantor, and Cantor gifted him a Jewish mezuzah. It’s traditional to place the mezuzah on your door, but Davis decided he’d rather wear it around his neck—treat it like a good luck charm. So while he wore it, Davis imagined he had good luck. Maybe he should’ve thought about what would happen if he didn’t wear it.
17. He Crashed
For some reason, Davis forgot to wear the mezuzah one day when he was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but either way, disaster struck. Davis was enjoying the open road in his Cadillac when he crashed at a fork in the road on the famous Route 66. The accident was bad, and Davis’ face crashed into the steering wheel of his expensive car.
An airbag might have saved him from an injury, but this was 1954. The results were chilling.
18. He Lost An Eye
Davis’ Cadillac, like all Cadillacs of that era, had a bullet-shaped horn button at the center of the steering wheel, and the horn protruded out considerably. When Davis smashed his face into the horn, he lost his left eye—a terrible tragedy that Davis connected to his missing good luck charm. It was horrible, but Davis, always the optimist, had a peculiar reaction to the accident.
19. He Converted
The missing mezuzah made Davis reflect deeply on the accident. He wondered: If he’d worn his good luck charm, would he still have his eye? It made him look seriously at Judaism—a least with his good eye. Davis, with the help of his friend Cantor, converted a few years later. On top of this revelation, some people may say that the accident wasn’t such bad luck after all.
20. He Patched It Up
For some reason, Sammy Davis Jr.’s accident and eye loss fascinated the public. Until then, Davis had been a pretty well-known entertainer. Once he showed up publicly wearing a black eye patch, fans went crazy. Some people say that this accident was a turning point for him. You could say his glass eye had a silver lining. He suddenly was a national celebrity—and it certainly didn’t hurt his dating options.
21. His Dated A Beauty
In 1957, Davis became involved with Kim Novak, one of the stars of Hitchcock’s legendary thriller, Vertigo. Novak had a contract with Columbia Pictures and back in those days that meant Columbia exerted itself into your private life. The president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, wanted to avoid the negative publicity of having a white woman date a Black man. What he did to end the relationship was downright cruel.
22. His Love Provoked A President
Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn had mob associations and wasn’t afraid to use them to intimidate Davis. Cohn, with his goal of ending the Davis and Novak affair, allegedly had Davis kidnapped in order to convince him to stop seeing Novak. That’s one story of how things went down—the other is even more bizarre.
23. They Threatened Him—With Marriage
Another story has Cohn hiring a gang member to threaten to break Davis’ legs or even remove his one good eye. But what was outrageous was what he had to do to avoid this punishment: He had to marry a Black woman—and he only had two days to do it. It didn’t matter who it was as long as she was Black. Luckily, Davis had someone waiting in the wings.
24. He Married White
Davis took the threats from the mob seriously, and turned to an ex-girlfriend to help him out. Loray White was 23 years old, divorced, and had a six-year-old child. Davis offered her a lump sum payment to marry him. Another condition of the marriage was that they would agree to dissolve it before the year ended. Obviously, this was no fairy tale wedding—but for White, it was even worse than she ever could have imagined.
After a nightmarish few months, Davis and White divorced within a year of their nuptials. Unfortunately, this was just a single bump in the road of Davis’s rocky love life.
25. He Tried Again
Davis didn’t let this disaster with Novak put him off future relationships. In 1960, Davis married his next wife: a Swedish-born actor named May Britt. The fact that his wife was white still caused controversy. Luckily, the studios had no control over this relationship. Still, while appearing on Broadway in Golden Boy, Davis received a deluge of hate mail. The first letters were just mean, and then they got meaner.
26. He Needed Protection
Some of the hate mail Davis received started to get more violent. In fact, some members of the public didn’t think Davis deserved to continue living. This was becoming a very real threat to Davis, and he did something drastic to combat it: He hired 24-hour armed guards. But still, Sammy Davis Jr. refused to stop pushing boundaries.
27. He Received An Important Invitation
In 1961, America was on the verge of electing President John F. Kennedy. He would be a young fresh face in the White House and he was full of optimism for the future of America. To start off his presidency with a vision of what an unprejudiced America could be, Kennedy invited Davis to perform at his inauguration—but Kennedy had a disturbing request.
28. He Postponed For A President
During the campaign, John F. Kennedy was adamant that Davis not marry Britt until after the election. Because Davis was campaigning for him, Kennedy didn’t want any negative publicity, such as an interracial wedding, to hurt his chances of winning. The future president went to Frank Sinatra and begged him to convince Davis to put off the wedding.
Davis complied and Kennedy won the election just one week before Davis and Britt tied the knot. The new president, however, had a weird way of showing his appreciation.
29. He Got Cancelled
At the last minute, Kennedy quickly and suddenly decided to cancel Davis’ appearance at the inauguration—even though Davis had campaigned for him. It seems pretty clear that Kennedy was trying to distance himself from the hot topic of interracial marriage. Things were improving, but there were still laws against marriage between different races in 23 different states.
Kennedy’s rejection stung, but Davis had seen it before—and he had other ways to change America’s attitude.
30. He Had A First
In 1967, Davis appeared in his buddy Frank Sinatra’s daughter’s TV special Movin’ With Nancy. The show probably would’ve gone unnoticed except for something Nancy and Davis did. Something that millions of people do every day: They kissed. It was only a peck on the cheek, but it was the first interracial kiss on TV—ever. The scandal! The horror! I know…
Plus, Davis was just getting started with pushing America’s buttons on the boob tube.
31. He Faced Archie Bunker
In the 1970s Davis appeared in various TV shows. One that stands out is All in the Family: A comedy that dealt with prejudice by having a main character, Archie Bunker, who really was quite prejudiced himself. Davis plays himself and he wants to thank Archie for returning his lost briefcase. When the two men lean in for a photo, Davis does something that shocked America yet again.
32. He Got Cheeky On TV
Davis—playing himself—kissed his co-star, Carroll O’Connor on the cheek. He’d done it again, and this time with a man! Audiences in the studio and at home went crazy—but mostly in a good way. TV Guide rated the episode, called “Sammy’s Visit,” number 13 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of all Time list. Times were certainly changing.
33. His Family Grew
Davis and his wife Britt had a daughter, Tracey, and they also adopted two boys: Mark and Jeff. During this time Davis was working nonstop and had very little time for his growing family. He had a restless energy that he could only satisfy with performing. Because of Davis’ crazy schedule, things weren’t looking good for the marriage. Davis’s betrayal definitely didn’t help matters.
34. He Chose Lola
Davis was constantly on tour and doing TV appearances: He was definitely a work-a-holic. With this came the other pitfall of fame: affairs. Davis was handsome, famous, and talented. He could have his pick of many women—and he did. In 1968, he ended up picking singer, model, actor, Lola Falana. The affair ended his marriage and sent Sammy into a dizzying tailspin.
35. He Hit Rock Bottom
Davis’ life spiraled downward after his divorce from Britt. He drank heavily and started taking drugs. Nothing seemed to numb the hurt he felt from losing his wife and three kids. Even though he’d been a neglectful husband and father, he needed his family in his life. This feeling of loss led Davis down a very dark and dangerous path.
36. He Had A Devilishly Good Time
The booze and drugs weren’t enough. Davis needed something more to make himself feel better. He tried Judaism, but it wasn’t working. He then looked in the opposite direction: to Satanism. Davis joined The Church of Satan after being invited by his barber to attend one of their very risque parties. He didn’t last long as a member—he said the parties got too wild.
Davis had had his walk on the wild side: He was ready to marry again.
37. He Felt Pressure
Earlier, it had been the white community that pressured Davis to marry a Black woman. This time, it was the Black community. So, in 1970, Davis married Black entertainer Altovise Gore. The book Deconstructing Sammy talks about how Davis only married Altovise Gore to please his Black fans. Surprise surprise, then that the marriage soon deteriorated into a sad humiliation.
38. He Mistreated His Mrs.
Davis was in yet another marriage that wasn’t his choice. It’s safe to say that the marriage certainly didn’t please his wife either. In addition to the drugs and booze, Davis had become addicted to dirty movies. And that led to Davis forcing his wife into some kinky behavior. Poor Gore, stuck in a marriage of convenience with a man going more and more out of his mind. We’ll soon see how her life, even after Davis, eventually grew even worse.
39. He Shocked An Audience
While living with Gore, Davis would often host film screenings for his friends. Fellow rat packer Paul Anka relates a story of a screening that Davis invited him and 30 or 40 others to. The crowd was just settling into their popcorn, when the adult film Deep Throat started up. Seeing the dirty movie on the screen stunned and embarrassed the audience. It didn’t, however, stop with just the film.
40. He Brought A Star Home
Davis ended up befriending Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. He convinced his wife to join in on some escapades that were so wild even Sinatra found them disgusting—and Sinatra was certainly no goody two shoes. Life at the Davis mansion was truly out of control. What Davis needed to straighten out was a connection to family.
41. He Was A Sore Loser
Davis had hired his adopted son Mark as an assistant stage manager. Mark was happy for some father time, but it soon went sour. They ended up fighting over a Vegas dancer that Mark was dating. Turns out that Davis, 72 at the time, wanted her for himself. When he couldn’t take her away from his son, he stopped talking to Mark for eight months! Eventually, he did connect with Mark again, because he had a doozy of a revelation.
42. His LIfestyle Had Consequences
Being a member of the Rat Pack meant your hands were always full: mostly with smokes and cocktails. These vices, however, have a way of catching up on you. First the drinking: Davis’s doctor said he had liver cirrhosis. Davis managed to get that under control, only to learn he had throat cancer—that was from the smokes. Davis’ time was running out. He had to get something off his chest.
43. He Had A Big Reveal
Remember back when I said that Davis had adopted two boys? Well, according to Mark Davis, this wasn’t totally correct. Mark tells the story of Davis calling him to his deathbed in 1990. When Mark arrived, Davis simply said to him: “You are my son.” He was saying that Mark wasn’t adopted, but was his biological son. It doesn’t have the same “force” as Darth Vader’s similar revelation—but Mark got the drift. The only problem was: Could he believe him?
44. He Needed Proof
Mark was still reeling from his father’s confession, but he wanted proof. He tracked down his birth certificate and saw it in black and white. Listed as his father was Sammy Davis Jr.—one mystery solved. Under the heading “mother” Mark saw May Britt, Davis’s wife at the time. Only half of this information turned out to be correct.
45. There Was A Mystery Mother
Once Mark Davis learned that Davis was his real father, he wanted to know about his mother. Of course, Mark turned around and asked Britt flat out: Are you my mother? The answer from Britt was a firm, “No.” Many speculate that Mark was the product of a relationship that Davis had had with another white woman. They’d kept the birth secret because of prejudice. Who the real mother is, though, is still a mystery.
46. He Got Robbed
After his confession to his son, Davis’ health continued to deteriorate and it became clear that the end was near. Davis’ employees saw his vulnerability as an opportunity to make a quick buck. They reportedly looted his home—taking artwork, jewelry, and priceless memorabilia. This was especially sad because Davis and his inheritors were about to need every last dime.
47. The IRS Appeared
On May 16, 1990, Davis succumbed to his illness. The very next day, the cold-hearted IRS arrived at his mansion to seize his assets. It turns out that Davis wasn’t quite up to date on his taxes: He owed $7.5 million dollars. The IRS asked any family members to leave the premises and started on their job. The family added up what was left after the looting, and came to a grim conclusion.
48. He Left A Debt
So, what did Davis’ third wife, Altovise Gore, get after being humiliated in a loveless marriage? She received a bunch of debt. She and Davis had filed joint tax returns, so that meant that she inherited what he owed in taxes. Gore made a deal with the IRS and paid most of it off by selling Davis’ properties and other assets. She, however, was left with nothing but a memory of living a glamorous life.
49. She Ended Up Penniless
Davis’ wife Gore no longer lived a life of excess—unless you count excess sadness. According to the book Deconstructing Sammy, Gore lived for a time in an apartment with no refrigerator and a serious cockroach infestation. Any income she had came from bottles she found in the neighborhood dumpsters. In 2009, a stroke ended her life.
50. Not Much Of A Legacy
And what about Davis’ son? The one who Davis had adopted, but not adopted. Mark Davis is currently a family man. He’s been married three times—just like his dad—but has committed himself to creating a stable home for his small family: Not like the one he had with Sammy Davis Jr. Did being Davis’ son make him rich? Well, Mark Davis works at Costco—so we can assume not.
51. He Attacked His Wife
While it’s not unusual for a groom to have a few too many at the reception, Davis definitely went way over the edge. He pounded them back and became completely inebriated, likely because he was marrying a woman he didn’t love. That doesn’t forgive what he did, though. Davis was walking his lovely bride to the honeymoon suite and on the way down the hall, he tried to choke her.
Luckily White managed to get free and flee, but Davis’s horrible night wasn’t over yet. It was about to get even worse.
52. He Just Wanted To Live His Life
Later that same night, Davis’ personal assistant went to check up on him. What he found in Davis’ hotel room stopped him cold: Davis had a revolver pointed at his head. Davis looked at his assistant and cried: “Why won’t they let me live my life?” Luckily the assistant was able to diffuse the situation, and Davis divorced White the next year.