Having the opportunity to interview Sammy Davis Jr., even over the telephone, would have been terrific — at some other point in the entertainer's life. I'd been a fan of his since the early 1950s, when he was part of the Will Mastin Trio. Davis always referred to Mastin as his uncle, but they actually weren't related. Mastin and Sammy Davis Sr. were close friends who performed together even before Junior joined the act — at age 3.
The act performed in the Syracuse area in October, 1957, and was billed The Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis Jr. I was at Kent State University at the time and unable to see the show, which was presented at an area nightclub called The Three Rivers Inn, so named because it was located where the Oneida and Seneca rivers converged and formed the Oswego River which flows north to Lake Ontario. (Davis performed there again in 1962, probably solo, and had performed with the Will Mastin Trio in the Syracuse area several times in the 1930s when he was a boy.)
In 1966, when I had my phone interview with Davis, he was at an awkward stage in his career, and a controversial point in his personal life. His marriage to Mai Britt was considered something of a consolation prize after his romance with Kim Novak had been squashed eight years earlier by Novak's boss, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Davis was kidnapped long enough for some of Cohn's goons to frighten him into marrying someone else. Cohn didn't relish his biggest star, the very blonde, very white Novak entering into a mixed marriage.
Mai Britt was almost as blonde and almost as white, but she was Swedish, independent and didn't answer to any studio boss. She also wasn't putting a film career at risk because it was already apparent, from her roles in "The Young Lions," "The Hunter," "The Blue Angel" and "Murder, Inc.", that all this exposure to American audiences had made little impact.
When I asked him about his marriage to Britt, he said, “Sure, Mai and I have our spats, but they’re just like the ones other couples have. I come home and she says, ‘What a day I’ve had!’ and I say, ‘Let me tell you about my day!’ and pretty soon we’re into it.
“The only difference is that newspaper and magazines write about us and magnify the problems. Just last week Mai told me, ‘Well, I see by the newspapers that we’re separated again.’ And then we had a good laugh about it. That’s all we can do.”
[NOTE: The laughter would stop in 1968 when the couple divorced. One reason was his affair with entertainer Lola Falana.]
However, what really made this interview ill-timed was the whole purpose of the call — to plug his new NBC series, "The Sammy Davis Jr. Show." Trouble was, ABC had him in a contractual bind that prevented him from appearing on the NBC program for more than three weeks after the premiere aired on January 7, 1966.
My story from this interview appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 16, 1966, two days after the second episode of "The Sammy Davis Jr. Show," except that it had been hosted by Johnny Carson. The show presented five days after my story ran was hosted by Sean Connery. Jerry Lewis filled in the week after that.
With that kind of a start, it's no wonder Davis' show disappeared after its 14th week.
But when we talked Davis sounded optimistic. The fact he was able to get Carson, Connery and Lewis to fill in was an indication of how many friends Davis had made. And he was depending on his friends to make his series a hit. This was especially evident on the premiere episode, on which ABC allowed him to appear.
His guests were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who agreed to work for Davis for $320 apiece. Previously they had turned down a $500,000 offer from another television show.
Taylor’s appearance did the job Davis hoped it would.
“I wanted someone who could break the backs of the other networks, and that’s just what Elizabeth did. Our rating was tremendous on the first show.”
It remains to be seen whether her disappointing performance – disappointing in that she revealed herself to be kind of a giggle head – will actually hurt the Davis show in the long run.
“I wanted the first show to be a sample ... to demonstrate that we’ll have fun with guests who have no business being on TV. I want to keep people guessing ... to have them tune in because they’ll want to see what that nut Sammy Davis will do.”
Davis deliberately kept the first show from being a one-man performance. “Man, that’s the easiest thing for me to do, but I’d like the show to say around a couple years, and to do that I can’t put too much of me into it. People would get tired of me.”
The amazing thing is that Sammy Davis Jr. hasn’t gotten tired of being Sammy. You’d think the guy would relax once in a while, but, no, he’s almost always on the go. His current weekly schedule includes eight performances of “Golden Boy” on Broadway, daily shooting on a movie (“A Man Called Adam”) and his television show. In addition he manages the career of singer-dancer Lola Falana, and is head of Sammy Davis Enterprises, a TV production company.
Much of his drive stems from the fact of his race – African-American entertainers do have to try harder. In his early days Davis was “discovered” about nine times before stardom took hold. The frustration and insecurity that followed the first eight discoveries undoubtedly provide the fuel that keeps Davis at full speed.
Then, too, show business is forever fresh for Davis. His appetite for performing has never been satisfied. He is always seeking new projects, new outlets, new heights to reach. The enthusiasm he displays on stage is genuine.
He claims that he thrives on work, but says doctors have expressed concern.
“Man, I’ve already astounded two throat specialists who told me before ‘Golden Boy’ that I was going to lose my voice unless I stopped singing for awhile.
“I didn’t listen to them because I had faith in myself, as well as a responsibility to those who backed the show. I kept going and it paid off. I’m hitting notes now that I couldn’t hit before I started the show.”
Davis says he has a condition called “athletic heart” which necessitates keeping a pace that would wear out a normal person.
“Man, the worst thing I could do would be to slow down,” he said.
But Davis had no choice during the last years of his life. He remained a big name, but his movies and television appearances became more and more routine. Considered the best all-around entertainer in the business, he fell victim to throat cancer. He resisted surgery for as long as he could, but eventually yielded.
He died on May 16, 1990. He was 64.