“I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican,” the legendary Sammy Davis, Jr. once said at a performance. “When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”
Davis is a true cultural icon, but, below the surface, his life remains something of a mystery. He rose to fame as a singer, dancer, actor, and impressionist at a time of extreme discrimination — both before and during the civil rights movement.
Notably, he was one of the members of the “Rat Pack,” a group of entertainers made up of icons like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop. They performed in Las Vegas and in Hollywood movies in the 1960s — which was groundbreaking at the time for a Black man.
It’s an understatement to say Davis lived a full life, having experienced so much before his untimely death from cancer in 1990 at age 64 of laryngeal cancer, of which he received radiation and chemotherapy for — he also had surgery to have his larynx removed.
That being said, he’s now the subject of a new documentary, Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which and will be shown on PBS stations later this year as part of the American Masters series.
Here are some facts you may not know about the man who famously called himself “the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.”
1. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
2. At age 3, he began performing with is family, who were also entertainers, and never attended school. He grew up in New York City.
3. Despite his success, he often had to stay at “Black Only” hotels, illustrating the extreme racism he faced.
4. In 1943, at age 18, Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army’s first integrated infantry unit. In the documentary, there’s an interview in which Davis mentioned how he was painted white and had urine poured into his beer.
5. He was in a romance with actress Kim Novak, which was scandalous at the time because it was an interracial relationship at a time of extreme racism. They were forced to break up, as Columbia Studios threatened to ruin both their careers if they married.
6. Davis supported Republican President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign — which caused controversy in the Black community. He later apologized and admitted his support was a mistake.
7. In 1961, Davis converted to Judaism at a Las Vegas ceremony after studying with Rabbi Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
8. While filming Porgy and Bess in 1959, he insisted on not working on Yom Kippur.
9. Davis’ second wife was Swedish actress May Britt, which caused controversy at the time, as interracial marriages were still illegal in 31 states. Because of this, he wasn’t allowed to perform with his Rat Pack crew at JFK’s inauguration.
10. Davis wore a mezuzah around his neck for good luck after he received it in 1953 from Eddie Cantor.
11. He lost his left eye in a car accident on Nov. 15, 1954, in San Bernardino.
12. Davis and his third wife, Altovise, an entertainer and dancer, were the first Black couple to be invited to stay at the White House; they were invited by Nixon.
13. In 1960, he appeared in the Rat Pack film Ocean’s 11, which was later remade with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
14. In 1966, he had his own TV variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show.
15. He said his mother, Elvera Sanchez, an Afro-Cuban dancer, was Puerto Rican, because he was afraid anti-Cuban backlash would hurt his career.
16. He was friends with Elvis Presley and sang a version of Presley’s song “In the Ghetto” and made a cameo appearance in Presley’s concert film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.
17. Davis was also a photographer. His work was showcased in a 2007 book by Burt Boyar, Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr.
18. Davis said Judaism felt natural: “After the accident I needed something desperately to hold onto. I found myself being more and more convinced that Judaism was it for me. I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.”
19. Meanwhile, his son Manny, Davis’ adopted son, felt confused about father’s conversion, stating he had “a Black Catholic mother and a Black Jewish father. I didn’t know what to think.”
20. He had a difficult relationship with his daughter, Tracy Davis. She wrote a memoir about her father, saying he often missed major events like birthdays and her college graduation. While they did make up later in life, she wrote, “I am not saying that he didn’t love us, but work was his driving force.”
21. He performed one of the most famous kisses on television in a 1972 episode of All in the Family. Sammy was featured as himself and kissed Archie’s cheek at the end. It was apparently one of the show’s most iconic episodes and went on to be nominated for two Emmys.
For nostalgia’s sake, here are some of our favorite songs of his:
1. Love Me or Leave Me
2. Something’s Gotta Give
3. Hey There
4. Who Can I Turn To?
5. Too Close for Comfort