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Saturday night at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, a new documentary film explores the life of the talented singer, dancer, and actor Sammy Davis, Jr.
Davis’s life on stage began in the late 1920s. He was a child dancer and singer as a member of the Will Mastin Trio. For a remarkable six decades, he remained in the popular culture spotlight.
In Las Vegas, he was a member of the famed Rat Pack.
There were many high and low points in his life and career – all explored in the film, “Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me" directed by Sam Pollard.
Pollard said Davis came from a showbiz family. Both parents were performers and he was pushed onto the stage by them at an early age.
But that led, Pollard said, to a lonely life because he never grew up around children. Instead, he grew up around adult performers his whole life. Pollard said that lifestyle made Sammy into a lonely man.
"One of the reasons he used to like to have all of his people around him come over to his house after a show and party was because he didn't want to be alone," Pollard said, "For him to be alone was something in some ways very frightening to Sammy Davis, Jr."
Pollard believes that is one of the reasons Sammy always had a foot in two worlds. One foot was in the black community and the other was in the white community.
"He wanted to be loved by everyone," Pollard said.
That sometimes got him in trouble. Pollard pointed to the incident when President Richard Nixon was running for re-election and Sammy appeared at a re-election event and hugged Nixon.
Pollard said that angered many in the black community because they didn't feel that Nixon was a friend of the community.
A few days later when Sammy made an appearance at a show in Chicago he was booed. However, in true Sammy Davis, Jr. form, Pollard said, he turned the crowd around - the only way he knew how - performing.
"It is one of the most poignant moments in the film. Sammy Davis, Jr. saying to his audience, 'You may not love me. You may not like me, but you have got to respect me as a performer and I'm going to show you how I am and what I am by singing this song "I Gotta Be Me."'"
Pollard said, in the end, the audience applauded him because "of all the missteps that Sammy Davis, Jr. made in his life... you couldn't take away the fact that he was a phenomenal, phenomenal entertainer."
Sammy used that talent in a lot of ways to "push the ceiling" of racism, Pollard said, and to become not just a major star but a legend.
He was one of the first black performers to do impressions of white performers, which was something that was unheard of at the time.
The film about Sammy is being featured at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival because he converted to Judaism after a car accident where he lost an eye.
During his recovery, a rabbi came to visit him.
"He was looking for something," Pollard explained, "Religiously he was feeling lost... and somehow Judaism really touched him and moved him."
So, he began to talk with a rabbi and read about the faith. Pollard said Sammy was very serious about his Jewish faith.
Sammy Davis, Jr. died of cancer in 1990, but a few months before his death he was honored in a TV special on ABC.
Dancer and actor Gregory Hines gave Sammy some tap shoes and asked him to come to the stage and dance with him, which Sammy did.
"You can see this man, who basically didn't have much longer to live, he was still superb - superb was the word for him when he was dancing," Pollard said.
And Pollard said there wouldn't have been a Michael Jackson or a Gregory Hines without Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sam Pollard, film director
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