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Bruce Forsyth on Sammy Davis Jr
“Many people ask me what I’ve enjoyed most in my long career in showbusiness. My answer is always the same. Working with Sammy Davis Jr on a special we made together in 1980. Of all of the many shows I’ve been associated with – well, that was the best,” says Sir Bruce Forsyth.
Sir Bruce Forsyth considers Sammy Davis Jr to be the greatest entertainer of all time – a performer who could sing, dance, act, tell jokes, do impersonations…and all to an astonishingly high standard. His was a career that emerged from the dying days of vaudeville and continued to superstardom, taking in nightclub performances, Broadway and West End theatre, Hollywood movies, network television the biggest showrooms in Las Vegas and performances for royalty and presidents.
Bruce meets friends and collaborators of Sammy Davis Jnr, people who worked with him on some of his most celebrated performances and travels to the US and London to visit locations important in Sammy’s life and career, including the location of his 1954 car accident.
Sir Bruce first met Sammy Davis Jr in May 1960 when he was hosting The Royal Command Performance in front of Her Majesty The Queen, and Sammy was top of the bill. And so began a friendship that lasted to Sammy’s death in 1990.
“I think since Sammy’s death many people have forgotten just how brilliant a performer he was. Watching again the footage of him working - well, I’d forgotten just what an exciting entertainer he really was. And to achieve all that with everything else he had to face – the racism in particular – it makes his story all the more remarkable.”
And it is a remarkable story. Born into poverty in Harlem, New York in 1925, Sammy went on the road from the age of three with his vaudeville performer father Sam and his partner in the act Will Mastin. By the age of five he’d appeared in his first movie, and at the age of sixteen Frank Sinatra had spotted his potential when he’d seen The Will Mastin Trio perform. After wartime service in the US Army he made his Las Vegas debut in 1946, but – like all black entertainers at the time – was not allowed to stay overnight in the hotel in which he appeared as the star act.
Davis’ career blossomed in the early Fifties, but a near-fatal road accident in 1954 resulted in him losing his left eye. He bounced back with an extraordinary comeback performance two months later, confirming his position as a major American star.
In 1957 he began dating Kim Novak. Novak was signed to Columbia Pictures, and its boss Harry Cohn did not want his hot young starlet to be dating a black man. In the programme Sir Bruce learns about how Sammy was threatened by Cohn if he didn’t end the relationship.
Sammy’s marriage to white actress May Britt in 1960 created more problems for him in the US. Despite campaigning for John F Kennedy in that year’s Presidential Election, his invitation to the Inauguration was withdrawn. He later befriended Bobby Kennedy, and was devastated when he was killed in 1968.
In addition to learning of Sammy’s struggle against racism and bigotry to become one of America’s most in-demand entertainers, Sir Bruce looks back at some of Davis’ great triumphs and enjoys again the sheer artistry of his performances.
During the production of this film Sir Bruce travelled to California where he interviewed Burt Boyar (co-author of Sammy Davis Jr’s autobiography Yes I Can), George Schlatter (friend of Sammy, and producer of his 60th Anniversary TV Special), Steve Blauner (friend of Sammy) and Gary Smith (producer of Sammy’s television specials).
In the UK he interviewed Madeline Bell (regarded Sammy as a role model), Leslie Bricusse (wrote over sixty songs for Sammy) and Lionel Blair (friend of Sammy, and performed with him). Sir Bruce visited locations where Sammy performed in London, including The London Palladium, the Victoria Palace theatre, the London Hippodrome (formerly The Talk of The Town) and The Pigalle Club.
Directed: Ian Denyer
Producer: Mark Wells
The Perspectives documentary strand brings together powerful stories and unique insights into the arts from a range of well-known figures. Now in its fourth year, the strand will encompass six films from a rich variety of distinctive individuals offering their take on subjects for which they have a personal enthusiasm and fascination.