In October, I interviewed Sam Pollard about his Sammy Davis Jr. documentary “I’ve Gotta Be Me” before it screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival (you can listen to that conversation here). Unfortunately, I couldn’t go that night, but wrote about how Sammy was one of the performers I wish I had seen in person during his prime. Last night, there was another screening of the movie, this time to kick off the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, and I made sure I was there. I’m so glad I did.
The documentary touches on almost every aspect of Sammy’s 60-year career, which started when he was just three years old, working with his father and his “uncle” Will Mastin. It includes interviews with lots of Sammy’s contemporaries (Jerry Lewis, Kim Novak, Quincy Jones, Diahann Carroll), those influenced by him (Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg), as well as his biographers and others who knew him behind the scenes. There are also lots of clips of Davis appearing on TV talk shows (Mike Douglas, David Letterman, Dinah Shore, Arsenio Hall) discussing very openly the issues he’d faced, including the fact that because he started working onstage so young, he never attended a day of school in his entire life.
Pollard doesn’t avoid the tougher aspects of Sammy’s biography: that famous embrace of Richard Nixon in 1972; his being shunned by other black people; the uproar that accompanied his marriage to the white, Norwegian actress May Britt; how he and co-star Paula Wayne dealt with the backlash of being the first to pucker up for an interracial kiss on Broadway during the run of “Golden Boy.”
But the documentary also includes a lot of footage of Davis doing what he did best — singing, dancing, impressions, acting, and playing around with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin during the heyday of The Rat Pack. It also delves into his support of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, discusses his money problems, and has Norman Lear explaining how the Sammy Davis/Archie Bunker kiss on “All In The Family” in 1972 (which made the audience laugh so hard and long they had to cut it down before airing) was very much Sammy’s idea.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Sammy, but I learned a lot more by watching “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” It made me even sadder that I was never in the same room when he performed, but grateful that there’s so much of him available on film and video (and YouTube). The documentary has made the rounds of other film festivals and is supposed to air on the PBS “American Masters” series later this year. When it does, don’t miss it. I give it a 10 out 10.