Now in its 26th year of entertaining film fans across the globe, Turner Classic Movies is still finding fresh ways to delight viewers. On Tuesday, in a first for the Atlanta-based network as part of its month-long Summer Under The Stars, examining a single star’s career-length filmography over 24 hours, the work of iconic singer-dancer-actor Sammy Davis Jr. will be featured starting at 6 a.m. EST.
And while there will be often-broadcast favorites, including Davis’ Rat Pack flicks made with pallies Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (1964’s “Robin and the Seven Hoods” airs at 3:30 pm EST and the shot-at-The Sands Las Vegas casino caper, 1960’s “Ocean’s 11” airs at 5:45 pm EST), for Davis fans like Jamie McGregor, who operates SammyDavisJr.Info, the authoritative Davis fan site in Sydney, Australia, it’s the nooks and crannies of his career that most fascinate him.
“It’s fantastic to see Sammy Davis, Jr.’s film career highlighted by TCM,” says McGregor. “As time goes on, Sammy’s silver screen contributions have been unfortunately overlooked in favor of his lasting contributions as a singer, dancer and general entertainer. But Hollywood really was one of Sammy’s greatest loves – for decades he took hundreds of films reels with him on tour all over the world. Sammy was obsessed by movie trivia, as anyone who has read his [1980 memoir] ‘Hollywood in a Suitcase’ would know, and used to hold competitions with another singer film buff, Mel Tormé, in which they would try to catch each other out with some small detail of motion picture history! The two even went head-to-head with one another on the 1969 celebrity movie trivia game show ‘The Movie Game.’”
Jazz singer Torme’, Davis’ longtime friend and an occasional actor himself, not unexpectedly, turns up in one of the performer’s best but least known films, 1966’s “A Man Called Adam.” Directed by Leo Penn (Sean Penn’s father) and produced by Davis and set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s, the drama may be one of the best jazz films ever committed to celluloid. In addition to singing from Torme’, jazz innovator Louis Armstrong co-stars, along with Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis and Frank Sinatra Jr., all set to a jazz score by Benny Carter (In the tortured title role of Adam Johnson jazz trumpeter, Davis faithfully fakes playing the work of Nat Adderly). Jazz fans should also keep an eye out for Joe Williams, Kai Winding and even Davis’ own musical director George Rhodes as Leroy.
Airing in primetime at 9:45 EST Tuesday, TCM host Alicia Malone will be introducing film fans to the seldom-seen drama.
“What strikes me the most is the raw talent he had for acting,” says Malone. “In the Rat Pack pictures and his performances onstage as a singer, he showed his impressive gift for entertaining audiences. But in these dramatic roles, he seemed to be an instinctual actor — with his emotions coming from real, lived experiences rather than anything that was imagined or directed. He was an icon who is so familiar to us all, and yet, when you watch ‘Anna Lucasta’ [Davis’ dramatic debut, airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday] and ‘A Man Called Adam,’ you completely forget you are seeing Sammy Davis Jr. In particular, ‘A Man Called Adam’ is devastating in the scenes where his character experiences racism. Something that he himself had to deal with throughout his career.”
“’A Man Called Adam’ was a very ambitious exercise for Sammy, who was both producer and star of the film (and was also starring on Broadway in ‘Golden Boy’ during production),” says McGregor. “He wanted to make an ‘authentic’ jazz film, featuring real-life jazz musicians, and he succeeded on that front by attracting a simply stellar cast and incorporating a thrilling jazz score by Benny Carter. While the film suffers from a melodramatic script and a problematic ending, it is elevated by Sammy’s performance – Adam is a very complicated character whose mood swings wildly throughout the film, and Sammy clearly puts his heart and soul into his portrayal. Don’t miss the impressive film debut of Lola Falana, and, if you can spot him, a very young Morgan Freeman appearing as an extra in the big party scene.”
Malone also has the opportunity to introduce director Bob Fosse’s often-overlooked 1969 musical, “Sweet Charity,” starring Shirley MacLaine. With less than nine minutes of screen time as Big Daddy, Davis nearly runs off with the picture with his big musical number, “Rhythm of Life.”
“I really believe that ‘Sweet Charity’ is an underrated musical,” says Malone. “It’s exciting to have it air on TCM, as this is a film that is so rarely screened anywhere — despite the fact that many of its songs are widely known, like ‘Big Spender’ and ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now.’ At the time, critics like Vincent Canby from the New York Times thought it was ‘long, noisy, and, finally, a dim imitation of its source material.’ But to view it now, it’s exciting. You see Bob Fosse experimenting with creativity on his very first film, packing the movie with unexpected dance numbers.
Adds Malone: “And you root for Shirley MacLaine as Charity, who struggles with a secret from her past — another woman feared of being shamed for her sexuality. The stand-out number is definitely ‘Rhythm of Life’ where Sammy Davis Jr emerges from a parking lot in tight leather pants, as Big Daddy — an evangelical cult-like leader who sings about ‘leaving his common-law life to spread the religion of the Rhythm of Life.’ The whole number is full of color, 1960s dancing and the stunned faces of his hippie followers. And with the sheer force of Davis Jr’s magnetism on display, you can’t help but think how you too, might also join a cult, if he was the leader!”
The day-long Turner Classic Movies Summer Under The Stars salute to Sammy also includes films like 1962’s “Convicts 4” airing at 1:30 p.m. EST. While Davis’ screen time is limited, what happened off screen during the shoot was pure Sammy, according to McGregor. “The film’s main character is John Resko (Ben Gazzara), a prisoner on death row and Sammy has a brief but important supporting role as his cell-mate, Wino,” says McGregor. “Sammy plays his two scenes with a steely intensity, which impressed his scene partner Gazzara, who later remembered that ‘Sammy was letter perfect. He was prepared. He was very disciplined and he took it seriously.’”
Adds McGregor: “Sammy clearly responded to the film’s subversive approach to the question of the humanity of incarceration. The film was partly shot at Folsom Prison, and as part of the production, Sammy agreed to perform a show there for two thousand inmates – six years before Johnny Cash’s far more famous appearance in 1968. Sammy even invited a couple of prisoners onto stage to play trumpet and sax, treating them as equals. It was a choice that the Folsom Historical Society’s historian, Kaitlyn Scott, considers to have been extraordinary at that time.”
Davis, reteams with Rat Pack pallie Peter Lawford for the 1970 comedy “One More Time,” a zany picture (directed by Jerry Lewis, no less!) that brilliantly illustrates the fun of watching TCM’s Summer Under The Stars each August. Airing at 11:30 a.m., EST Tuesday, the comedy is by no means an Oscar contender but it offers movie fans an opportunity to see something they likely wouldn’t have ever stumbled across on Netflix.
“’One More Time,’ is actually a sequel to the spy genre spoof Sammy had starred in with Peter Lawford, titled ‘Salt and Pepper,’ previews McGregor. “This caper farce sees Sammy and Peter play London nightclub owners Charles Salt and Christopher Pepper. Mostly notable as the only feature film directed by Jerry Lewis in which he did not personally star, ‘One More Time’ could have only been Oscar-nominated in the category of Most Self-Indulgent Film! But if you go in expecting some trademark Lewis slapstick and surrealism, a striking color palette, and to see a movie that Sammy, Peter and Jerry clearly had a ton of fun making, you won’t be disappointed. And there’s a bonkers cameo by horror legends Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as Dracula!”
Finally, Sammy Davis Jr. fans will want to set the DVR (or stream it later this week on the Watch TCM app) for the performer’s poignant final film role in 1989’s “Tap” co-starring Gregory Hines airing Wednesday at 2:15 a.m. EST.
Says McGregor: “Sammy’s final role was very close to his heart. Playing Big Mo, a down-on-his-luck former hoofer and the father of dance teacher Amy (Suzzanne Douglas), Sammy was paying tribute to ex-vaudevillians whom he felt had contributed so much to show business, but never made it ‘big’ themselves. During filming Sammy’s own father, Sam Sr. – who fit that description perfectly – passed away. The two were very close, and undoubtedly Sammy channeled his emotions at this time into the part.”
Adds McGregor: “Hines famously idolized Sammy and their on-screen relationship sparkles. Along with Hines’ virtuoso dancing, one of the film’s unmissable highlights is a dance number featuring Hines, Sammy and several tap luminaries including Sandman Sims, Harold Nicholas, Bunny Briggs and Jimmy Slyde.”
The Turner Classic Movies Summer Under The Stars day-long salute to the cinematic works of Sammy Davis Jr. begins at 6 a.m. EST Tuesday with director George Sydney’s 1960’s “Pepe” with cameos from 35 Hollywood stars, including Davis Jr. For the complete line-up go to, TCM.com.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.