Thursday, May 17, 1990 | 6 a.m.
Sammy Davis Jr., a versatile and dynamic singer, dancer and actor who overcame extraordinary obstacles to become a leading American entertainer, died of cancer Wednesday. He was 64 years old.
The showman was born in a Harlem tenement, grew up in vaudeville from age 3 and never went to school.
His talents - as a mime, comedian, trumpeter, drummer, pianist, vibraphone player as well as singer and dancer - were shaped from his childhood and eventually made him one of the nation's first black performers to gain mainstream acclaim.
With heavy jewelry around his neck and on his fingers and clad in a snug jumpsuit, or tuxedo, the short, slim showman with a broken nose, defiant jaw and big, crooked smile had a rakish charm that energized stages for decades.
He sold out leading nightclubs and concert halls, won personal triumphs to such Broadway musicals as "Mr. Wonderful" (1955) and "Golden Boy" (1964), illumined movies and television and made scores of hit recordings with such signature songs as "What Kind of Fool Am I?" "Candy Man," "Mr. Bojangles" and "I've Gotta Be Me."
The triumphs were punctuated by sometimes ugly controversies - abuse and slurs by whites, particularly over his marriage to a white actress, May Britt; resentment by blacks over what they viewed as his white life style and widespread skepticism over his mid-j1950s conversion to Judaism.
Davis also endured major health setbacks. He lost his left eye in a near-fatal 1954 auto crash, had reconstructive hip surgery in 1985 that enabled him to dance again and was found last year to have throat cancer.
He underwent radiation treatments for eight weeks for a carcinoma growing behind his vocal cords until his doctors said the cancer was in remission.
The debilitating illness and treatment prompted 26 of his fellow entertainers to salute his courage and longtime efforts to lower racial barriers in a 2.5 hour television tribute on Feb. 4, 1990.
The frail but indomitable Davis could speak only in a husky whisper, but he rose to do a brief soft-shoe step to a standing ovation.
Only a year earlier, he had announced his defeat of alcohol and cocaine.
He completed a gobal tour with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli (who filled in for an ailing Dean Martin) and extolled a biography, "Why Me?" on which he had collaborated with his friends Jane and Burt Boyar as a sequel to the group's best-selling 1965 Davis biography, "Yes I Can."
The 1989 book said that John F. Kennedy had asked Davis and Miss Britt not to participate in the 1961 presidential inauguration lest the sight of an interracial couple anger Southerners.
Davis also recounted the racism that haunted his life from bloody fights in the Army to being turned away from New York nightclubs.
His conversion to Judaism, according to the book, arose from self-scrutiny during his convalescence from the 1954 car crash.
His family was Baptist and until then he had thought little of religion, but he studied Judaism deeply, concluded "it teaches justice for everyone" and found "an affinity" between Jews and blacks, who have both "been oppressed for centuries."
The second biography also explored the breakup of his marriage to Miss Britt, who, in devoring him in 1968, cited "no family life to speak of" and his neglect of their three children: a daughter, Tracey, and two adopted sons, Mark and Jeff.
He had previously been married briefly to Loray White, a dancer, and in 1970 he married Altovise Gore, also a dancer.
Davis admitted to compulsive carousing and reckless gambling and spending ($50 million over 20 years while earning $3 million a year) and excessive drinking and smoking.
With characteristic bravado, he once again hailed himself as a reformed man, boasting of sobriety with such ironies as: "The hardest thing is waking up in the morning and realizing that's as good as you're going to feel all day."
Yet there was a more private side to Davis.
The entertainer eschewed publicity while taking part in civil rights marches and contributing generously to humanitarian causes.
His many awards included into the Hall of Fame of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, honorary degrees from black colleges, and a Kennedy Center honor for career achievement.
Sammy Davis Jr. was born to Sammy Davis and the former Elvira Sanchez on Dec. 8, 1925 in a Harlem tenement at 140th Street and Eight Avenue.
He was brought up by his father's mother, Rosa Davis, while his parents, both vaudevillians, were on tour.
In his third year, his mother left the act and also the family, and he joined the Orpheum circuit with his father and an adopted uncle, Will Mastin.
With typical zest, the youngster learned show business while his father got him occasional tutors to appease truant officers.
As sound movies began to cripple vaudeville, the troupe shrank and eventually became "The Will Mastin Trio. featuring Sammy Davis Jr."
Drafted at 18, he graduated from comic books through remedial reading lessons from a black sergeant while he battled racists taunts and insults from white soldiers who repaid him several times by breaking his nose.
Performing in Army camps around the country he worked hard, he recalled, to reach the bigots, "neutralize them and make them acknowledge" him.
After the war, with vaudeville nearly dead, the Will Mastin Trio had several lean years struggling to break into variety theaters and cabarets around the country. Gradually, as Davis honed his talents, the act became his showcase, with the father and uncle providing tap and soft-shoe background.
The group, now "starring Sammy Davis Jr.," began playing top variety houses and nightclubs, where they became headliners and repeatedly broke box-office records, while he gained solo prominence with recordings and television appearances as a variety showman and actor.
On Broadway, Davis had many concert successes and starred in three musicals, the quasi-biographical "Mr. Wonderful" in 1956, an updated "Golden Boy" in 1964 and a 1978 revival of "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off."
Among his movie roles were Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" (1959) and an avuncular dancer in "Tap" (1989).
His films also included "Ocean's 11" (1960), "Sergeants 3" (1962), "Johnny Cool" (1963) and "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (1964).
Davis is survived by his wife, their adopted son, Manny; his three children from the marriage to Miss Britt, two sisters, Ramona James of New York City and Suzette Davis of Portland, Ore.; and several grandchildren.