PBS’ ‘American Masters’ remembers Sammy Davis, Jr.

PBS biography series recalls multitalented star-for-all-venues

The subject’s (center) “Rat Pack” movies are covered in the new “American Masters” profile “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).

Sammy Davis Jr. was one of entertainment’s most unique talents, as is well-known by a legendary stage and screen composer who reaped some of the benefits.

The dynamic, barrier-busting singer-dancer-actor is recalled in PBS’ new “American Masters” profile “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” Tuesday, Feb. 19 (check local listings). Davis’ career spanned every show-business medium, as confirmed by interviewees in director Sam Pollard’s clip-laden documentary that takes its title from one of the subject’s most popular records.

Among those commenting: Billy Crystal, who was an opening act for live Davis performances and later portrayed him on “Saturday Night Live”; Whoopi Goldberg; former Davis girlfriend Kim Novak; Quincy Jones; Chita Rivera; political veteran Donald Rumsfeld; the late Jerry Lewis; television-producing icon Norman Lear, whose “All in the Family” featured a memorable Davis appearance; and Broadway composer Charles Strouse, in whose “Golden Boy” Davis starred.

Also featured in the program is Leslie Bricusse, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer, lyricist and playwright whose “The Candy Man” (from the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (from the stage musical “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off”) also became Davis hits. Longtime collaborator Anthony Newley wrote both tunes with Bricusse, who recalled his first encounter with Davis for this article.

“American Masters” debuts “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).

“We first met in London, when Newley and I did “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off,’ and Sammy was opening his one-man show at the theater next door. He spent the week before he opened coming to see ‘Stop the World’ every evening, and he fell in love with the songs and was the first person to record the score. That was a tremendous help when we took the show to Broadway, and we all became great pals.”

Just under a decade later, Davis serviced Bricusse and Newley greatly again with “The Candy Man.” As Bricusse explains, Davis “had just joined MGM Records, and a man called Mike Curb was his producer and encouraged him to do it. Also, Sammy was very aware that Frank Sinatra had a big hit with the children’s song ‘High Hopes.’”

Bricusse recalls that from the start, he and fellow London native Newley were “totally in awe of Sammy’s talent as a performer. No one in England had ever seen anyone remotely like him before. He could do everything.

“After he died,” adds Bricusse, “I put a book together with all the songs he’d recorded … and Quincy Jones said, ‘You know, there’s a show in here. We should do it.’ And it took a long time to germinate, but I have now written a show called ‘Sammy,’ which opens in London this summer.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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