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Consummate Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. Dies at 64

May 17, 1990|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sammy Davis Jr., the quintessential showman embraced by his peers as "Mr. Entertainment" for his enormous talent and versatility, died early Wednesday morning at his home in Beverly Hills after a nine-month battle with throat cancer.

Death came as friends and fans of the diminutive, 64-year-old entertainer maintained a vigil outside his home. They had been gathering there since Tuesday when word began to circulate that the end was near.

The tributes were immediate:

Frank Sinatra, who with Davis, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford became Hollywood's fast-living "Rat Pack" of the 1960s and who knew him for 40 years, said he "wished the world could have known Sam as I did. . . . It was a generous God who gave him to us for all these years . . . . Sam was the best friend a man could have."

Said Bishop: "Guess they must need a good show up in Heaven, that's all I can say." Then he added, "God I'm sorry. I loved him."

Martin hailed Davis as a great entertainer and "an even greater friend, not only to me, but to everyone whose life he touched."

Former President Ronald Reagan remembered him as "a special talent which made him more than just a great entertainer--it made him magical." Comedian Bill Cosby said that "it would have been fantastic to see him at age 82 still enjoying performing for the people. I'll see him later."

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley--who counted Davis among his friends and political supporters--ordered the city's flags flown at half staff.

Davis had battled the cancer in his throat since September, when a tumor was discovered growing behind his vocal cords. He began a series of radiation treatments that left his skin discolored and raw enough to bleed when he touched his throat.

When his illness became known, fans around the world deluged him with letters letting him know that he was in their prayers.

Show business friends from Sinatra and Cosby to Liza Minnelli and Steve Lawrence rallied to his side, putting themselves at his disposal. A month before the cancer was detected, Davis, Sinatra and Minnelli (filling in for an ailing Dean Martin) had been on a reunion tour, bringing sellout audiences to their feet.

His friends' affection for the man who enjoyed describing himself as a "little one-eyed colored guy" was nowhere more evident than during a television tribute earlier this year, commemorating his more than six decades in show business.

Said singer Whitney Houston, a guest on the televised tribute taped last year: "He helped to break down the color barriers. I think he fought the battle for the rest of us."

Davis would have been the first to acknowledge that he was but one soldier among generations of troops who assaulted color barriers. Nonetheless, he determinedly fought his battles with whatever weapons were available, including one that he felt the haters could not withstand--his talent.

Whether dancing with his father and uncle on countless television guest spots, captivating movie audiences as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess," singing his way through "Mr. Wonderful" on Broadway, or finding a hit song and a theme in "Candy Man," Davis brought an exuberance to every performance.

His versatility was such that he could go on a bare stage alone and weave a stunning evening of entertainment with song, dance, impressions and comedy.

"This is what I want on my tombstone," he once told an interviewer:

"Sammy Davis Jr., the date, and underneath, one word: 'Entertainer.' That's all, because that's what I am, man."

Behind Davis' superb stagecraft, however, and despite the adoration of faithful fans, Davis was for much of his life a man at war with himself.

He buried his pain in alcohol and cocaine--chasing the delusion that his "swinging" lifestyle somehow compensated for his two divorces, his estrangement from his children, and his futile efforts to become what he thought others expected him to be.

"I didn't like me," Davis told an interviewer in 1989. "So it made all the sense in the world to me at the time that if you don't like yourself, you destroy yourself.

"The monkey on my back is that I created a lifestyle that was no good for me. My life was empty. I had drugs, booze and broads, and I had nothing."

He had to fight his way through what he has called "the tortures of the damned," and he credited Altovise, his wife of 20 years, with helping him make a turnaround.

"She was there for me," he said. "She gave me all the support in the world."

The turnaround began when doctors told him in 1983 that his stomach and liver were so damaged that he would die soon if he didn't stop drinking. He stopped. In 1984 and 1985, he underwent hip replacement surgery.

But he returned to dance again and charmed movie fans as Little Mo, the veteran hoofer with still enough moves to accept a "challenge" dance, in the 1989 film "Tap."

The drinking was only one of his excesses. He spent money just as easily.

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