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[THE OSCARS]

The Camera Man Can

Meet the Rat Pack's unofficial photographer

February 25, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

AFTER Burt Boyar, longtime friend and co-biographer of Sammy Davis Jr., set out to make a documentary based on Davis' bestselling 1965 biography "Yes I Can," Davis' widow, Altovise, invited him to check out a storage warehouse in Carson.

"It was a musty place," said Boyar. "Cold, dank and awful." But there, he discovered a trove of thousands of never-seen photographs taken by Davis -- shots of his Rat Pack pals and other showbiz royalty of the 1950s and '60s, unposed, generally exuding the air of relaxed fun one associates with that crowd at that martini-soaked moment in time.

Boyar was overwhelmed, until it occurred to him and his documentary collaborators, producers Robert Bloomingdale and Howard Burkons, that the shots would make a great book (and coincidentally, a spread in Vanity Fair's current Hollywood issue).

"Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr.," is among the last books that will bear the Regan imprint, which was killed off after Judith Regan was fired last year by Harper Collins. Publishing the 339-page coffee table tome, said Boyar, who lives in a Westwood penthouse, "was an opportunity to get Sammy's visibility back. I mean, the world's greatest entertainer dies in 1990, and boom! He's gone.... There are teenagers who have no idea what he did on stage."

Davis never went anywhere without a camera, and always had the best equipment, but wasn't a stickler for technique. "A lot of the photos are out of focus, but it doesn't even matter," said Boyar.

Here is an impossibly handsome Jerry Lewis grinning as Davis, standing next to him, points a camera into a mirror and shoots. Or a certain singer in his jammies. "What photographer could shoot Frank in his pajamas?" marveled Boyar.

"I loved Sammy. He was a dear friend, and I have a moral responsibility to protect his image."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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For more photos, see latimes.com/davis.

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