As Billy Crystal notes, Davis was a “diminutive man” who looked huge when he took the stage, a quality captured in footage from a tribute near the end of his life, when a frail-looking Davis got up and danced with Gregory Hines.
According to Harry Belafonte, Davis’ commitment to the civil rights struggle “was never fully recognized historically.”
For that, Davis largely had himself to blame, along with a star-struck mentality regarding Frank Sinatra, Nixon and others whose friendship didn’t always serve him well, such as when Davis was disinvited from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural festivities.
Davis’ career spanned virtually every entertainment medium of his time — movies, music, TV and stage — as he sought to transcend race at a time when high-profile entertainers and athletes were making statements and taking stands.
The soaring elements of Davis’ professional life thus kept brushing into tragic ones, placing a somewhat ironic note on the documentary’s subtitle. While Davis was known for bringing his stamp to classics like “The Candy Man” and “Mr. Bojangles,” “I’ve Gotta Be Me” was the song that perhaps best defined him, given the contradictions in terms of who Davis — in juggling the roles of person, performer and celebrity — truly was.
“Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” premieres February 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS.