Samuel George “Sammy” Davis Jr. was often called “the world's greatest entertainer,” a title that attested to his remarkable versatility as singer, dancer, actor, mimic, and musician.
Davis was born in New York City on December 8, 1925. Four years later, he began appearing in vaudeville shows with his father and uncle in the Will Mastin Trio. In 1931 Davis made his movie debut with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President; this was followed by an appearance in Season's Greetings.
Throughout the 1930s the Will Mastin Trio continued to play vaudeville, burlesque, and cabarets. In 1943 Davis entered the Army and served for two years by writing, directing, and producing camp shows. After his discharge he rejoined the trio, which in 1946 cracked the major club circuit with a successful Hollywood engagement.
Davis recorded a string of hits (“Hey There,” “Mr. Wonderful,” “Too Close for Comfort”) during his steady rise to the top of show business. In November 1954 he lost an eye in an automobile accident, which fortunately did not interfere with his career. He scored a hit in his first Broadway show, Mr. Wonderful (1956), and later repeated this success in Golden Boy (1964).
In 1959 Davis played the character Sportin’ Life in the movie version of Porgy and Bess. Other Davis movies from this period include Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964). His 1966 autobiography Yes, I Can became a best seller, and he starred in his own network television series. Davis married three times. His first marriage was in 1959 to singer Loray White. He married his second wife, actress Mai Britt, in 1961; she is the mother of his three children. In 1970 he married dancer Altovise Gore.
In 1968 the NAACP awarded Davis its Spingarn Medal, and in subsequent years Davis continued to appear in films, television, and nightclubs. In 1972 he was involved in a controversy over his support of Richard Nixon, which was publicized by a famous photograph of Nixon hugging Davis at the 1972 Republican Convention. In 1974 Davis renounced his support of Nixon and his programs. In 1980 he marked his fiftieth anniversary as an entertainer, and the Friars Club honored him with its annual life achievement award. In 1989 he appeared in the film Tap with Gregory Hines and Harold Nicholas. In 1989 Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on May 16, 1990.