Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is the first major film documentary to examine Davis’ vast talent and his journey for identity through the shifting tides of civil rights and racial progress during 20th-century America.

Sammy Davis, Jr. had the kind of career that was indisputably legendary, so vast and multi-faceted that it was dizzying in its scope and scale. And yet, his life was complex, complicated and contradictory. Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. He was the veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions trying to stay relevant; he frequently found himself bracketed by the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America; he was the most public black figure to embrace Judaism, thereby yoking his identity to another persecuted minority.

Featuring new interviews with such luminaries as Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Novak, with never-before-seen photographs from Davis’ vast personal collection and excerpts from his electric performances in television, film and concert, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me explores the life and art of a uniquely gifted entertainer whose trajectory blazed across the major flashpoints of American society from the Depression through the 1980s. 

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is an American Masters Pictures production in coproduction with ZDF in collaboration with ARTE, directed by Sam Pollard and produced by Sally Rosenthal and Michael Kantor. The film is edited by Steven Weschler and written by Laurence Maslon. Michael Kantor is executive producer.

How Did This Film Come About?

Michael Kantor (MK): Everyone knows the name Sammy Davis, Jr., and many fondly remember his beautiful singing and fancy footwork, but what does a 21st-century audience know about the man? Do people know that he started his career in blackface? That before the civil rights era, he risked his career by imitating white celebrities in his nightclub act? That he was the first African American to be invited by the President to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House?

For years, writer Laurence Maslon and I had discussed the idea of a film on the life of Sammy Davis, Jr., that would not only showcase his astonishing talents, but also uncover the man behind all the glitz and glamour. Thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, we were able to create this film.

The project began in earnest in early 2014, so it has taken about three-and-a-half years to complete. I always joke that if one can gestate a child in nine months, you ought to be able to make a documentary in that time, but it never works out that way!

Laurence Maslon (LM): I loved Sammy as a kid when I saw him cutting up with corny jokes on Laugh-In. And then I came across a cast album of Golden Boy from 1964, where he played a black prizefighter in love with a white woman during the height of the civil rights era. How could the same performer carry both ends of the spectrum like that? He fascinated me and the more I looked into Sammy’s life and career, the more sides to him there were.

In 1968, Mad magazine did a spoof on how people reduce whole races and cultures to ethnic stereotypes. They had one about blacks—“negr oes” at the time—and it was: “One Negro: A Token; Two Negroes: A Boxing Match; Three Negroes: An Emerging African Nation; Four Negroes: Sammy Davis, Jr.” And I thought—that was the whole deal. Sammy was four people and more simultaneously. What a gift and what a struggle. That inspired my approach to the film.

Sammy’s story is even more pertinent today than it was when we started three years ago. Self-identification and self-representation are major cultural issues in the black community—and beyond. Sammy spent his whole life as king questions about his identity (hence the title, “I’ve Gotta Be Me”) that a new generation is putting into public discourse on a daily basis.

Sam Pollard (SP): Having recently edited a film on Frank Sinatra, I was initially asked to edit this film and ultimately became the director. Growing up with Sammy, it was an honor to tell the story of one of the icons of show business.

Why This Film?

LM: The world needs to know what Sammy went through. He opened the door for so much of popular culture—not just representation of black entertainers, but the embrace of multi-faceted performers, the role of entertainers in politics, and public vs. private personas. He lived through everything we’re discussing culturally right now.

MK: American Masters is dedicated to telling stories that help us understand our culture. Sammy Davis, Jr., was a pioneering black performer and a highly skilled amateur photographer. We used his images throughout the film to explore the evolution of the entertainment industry through his eyes, which provided an incredible lens.

SP: I find my inspiration from many sources as a filmmaker. I am truly indebted to the trailblazing documentary filmmakers DA Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. I am also inspired by John Ford, Howard Hawks and their complex narrative storytelling, which I always aspire to, even in the documentary form. And finally to St. Clair Bourne, the documentary director who informed me about the importance of telling the African-American story as a filmmaker of color. Sammy Davis, Jr.’s life story is truly one of those important stories that I felt had to be told via film. I am proud to be part of this project.

Making The Film

MK: Once we had secured permission and access from the estate of Sammy Davis, Jr., and interviewed his friend and co-writer Burt Boyar, the rest was relatively smooth sailing. Sammy's career is so multi-faceted that one of the challenges was simply to make a documentary that didn't last eight hours!

SP: I came into the process when at least two-thirds of the interviews had been done. But I was fortunate enough to do interviews with Billy Crystal, Sammy's former publicist David Steinberg and Professor Todd Boyd. I found Billy and Boyd to be both very incisive about Sammy, his fame and struggles with identity. We interviewed Billy in his bungalow and office, which as he told us was where Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable had their dressing rooms for Gone With the Wind. Before we interviewed him he seemed very quiet, but as soon as he sat in the chair and the camera and sound started rolling he became the Billy we see in the movies: funny and a great storyteller.

Todd Boyd was, on the other hand, energetic and responsive to all my questions about Sammy, and told a great story about seeing Sammy when he was a young man and the impression he left. All the interviewees were engaging and insightful about Sammy's impact on them, both those who knew him and those who had just watched him in movies or on television.

I think our biggest success was making sure the audience got to see up close and personal Sammy, the man, in his own voice.

LM: The musical of Golden Boy was a major moment in Sammy’s life. He played the lead in an excruciatingly challenging show for three years, on and off. Because the show was so provocative, it wasn’t filmed much in the day, so footage is hard to get. His leading lady, Paula Wayne, came up from retirement in Florida and gave us one of the best interviews

I’ve ever witnessed: passionate, frank, outraged—she even sang for us! She’s amazing in the doc.

The best way to tell the story was always to cut to Sammy. His presence speaks volumes and his artistry is enthralling. After 20 seconds of watching him, no one could dispute that he was an American Master.

What Do You Want Audiences To Take Away From The Film?

SP: I think the most important aspect of the film, which I feel makes it so special, is Sammy himself, and his commentary throughout the film. He was always probing and questioning his own behavior: how he interacted with people and how they responded to him as both an entertainer and a man of color. It was very important from early on to weave his voice throughout the film.

I want audiences to know that Sammy Davis, Jr., was one of the greatest entertainers in the 20th century and to recognize how talented he was as a dancer, singer, impressionist, musician and actor. And that even with all that talent and success, he could never escape the slings and arrows of being a black man in America.

LM: Sammy’s dilemma as a black man in a white world is a truly American story with amazing cultural resonance. But his reach as an entertainer and human being was without precedent and can’t be repeated. He overlapped with most of the key figures in 20th-century American history and culture like a human Venn diagram: Bill Robinson and Michael Jackson; Al Jolson and James Brown; Ethel Waters and Kim Novak; Eddie Cantor and Frank Sinatra; Pigmeat Markham and Sidney Poitier; Clifford Odets and Jerry Lewis; Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis; John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archie Bunker. All of these intense relationships are covered in the film.

MK: Sammy Davis, Jr. used his talent to fight bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism. He didn’t always win, but he gave it his all. Hopefully audiences will come away from the film marveling at his talent, and wondering why, to paraphrase Sammy’s friend Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe takes so long to bend toward justice.

Sam Pollard is an accomplished feature film and television video editor, and documentary producer/director whose work spans almost 30 years. His first assignment as a documentary producer came in 1989 for Henry Hampton's Blackside production Eyes On The Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads. For one of his episodes in this series, he received an Emmy. Eight years later, he returned to Blackside as co-executive producer/producer of Hampton’s last documentary series, I'll Make Me A World: Stories of African-American Artists and Community. For the series, Pollard received a Peabody Award.

Between 1990 and 2010, Pollard edited a number of Spike Lee’s films: Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Girl 6, Clockers and Bamboozled. Pollard and Lee also co-produced a number of documentary productions for the small and big screen: Spike Lee Presents Mike Tyson, a biographical sketch for HBO for which Pollard received an Emmy; Four Little Girls, a feature-length documentary about the 1963 Birmingham church bombings that was nominated for an Academy Award; and When The Levees Broke, a four-part documentary that won numerous awards, including a Peabody and three Emmy Awards. Five years later, he co-produced and supervised the edit on the follow up to Levees, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise.

Since 2012, Pollard has produced and directed Slavery By Another Name (2012), a 90-minute documentary for PBS that was in competition at the Sundance Film Festival;

August Wilson: The Ground On Which I Stand (2015), a 90-minute documentary for

American Masters; Two Trains Runnin’ (2016), a feature-length documentary that premiered at the Full Frame Film Festival; and The Talk: Race in America (2017) for PBS.

For more than two decades, award-winning filmmaker Michael Kantor has created outstanding arts programs for television. He joined American Masters as the series’ executive producer in April 2014 during its 28th season on PBS, and founded its theatrical imprint American Masters Pictures in January 2016. American Masters Pictures was represented by three films at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise and Richard Linklater – dream is destiny .

Prior to joining American Masters, his PBS documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (2013), hosted by Liev Schreiber, was nominated for an Emmy Award. Random House published the companion book. Kantor’s Peabody Award-winning film

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy (2013) aired as part of the Great Performances series on PBS. Narrated by Joel Grey, it included performances by Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, David Hyde Pierce, Marc Shaiman and many other Broadway talents. In 2012, Kantor produced The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater with Michael Tilson Thomas, which aired on PBS and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Kantor served as executive producer of the special Give Me the Banjo, hosted by Steve Martin, and created Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America

(2009), the critically acclaimed six-part documentary series hosted by Billy Crystal. His script for episode four, When I’m Bad, I’m Better: The Groundbreakers, co-authored with Laurence Maslon, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. His landmark six-part series Broadway: The American Musical was hosted by Julie Andrews and honored with the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series in 2005. That same year, he created three hours of DVD extras for 20th Century Fox’s 40th anniversary release of The Sound of Music.

Kantor wrote, directed and produced the award-winning profile American Masters: Quincy Jones: In the Pocket. With Stephen Ives, he co-directed Cornerstone: An Interstate Adventure for HBO, and produced The West (executive producer Ken Burns). His 20 years of work in documentaries include projects as varied as EGG: the arts show, Coney Island, The Donner Party, Margaret Sanger and Ric Burns’ New York series. As a writer, Kantor created Lullaby of Broadway: Opening Night on 42nd Street, co-authored the companion books to Broadway (Bulfinch) and Make ’Em Laugh (Grand Central Publishing) and has published numerous essays and articles. He is president of Almo Inc., a company that distributes the American Film Theatre series, which includes Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (starring Katharine Hepburn), Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (Lee Marvin) and Chekhov’s Three Sisters (Laurence Olivier) among its titles.

Sally Rosenthal is an award-winning documentary television producer. She produced the six-part PBS series Broadway: The American Musical (2004), for which she won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series, as well as the Emmy-nominated six-part PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2009), and the three-part PBS series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (2013), all directed and co-produced by American Masters Pictures executive producer Michael Kantor. Most recently, she was a producer on the eight-part PBS series Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music (2016). She is also the author of the children’s book Matzo Frogs.

Laurence Maslon is an arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, as well as associate chair of the Graduate Acting Program, with an affiliation in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. He is the host and producer of the weekly radio series Broadway to Main Street, broadcast on the NPR-affiliate station WPPB-FM. He edited the two-volume set American Musicals (1927-1969) containing 16 classic Broadway librettos, published by the Library of America in 2014 to national acclaim.

Maslon is also the author of the companion book to the recent PBS documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle and co-wrote the series with producer/director Michael Kantor. Also with Kantor, he co-wrote the PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh (Emmy nomination) and two episodes of the Emmy-winning Broadway: The American Musical, as well as the companion volume (updated edition published by Applause in paperback) and the liner notes for the five-disc box set for the series, released by Sony/Decca. Among his other books are Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion (HarperCollins), The South Pacific Companion and The Sound of Music Companion