The life story of a Black star in a White world, a man who arguably was the world’s greatest entertainer, will not be coming to a theater near you anytime soon. If ever.
During a recent interview on my radio program “The Andrea Shea King Show”, Hollywood conservative Burt Boyar, longtime friend and biographer of the late great Sammy Davis, Jr., said he’s concerned that the true story about the talented entertainer who fought and broke through racial barriers will never be seen on the silver screen. Two years ago, Boyar had negotiated a deal to sell his two biographies to filmmakers who were all set to tell the story on celluloid.
What entanglements are keeping the former member of the Rat Pack’s compelling life from being made into a movie? A life studded with Tinseltown’s glittering constellation of stars whose orbits intersected his? Luminaries like Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, Liz and Burton, Paul Newman, Berle, Bacall, Bennett, Damone… when Hollywood was at its most glamorous?
Who is Burt Boyar? And why does he care?
The treasure hunt for answers begins on Broadway, circa 1954 when Burt and his wife Jane were moving within the inner circle of New York City’s theater district. His daily column “Burt Boyar’s Broadway,” a widely read ‘who’s who’ of the theatrical world, was prominently positioned on the front page of the Morning Telegraph.
The Boyars were hitting the hot spots — the El Morocco, the Copa, the Latin Quarter, the Stork Club — gleaning tantalizing tidbits to toss to ten million readers as they sipped their morning coffee over the morning news. “Burt Boyar’s Broadway” was published in every Newhouse and Annenberg newspaper. A mere mention in the column was gold, shining nuggets of priceless publicity coveted by actors and their press agents. Manhattan’s most sought after couple were out every evening. “Jane and I would go to every nightclub in town to see who was around and form the basis of what I was writing about. We went to virtually everything,” Boyar begins.
“In fact, we were on the ‘first night’ list, which was a wonderful thing and often a horrible thing at the same time. Every show that opened, we automatically received tickets for opening night and we had our same seats, just like all the critics. And you think, ‘My gosh, how glamorous can you be? You go to every theater opening in New York!’ But if you think about it, there are some 200 shows every year. Of them, there are maybe five hits. And you have to sit through every one of the others. You cannot imagine what it was like. You sit there wondering, ‘How did they ever pay for this? Who would put up money to finance this? How do we get out of here?’ But you couldn’t leave early, because then you’d be accused of writing about something you hadn’t seen,” he jokes.
Boyar also wrote a weekly column for TV Guide. “I had a lot of audience and so naturally I got invited everywhere,” he says.
At about this time, Sammy Davis, Jr. was performing in “Mr. Wonderful,” a dog of a show that was getting lousy reviews — except for the last 40 minutes when Davis was onstage. Critics loved his Vegas-Copa-Miami Beach nightclub act. Boyar took note, and rang him up.
“When I called Sammy, he said, ‘What do you say we have dinner one night?’ So that very night we went out to dinner, Jane, Sammy and I, to Danny’s Hideaway, which was a theatrical steak house. It’s closed now but it was a very hot spot in those days. As dinner was coming to an end, he excused himself and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go do the show, but what do you say we have dinner…’ And he thought a second and then he said, ‘how about having dinner five nights a week?’ And as it turned out, we had dinner seven nights a week!” It would be the beginning of a long friendship.
“We were always together from then on. It’s one of those wonderful things that happens occasionally in your life — you meet someone with whom you have an enormous chemistry — and it was just instantaneous best friends. I admired his talent tremendously. He was unquestionably the world’s greatest entertainer. And he was such a charming man offstage. He dressed beautifully and he conducted himself with such courtliness. It’s hard, really, to believe he had never had any education whatsoever. His education was the theaters that he played since the age of three. So I guess that has very good value because when you consider that in vaudeville, he would play before six audiences a day. You’d get a lot of touch with the public, and you’d learn a great deal from people.”
In Black and White
A white hot star onstage, black negro offstage, Sammy Davis, Jr. “wasn’t treated well because of his skin color, at least not until he was such a big star that they couldn’t keep him out.” Boyar recalled the denigration Davis endured. “I cannot describe the pain of seeing a friend receive standing ovations in those days when they had to be earned, then leave the theater and be called a ‘nigger.’
“He was not treated well by either the whites or the blacks. I remember when he was playing New York City, he was playing the Copacabana and I got him a reservation at the hotel around the corner — the Sherry Netherland — and he was completely criticized, roundly criticized by both the white press and the negro press for not staying at the Hotel Teresa in uptown Harlem, which is what all black entertainers would do when they played the Copa.” The Teresa Hotel, known as the ‘Waldorf of Harlem,’ was built in 1913 and wasn’t desegregated until 1940. Frequented by local celebrities, it was a Harlem hot spot. By comparison the Sherry Netherland, in the heart of midtown Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, was always considered five-star, world class.
“Sammy said, ‘Look. I’m going to go as first class as my fame and my money will allow. I want to live as well as anybody else in my position.’ So he stayed at the Sherry Netherland, which was wonderful.”
In his prologue to “Sammy, An Autobiography,” Burt wrote: “After an especially hurtful racist outrage, Sammy murmured ‘We really should let them know. We really should tell them.’ We talked about how, and it evolved into a book…”
“I began writing ‘Yes I Can’ and the column at the same time. I thought I could do both,” Boyar says. “And we’d travel with Sammy. We’d go to Las Vegas and Chicago, and Tahoe and Florida, wherever there was entertainment, wherever I might possibly write a column at the same time. But it became impossible to serve the two masters. You really couldn’t do justice to either of them. So we took what we thought was a one year leave of absence on the column, and six years later we finished the book, and so the column was gone. The only thing about it that made me feel badly was a man by the name of Bruce Horton who was the head of the Register and Tribune syndicate, and he was out there selling our column — he sold us to the Detroit Free Press and the Toronto Star, a lot of big papers — and here I was, about to take time off and tell him I can’t produce. I’m sure I embarrassed him and he had every right to be furious with me, although he never said a word. But that was the only misgiving I had about it.”
The couple lived on the road with Sammy on and off for the next four years, running a tape recorder every night into which Sammy would reminisce and recount the gems and shards that made up the mosaic of his life.
“We did (hang out with Sammy) for the first couple of years,” Burt says. “The rest of the time we were on our own, just writing and rewriting. After “Yes I Can” came out in 1965, we had no column, and suddenly we were making a lot of money and it was ‘Wow! This is a great life! We don’t have to be up until four or five in the morning, we get up when the sun comes out!'”
The Boyars later moved to Spain where they resided for 28 years. There they wrote two more books, “World Class” about the world of tennis, and “Hitler Stopped By Franco,” a book that evolved from their friendship with Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s daughter Carmen and her family. Over the years, they kept in touch with Sammy by mail and telephone. Following Jane’s death in 1997, Boyar subsequently combined both biographies into a single edition titled “Sammy – An Autobiography.” He eventually returned to America, settling in the Los Angeles area where he still makes his home today.
The present scene: An empty theater, a darkened screen. Somewhere in the distance, Sammy is dancing and singing on an ethereal stage, entertaining a roomful of heavenly hosts.
The movie version of ‘Yes I Can’ is mired in litigation and has been for some time. Burt explains, “I often hear people say, ‘Such and such a movie took ten or fifteen years to make.’ I now know why. It is the most extraordinary thing. What happens is you have a property that looks like it could be a moneymaker. People come out of the woodwork that claim to have rights, and no movie company wants to invest 60 or 70 million dollars and are unable to distribute it because of a lawsuit. So they insist that everyone must sign off — every potential rights holder must sign off. In our case, I own half of the copyright. Sammy owned the other half, and when he died it was left to Altovise, his wife.” Altovise Davis, Sammy’s wife of twenty years, died March 14, 2009, nine years after Sammy passed away from throat cancer.
“It was complicated before that, but she had a manager who had made some kind of a contract with her in which he wound up controlling more of Sammy’s life than she. He had far more to say about it than she. And we had a this fabulous deal through two wonderful producers, Craig Zaden and Neil Meron who produced Chicago and Hairspray and the last Jack Nicholson movie, “The Bucket List.” They were really, really excited about it and they sold it to New Line and everybody was really ready to go, we’re ready to sign it. And the deal that was negotiated after six or seven months of negotiating was really as good as it can get. And then this manager suddenly appears on the scene — a man with whom I had gotten along with perfectly well earlier, and he suddenly said, ‘We have to quarterback this’.
“I guess he meant ‘We have to be in charge, we have to continue the negotiations’. Well, I thought, this is ridiculous. It’s already ready to sign, and he said, ‘No, we have to quarterback it because it involves Sammy Davis Jr.’s life rights. Which doesn’t exist — there’s no legal term such as ‘life rights’.
“Anyway, I thought, ‘Well all right, what harm can be done?’ So he brings in this lawyer from New York who was not a movie lawyer, and the man decides he’s going to teach Hollywood how to be Hollywood! And he makes demands that are deal breakers.
“The first one was Altovise, who was originally a dancer, but had not danced in probably 30 years, and had never been a choreographer.”
Altovise, a trained actor and dancer, met Sammy in the mid-1960s when they were both appearing in Broadway musicals, he as the lead in “Golden Boy” and she in the chorus line of “High Spirits.” She successfully auditioned for a London stage production of “Golden Boy” and, after its run, she joined his nightclub act as a dancer.
“The first demand was that Altovise had to be the choreographer of the movie. Complete deal breaker. There’s no way that you can take a major musical and have a novice attempt to choreograph it. Nor did she want to, which I learned later. At the time I wasn’t in touch with her and so I didn’t realize that it wasn’t she who had demanded it. It was the manager. He was just looking for more revenue.”
“Then he had to own the soundtrack. That was another deal breaker. Obviously, if you’re a studio and you invest 60 or 70 million dollars in a movie, you want every revenue source there can be, and you’re not going to give it to a man who has no track record as a record producer or anything. It was all just a hustle.
“So we finally went to court to get rid of him, and we have been in court for 680 thousand dollars, which is one way of putting it – those are the legal fees we’ve run up on this project so far. And more to come. I could not imagine that these people would be so idiotic to hang on when they had absolutely no grounds for the thing that they were asking for. They were killing a golden goose.”
“Also, according to the copyright law, at the time in 1965 when ‘Yes I Can’ was published, the law was that when a man dies, his copyrights go to his wife and to his children, without specifying in what percentages or what way – fifty-fifty? It’s up to them to decide. And Altovise had very generously agreed to split evenly with the children – there are four children, so that was no problem.
“The problem is not that I can’t go out and do the movie on my own, but no studio will take the risk of a major investment when there’s a potential of a lawsuit, even if they’re nuisance lawsuits. If that potential exists, they don’t want to get involved. This has happened before and they have wound up having to pay as much as 15 million dollars in blackmail, actually, to be able to release the film they’ve already shot. So they don’t ever want to get involved in that again. And who can blame them?”
So the film project sits on a shelf, hamstrung through greed and avarice. However, Boyar managed to salvage thousands of Sammy’s photos and negatives. “Everybody who was close to him knew he was taking pictures because he always carried a camera,” Boyar says.
“The photos were in a warehouse just stuffed away in boxes, not protected, not really taken care of the way you should take care of them. Thousands of prints, thousands of negatives. And probably within a few years, they would’ve been lost. They’d be worthless. They weren’t sorted, they weren’t in any particular order because Sammy never cared.”
He recalls Sammy’s obsession with the latest and best equipment. “Of course once I had a little education, Sammy once said, ‘I needed a new Nikon this and a Canon that, both with eighteen lenses and sixty-two filters. In terms of addiction, I think there is nothing more powerful than men’s toys. This may sound a little paranoid but I am positive that somewhere in Germany, in Japan, there are men awake in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Now Sammy Davis has an extra $50,000, let’s think of something he doesn’t have that we can sell him, the ultimate, the definitive… he’ll jump to be the first one to have it and we’ll get that $50,000.’ I am positive of that.'”
Burt knew Sammy didn’t have plans for his photography. “He never thought, ‘Well, I’ll publish pictures of Frank and Peter and Dean.’ His pleasure in photography was to take pictures of people that he liked, and if he liked the picture, he would send it to you — an 11 by 14. He had no future plans for his photography. It was purely for pleasure. So he never bothered keeping records carefully and keeping the negatives attached to the proof sheets. So it was a tremendous job separating them, but we did it.”
In a labor of love that came close to matching the affection Davis had for his latest single lens reflex, Boyar selected hundreds of images that have been included in a coffee table book collection of Hollywood’s glory days, seen through the lens of Sammy’s myriad collection of Nikons, Canons, and Rollieflex cameras. ‘Photo By Sammy Davis, Jr.’ went into print in 2007, the last book published by Judith Regan.
“The book contains photos of Hollywood stars that no one else had access to. For example, Frank Sinatra in his pajamas. Now only someone like Sammy would be there to take that picture and Frank would only allow someone like Sammy to take it.
“There is a characteristic picture of Sinatra playing with his fingernails. When he was just about to go on, he was always very nervous and he would work out his nerves on his fingernails. And so there’s a picture of him standing with Dean and he’s working on his nails. These are things that only Sammy understood,” Boyar explains. “The stories that accompany them are from taped conversations Sammy and I had over the course of our friendship. We used a handful of them in Sammy’s autobiographies.”
There are other pictures – Peter Lawford with a hangover. “He looked like he was desperately in need of a steam room,” Boyar comments.
“There is a picture of me in the book. It’s about three quarters of the way in.” Sure enough, there’s Boyar captured in Sammy’s lens, vamping an Al Jolson routine as wife Jane laughs in delight. But the back-story wasn’t so funny.
“What happened is one night we were out, and somebody called Sidney Poitier a black, and in those days that was a very negative statement. And it drove Sammy up the wall. I’ve never seen him so upset. He generally was very, very put together and he was very accustomed to racial epithets, so things didn’t bother him. But I guess because he loved Sidney, it really did bother him and he was really, really angry, just really upset. And we got back to his hotel room and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do that corny Jolson thing you do.’ Which was — I used to love Al Jolson, so I would do Jolson. I knew all the songs. And so I started singing and I didn’t realize that Sammy was actually taking pictures of me at the time because I was so involved with my performance. Imagine the audacity of singing to the world’s greatest entertainer! Anyway I did it until finally he was laughing and the moment had passed and it was done.
“I didn’t know the pictures existed until Vanity Fair was doing a ten-page take-out for the magazine, a ten-page article on the book, and David Friend, who does special features for them, came here to look at the pictures and he says, ‘Hey, this is you!” It was a negative and I would have never spotted it because I don’t have an eye for that sort of thing, but David had been a Life Magazine photo editor and as a photo editor he had a very, very sharp eye. I was delighted to have it. Sammy played the greatest role in my life. Having the opportunity to write those books really made a whole life for Jane and myself.”
The legendary entertainer’s images, confined within the cover of a book, might not be moving pictures projected on the silver screen, but somehow there is sweet irony that Sammy himself created the montage of his life, directing and choreographing his story through his own camera lens, from beginning to end.
Books by Burt Boyar:
“PHOTO BY SAMMY DAVIS, JR.” Text by Burt Boyar
“YES I CAN” by Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jane and Burt Boyar
“WHY ME?” by Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jane and Burt Boyar
“SAMMY – An Autobiography” by Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jane and Burt Boyar
Other books by Burt Boyar:
“HITLER STOPPED BY FRANCO” by Jane and Burt Boyar
“WORLD CLASS” by Jane and Burt Boyar