By Sue Rochman
The Cancer That Silenced Mr. Wonderful's Song
Groundbreaking entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. overcame many foes—but not the one that took his voice
By Sue Rochman
In the age of American Idol, You Tube, and MySpace, when virtually anybody can have their 15 minutes of fame, it may be difficult to remember the era when performers worked hard to earn their stripes, singers wore tuxedos on stage, and actors raced to get the early edition papers to read their opening-night reviews. It was the time of stage and screen legends, when Broadway reigned and films premiered on Hollywood Boulevard.
It was also a time when to be black in America was to be a second-class citizen. When epithets went unchecked, and segregation and discrimination remained widespread.
Born in Harlem on Dec. 8, 1925, to two vaudeville dancers—and with a genetic code programmed to entertain—Sammy Davis Jr. knew both of these worlds. As Davis often said, entertaining was his power, music and dance his salvation. Without them, he might have had nothing. With them, he rose in stature and broke through racial barriers to become one of the first black superstars in the United States and one of the best entertainers the world has ever known.
The decades of Davis’ greatest fame—the ’50s through the ’70s—were also the glamour days of smoking, when entertainers thought nothing of being photographed with a drink in one hand and a cigarette or cigar streaming curls of smoke in the other. Undoubtedly, in most people’s minds, smoking is most strongly linked with lung cancer. But when Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer, in 1989, his family members, friends and fans quickly learned that the lungs are not the only place where tobacco can take its toll.
Of course, there is no way to know whether Davis would have developed throat cancer if he had not smoked (although he was said to have smoked four packs a day); there are people who do not smoke who develop the disease. But since Davis’ death, in May 1990, at age 64, it has become increasingly clear that smoking and alcohol use, and in particular the two combined, greatly increase a person’s risk of developing throat cancer as well as many other types of oral or head and neck cancers. Whether that knowledge would have changed Davis’ behavior is hard to say. To be a star is, in many ways, to feel—and to appear to the public as—invincible. That’s one reason celebrities with cancer have such an impact on our psyches. The disease seems incongruous to their vibrancy and renown.
Yes I Can
Davis was raised by his grandmother, in Harlem, until age 3, while his mother and father performed in vaudeville shows nationwide. But when his parents divorced, and Sammy Davis Sr. gained sole custody, father and son took to the road. The younger Davis shone on stage, and before long he was performing alongside his father and uncle in a group billed as “Will Mastin’s Gang Featuring Little Sammy.”
In 1943, Davis was drafted into the Army. By that time, the vaudeville he had known since childhood was virtually gone, a casualty of the new media of the day: talking films and television. But the skills he had learned on the vaudeville circuit enabled him to join an Army entertainment unit. And performing was the world he returned to when his military service ended. Before long, Davis became widely known for his drive, ambition, talent and charm. In 1954, his debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., shot up the Billboard charts. And in 1956, his first Broadway show, Mr. Wonderful, a musical comedy expressly written to showcase his talents, opened to rave reviews. He had become a veritable superstar.