DATE December 4, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Angie Dickinson discusses her career as an actress
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new movie "Ocean's Eleven" opens this Friday. The original "Ocean's
Eleven," made in 1960, was a vehicle for the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra starred
as Danny Ocean, a singer and gambler who has assembled a team of 11 men to rob
five Vegas casinos. The team includes Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter
Lawford and Joey Bishop. Capitol Records has just released two Rat Pack CDs,
"The Rat Pack Live At The Sands" and "Eee-0 Eleven." Angie Dickinson
co-starred in the original "Ocean's Eleven" as Sinatra's estranged wife.
Dickinson also starred opposite John Wayne in "Rio Bravo," Lee Marvin in "The
Killers" and "Point Blank," Burt Reynolds in "Sam Whiskey" and Roger Moore in
"The Sins of Rachel Cade." From 1974 to '78, she starred in the TV crime
drama "Police Woman." In 1999, when Playboy published its list of the
hundred sexiest stars of the century, she was number 42.
Let's start with Angie Dickinson in a scene from "Ocean's Eleven." Sinatra
wants to meet up again with his estranged wife, but he knows she'd refuse to
come, so he gets Dean Martin to trick her into coming by saying that Sinatra
is very sick, but she's figured out the real story.
(Soundbite from "Ocean's Eleven")
Mr. DEAN MARTIN: (As Sam Harmon) Why'd you come over if you knew it was a
Ms. ANGIE DICKINSON: (As Beatrice Ocean) Why, it's Christmas. And I have a
present for him. As simple as that. Now what's your excuse?
Mr. MARTIN: I was wondering what it is. I come to the conclusion that it
must be love. Mother love.
Ms. DICKINSON: I'll consider mistress, play thing, toy for a night, but I
refuse to be your mother. That's out.
Mr. MARTIN: No, you got it all wrong. I'm the mother. I just don't like
you and Danny busting up.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, we're sort of eye to eye there.
Mr. MARTIN: I'd like to straighten him out.
Ms. DICKINSON: No, Mother, he's the only one who can do that.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I asked Angie Dickinson about her performance in "Ocean's Eleven."
Ms. DICKINSON: There was no great delving into figuring out how to play any
part in this movie. It was far from Shakespeare. And so I just played it as
a warm woman of her own--not her own means but she was her own woman. And
instead of succumbing to all of their charm, she said, `You know, no, I'm
moving on.' But it was pretty cut and dry.
GROSS: Well, let me play a scene of you not succumbing to Frank Sinatra's
charms. And this is a scene where you're meeting up with him after many
years, and he's trying to get back with you at least for a short trip.
Ms. DICKINSON: It's hard to say no to Frank. It always was for many people,
not just for women. He was a very, very delectable persuasion. He just--he
was just fabulous.
(Soundbite of "Ocean's Eleven")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (As Danny Ocean) Now just sit there and don't interrupt
me. I've got a very big deal going on. Large chips. Carloads of 'em.
Ms. DICKINSON: That sounds familiar.
Mr. SINATRA: That might be so, but this time it's true.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, good. I like to have rich friends.
Mr. SINATRA: This is one rich friend that wants to spend a bundle on you.
Ms. DICKINSON: Gee, thanks.
Mr. SINATRA: OK, that's settled. On the morning of January the 2nd, I'm
going to pick you up, and we're going to hop down to Rio, so you pack a bag.
Ms. DICKINSON: You're serious. I honestly think you're serious.
Mr. SINATRA: Well, of course I'm serious.
Ms. DICKINSON: A week's trip to Rio.
Mr. SINATRA: Yes.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, Danny, what a prize you are, the only husband in the
world who'd proposition his own wife.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: What was it like to work with Sinatra on the set since you already
knew him. I don't know whether you were just friends then or whether you
already had a deeper relationship.
Ms. DICKINSON: He was--I think he was seeing Juliet Prowse during this time.
I'm almost positive about that. So that was good, because it doesn't work
very well when you're romantic, 'cause things can happen at home and interfere
on the set and vice versa. So we were just friends at that time. And it was
very special because if you knew him personally, then you knew of his childish
ways of liking to pull practical jokes. He was one of the great ones for that
and laughed just as hard when somebody pulled a practical joke on him. So you
were always waiting for somebody to light that stink bomb under the pool
table, which they did several times.
GROSS: During the making of the movie?
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yes, right during the scenes.
GROSS: Were you used to that on the set? I mean, you'd made several movies
by then. Were you used to those kinds of shenanigans?
Ms. DICKINSON: No. That never--that doesn't go on on sets. It costs too
much and you've got too many people involved. You've got to keep your nose to
the grindstone. This was a very special movie. Nothing like that, except for
very, very rarely--I mean, there was no Jim Carrey at the time. And perhaps
he, because--or Robin Williams, where you don't know what's coming, but
basically on a movie, you stick to the scene but not on "Ocean's Eleven."
They were just always playing and having a blast all the time.
GROSS: Were you bothered by the attitude toward women in "Ocean's Eleven"?
Look for example at an early scene. A scantily clad blonde is giving a
massage to Peter Lawford, and Sinatra comes in, basically like shoos her away.
You know, I mean, the women--there are women in it who are like little sex
toys--not you but other women characters. Did that kind of attitude bother
you either in the film or in real life hanging out with the Rat Pack?
Ms. DICKINSON: No, that didn't bother me in the film. I always thought it
was amusing. And I suppose I will get a lot of hisses and boos for that, but
that happens to be the truth. Now if it--even if it had happened to me, it's
kind of--it was not done seriously. It was done tongue and cheek. We enjoyed
ourselves. If somebody said, `Hey, you're a great broad,' you'd say, `Thank
you.' It was OK then for men to be men and for women to be women.
GROSS: Why do you think the guys in the Rat Pack needed a group? I mean, a
lot of people like to be loners, but there was a period when, you know,
Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford--they hung together
and they were identified together.
Ms. DICKINSON: I think Frank always liked company. You were not one of his
favorites if you didn't hang in there. He was a nightclub person. He was a
late night person all his life. And he did not want to stay up late alone,
whereas Dean Martin was very much a loner. He liked going home--not
necessarily alone but not with a bunch around him--maybe a lady or one friend,
but Frank always enjoyed--the more the merrier if they were his pals. And
Sammy liked people around him. I think that came from the stage and nightclub
where you're basically entertaining all the time.
GROSS: When you were romantically involved with Sinatra, was it ever annoying
to have him always want to be in a crowd?
Ms. DICKINSON: No, it's not even a matter of wanting to be in a crowd; he
just didn't want to be alone.
GROSS: Right. But, I mean--well, but wanting to have, like, good friends
surrounding him. Yeah.
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I--yeah. Yes. I'm one of these that says, `All right,
already. We saw them last night. Why can't we just see somebody else
tonight?' He had a tendency to stay with people that he was safe with, very
comfortable with and, you know, no facade. And so he found that very
protective. Since I didn't need that, I was not a Sinatra and there was only
one. We'll never know what it's like to be watched every breath you take and
analyzed and criticized and judged or adored, so he needed that shield of
friends around him where he would totally be himself and not feel ogled. And
so I understood that, but, yeah, I would have--I'm more the loner.
GROSS: How did you first meet Sinatra?
Ms. DICKINSON: I first met Frank on the very first job I ever had. I was a
secretary out of a year of college, not knowing what I wanted to be in my
future. And so I was capable of being a secretary and tired of studying for a
master's degree or something that I didn't know what I wanted to do and so I
entered a beauty contest one day and I won it. I was one of six winners. And
the person from "The Colgate Comedy Hour," which was a show on every Sunday
night in '53, called the number I left on the form I filled out when I entered
the beauty contest and asked if I wanted to be on the show, meaning "The Jimmy
Durante Show." That was the show he cast. And I said, `Well, I can't act.'
And he said, `Well, can you walk?' And I laughed, of course, and I said,
`Yes.' He said, `Well, do you want the job or not?' I said, `Oh, well, yes,
I'd love it.' Well, that's how I got into show business. It knocked at my
And I went to that first day of rehearsal, and there, as I opened the door,
was Frank Sinatra rehearsing and playfully carrying on with Jimmy Durante.
They were rehearsing a number for the show, and magic happened in my brain.
And I said, `This is what I want. This is the kind of world'--I've been
looking for something where I wanted to fit in. And this was it.
GROSS: But you had no acting experience. You told them that you didn't know
how to act. So what did you do to learn?
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. Oh, well, I went right to acting school immediately,
because I didn't want to be a failure, and I certainly didn't want to be a
joke. And I certainly didn't want no income, so I wasn't going to pursue this
if I couldn't do it well and so I immediately started studying acting. I went
four nights a week after work all day for about four years, but in about a
year or two, I could tell that I could be OK in it.
GROSS: Well, you ended up, after you had worked for a few years, starring in
a great Western, "Rio Bravo," which was directed by Howard Hawks. It also
starred John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. And Walter Brennan...
GROSS: Well, of course.
Ms. DICKINSON: ...who practically made the movie. I know he's not billed as
one of the stars, but, boy, didn't he make it special. That's a very good
example of--the woman's role was almost always just, I used to call it, waving
goodbye to the husband on the horse or running into his arms when he came
back. And that was the typical role for a woman in a Western with the
exception of "Destry Rides Again," Marlene Dietrich and Feathers in Rio Bravo.
She was very, very much her own, again, and didn't cower around the men. She
held her own. And it was early in the feminist type of view. Howard Hawks
was very well-known for making all of his women quite strong, whether it was
Westerns or "I Was A Male War Bride" or "Bringing Up Baby." He liked strong
women. He married strong women.
GROSS: What's your favorite scene in "Rio Bravo"?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, the favorite scene that I had to do was the last scene
where Duke comes up and--I don't know what he comes up to see me for, and he
sees me in this rather risque outfit. And he says, `What are you doing in
that?' And she says, `I'm going down to sing.' And she says, `You didn't
know I could sing, did you?' He says, `You're not going down there in that
outfit.' And she starts to cry, `I thought you'd never say it.' He said,
`Say what?' And she says, `That you love me.' And he says, `I didn't say
that.' And she says, `Yes, you did. You just don't know it yet.' And it's
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear that scene.
Ms. DICKINSON: OK.
(Soundbite from "Rio Bravo")
Mr. JOHN WAYNE: (As Sheriff John T. Chance) Where are you going?
Ms. DICKINSON: (As Feathers) Downstairs.
Mr. WAYNE: You better not.
Ms. DICKINSON: Why had I better not?
Mr. WAYNE: Because I'm still sheriff. You wear those things in public, I'll
Ms. DICKINSON: You--oh, John T. Oh, I've waited so long for you to say that.
You--I thought you were never--you have the funniest way of saying things.
Just when I think you're going to say one thing, you say something else. And
Mr. WAYNE: Laura, I'd never mind about that now. Get those darn things off.
I'll wait outside.
Ms. DICKINSON: No, no, no. You don't have to go. I can use the screen.
Besides I want you to say here because the other thing is all over now, isn't
it? I'm trying to hurry but I'm all thumbs. What I had to go through to put
on these tights. Ask a lot of questions. Start to walk out. I thought you
were never going to say it.
Mr. WAYNE: Say what?
Ms. DICKINSON: That you love me.
Mr. WAYNE: I said I'd arrest you.
Ms. DICKINSON: It means the same thing. You know that. You just won't say
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Now you also made a couple of movies with Lee Marvin--"The Killers"
and "Point Blank." You've worked with your share of tough guys in movies,
and you've been pretty tough yourself in some films. I'm wondering what it
brought out in you to work up against some pretty macho actors?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I guess it brought out my courage to use my full
potential. It's a tricky thing. If you get with a strong man, if you get too
strong a woman, it's abrasive and it doesn't work on screen. You get them too
weak and you don't believe it either. It's a very fine line. And I think
that's why I got the parts I did and not so much my acting ability, which I
hope constantly improved, but a quality that was strong in its femininity more
than anything I think. I think I was not against them. I was not opposition
GROSS: But you had this cool, this kind of reserve or detachment.
Ms. DICKINSON: See, I don't even know all that. I'm glad. If you say that,
and I hope you're right, I'm glad. But, you know, you are what you are, and
you do what you do. And if it works, thank God. But I don't know why it
works and sometimes it doesn't. But against those macho guys--and they were;
I sure worked with almost all of the best of those leading men--you know, it
GROSS: In "The Killers," you starred opposite Lee Marvin. Ronald Reagan was
the heavy in that. I think it was the last movie that he made. Were you
surprised when he became president?
Ms. DICKINSON: You know, with all due respect--and I do adore President
Reagan and saw him on, I would say, six or seven social occasions after he was
president and while he was president--but very surprised when he became
president, yes. He was--since that was his last--he did that film because he
had a contract to satisfy--he owed Universal one more picture, and they said,
`This is it,' and he said, `OK, get it over with.' He didn't like the movie
at all and his character and rightly so, but he just wanted to end that
contract and get on with politics, so he was studying all the time on "The
Killers." He was always reviewing and delving into huge piles of paper. He
was on his way to become governor then. And I was most surprised, yes,
although he couldn't have been lovelier on the set. He just didn't strike me
as presidential material, but he sure was.
GROSS: Did you vote for him?
Ms. DICKINSON: I did not vote for Ronnie, I'm sorry. I'm a Democrat.
GROSS: Did it still hurt to not vote for a friend?
Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, it does. You don't feel like a traitor, but it's a
little harder to put that X down opposite him, yes, because I really liked him
and always did like him and always liked Nancy very much. Used to run into
her 'cause we all lived in Brentwood and used to run into her in the store,
and she was always so nice. But I still was a loyal...
GROSS: Now, you know, as we've mentioned, you've worked with really strong
men during your career and you had relationships with really strong men--a
long relationship with Sinatra. You were married to Burt Bacharach for many
years. Now you were very famous as well. A lot of women have experienced,
and I think this might have been particularly true before the women's
movement, this sense that they were overshadowed by strong men or that they
feared that they would be overshadowed by strong men in their lives. And I'm
wondering if that was ever an issue for you or whether, you know, your career
was so strong yourself that that was not something you had to be concerned
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I'm not sure about that. I don't think I ever felt
overshadowed, except I must have because I remember one time when Burt
Bacharach got very popular, and I loved it, until they pushed me aside and
then I didn't like it. And it isn't that I didn't want his fame to be his,
but I didn't want to lose mine in the face of it. And so I guess there was a
problem there I didn't realize.
And I--oh, I'll tell you, this is embarrassing. I'm going to tell you. In
March or April of '74, which is before "Police Woman," now Burt was still very
popular. And Jack Haley Jr. was producing the Academy Awards. And they
asked Burt to be on. And I had been on six or seven Academy Award shows and
they didn't ask me. And I called Jack Haley Jr., and I said, `What? You're
asking Burt and you're not asking me?' Well, about five years ago, I ran into
Jack Haley and I said, `I can't believe what I did back in '74.' And he
laughed so hard. He said, `You did. You called and you said, "How can you
put him on and not me?"' And they put me on, and I've been embarrassed ever
GROSS: Now when you said that you didn't like it when they pushed you aside
when your husband Burt Bacharach was so popular, what they are you talking
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, well, the publicists. One of the biggest publicists in
town, `Angie, excuse me, could you move out, please? Just, you know, so we
can get this picture here.' Oh, wow, that really burnt. Now I feel
embarrassed to say that now, too, because if he was that popular, that's fine,
but it really hurt to be not wanted.
GROSS: Well, shortly after that incident, which you say was in 1974, you
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, the Jack Haley incident was '74.
GROSS: Yeah. You got cast as the star on the TV series "Police Woman," which
a series you did for about four years. You played Sergeant Pepper Anderson, a
divorced woman working undercover. This was a pretty groundbreaking series,
'cause you had like a woman action hero starring in prime time.
Ms. DICKINSON: It was absolutely groundbreaking. There was none before.
And that's why I mentioned the date, because I just happened to look it up the
other day, and I realized that I had not re-emerged yet in '74. I did when I
came on with the show, but that was around September or so. The only shows
that succeeded to star a woman were the comedies. And this was the first
drama starring a woman, an hour show, and the first cop that succeeded. There
were a couple of other attempts, but they died off right away, so I'm very
proud of that.
GROSS: How did it affect your personal life to do TV for four years?
Ms. DICKINSON: It broke it. They don't even do what I did anymore because
they have more of a team. It's just virtually impossible to do what I did, to
be in everything and to work 12 hours a day and every day. So I had no social
life. I didn't see a foreign movie for five years. I look at that--I used to
love to go to the best movies, and that was my criterion to say, `I never had
the extra time to go take in a foreign movie in all that time,' so I lost
friends, lost a husband. My daughter still talks about how lonely she was for
four years while I was at work, so it takes a terrible toll.
GROSS: The husband you lost is the one you broke up with, Burt Bacharach.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah, but we--I would have lost him anyway, because we
were--we just--we weren't going to make it, but it contributed to it early.
GROSS: Angie Dickinson, you started acting in the 1950s. Of all the
different fashion eras that you've worked through, what were some of the best
and worse trends in clothing, hair and makeup, some of the best and worse?
Ms. DICKINSON: The '50s were the pits. The '50s for the clothes was the
worst. The '50s for the hair was the worst. We all looked like Esther
Williams. I certainly did. And it--there was...
GROSS: With bouffant hair?
Ms. DICKINSON: No, bouffant didn't come till the '60s.
GROSS: Well, those tight curls, is that what you mean?
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, tight curls.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. DICKINSON: And Doris Day--we all--I mean, you're hard-pressed sometimes
to say, `Is that Lana Turner or is that me?' because the hairstyles and the
clothes were so similar. There was no individuality and no rebellion yet, and
so the '60s for the clothes for the men was great. That was the first time
with The Beatles wearing their hair, quote, "long," which was not long, but
they had sideburns and long hair. And then for costume, they had beads and
Nehru jackets and wild colors and bell-bottom pants. And the miniskirt was
the greatest change especially for somebody who has some good-looking legs.
And they were good on women without great-looking legs. It was just
wonderfully revolutionary. You now could be an individual with your hair and
your wardrobe. And...
GROSS: How did...
Ms. DICKINSON: Excuse me for interrupting. Shoes--you didn't wear flat
shoes--well, unless you were 6' tall in the '50s; you wore high heels and
broke our feet doing it. Even in the '60s when I lived in New York with Burt
Bacharach, you didn't wear sneakers on the street. I still was in high heels
struggling to walk home. So also the '60s gave us flat shoes that were
stylish. I'm not talking that there were no flat shoes, but they weren't
stylish before the '60s. So...
GROSS: They wore those pale lipsticks in the '60s, those pale pinks.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. I always wore pale lipstick. I don't even know what I
wore in the '50s, but in the '60s, that was certainly my era. And I know
Jose Eber, the great hair dresser--he says, `You and Ann-Margret--you never
change. You wear the same makeup all these years and it always looks great.'
I'm not sure how great I look in it, but I can't just let go of that. And I
wear pale lipstick because I look dreadful in dark lipstick. There's only one
reason why I wear it.
GROSS: How did you become a blonde?
Ms. DICKINSON: I became a blonde because I was doing a movie, newly under
contract to Warner Bros. This might interest you as the feminist kind of aura
of human rights. Howard Hawks finished "Rio Bravo" and he put me under
contract for it, of course. And I was thrilled to sign--to be under contract
under Howard Hawks. Then he asked for a nine-month postponement or a
six-month postponement I think it was before he started paying me. And I had
to give it to him, of course, 'cause it was about a year after the movie was
made that it was released. And one day, my agent told me I was going to get a
test for a part in "The Bramble Bush" at Warner Bros. And I said, `Oh,
So I went to the studio, and I said, `Hi, I'm Angie and I'm here to test for
something on Stage 8.' And they said, `We'll, get your pass for you. You've
got your permanent pass right here.' And I said, `No, I'm just coming to
screen test.' They said, `No, you've got a permanent pass. It's right here.'
I said, `What do you mean?' He says, `You're under contract here.' And
that's how I found out from the guard at the gate that I was sold by Howard
Hawks to Warner Bros., which did not make me happy. And so I got the part,
but since Barbara Rush was a brunette and I was a brunette, they, of course,
couldn't have two women with the same color hair. They blonded my hair.
GROSS: And that stuck?
Ms. DICKINSON: It seems so silly to me because--but that's how they--it was
a very ordinary movie and not very good, and it stuck. I got to like it, and
then I kept it.
GROSS: But, you know, it's true, like, actresses used to be seen as, like,
the blonde, or the brunette. I mean, that was such--it was seen as such an
important defining characteristic.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yes. Well, above all, you must not mix them up.
Ms. DICKINSON: Now I don't think I looked anything like Barbara Rush at all,
but when you think back, I must say I go to some movies now, and I say, `I
think that's so and so, or is it so and so. They look quite a bit alike.' So
perhaps the producer was right, but it certainly worked out fine for me
because the blonde did--it worked better for me. I had very icky, dark brown
hair; still do.
GROSS: Now let me ask you, you eventually ended up insuring your legs with
Lloyd's of London for $1 million. And that got a lot of publicity. Was that
a studio publicity stunt or did they actually need you to be--to insure your
Ms. DICKINSON: No, they insured my legs because--this was after Warner Bros.
contract and I finished that or got out of it. Then I went to Universal. I
was auditioning for the role of Gregory Peck's romantic interest in "Captain
Newman, M.D.," and they said, `You will get the part, if you sign a seven-year
contract.' And I thought, `Oh, God, here we go again. Get stuck in stupid
movies for seven years,' but I had no choice. I wanted that movie. And it
was a real coup at the time, so I accepted that, and so now they had to build
me as a star, if I was going to be worth my weight. And so they would do
different tricks, and one of them was to insure my legs. So I said, `Now, you
guys, is this legitimate or is this just a gag?' And they said, `No, no, it's
legitimate, but just don't ask us how long,' so I suppose they insured them
for the minimal amount of time, whether it was a week, an hour or a day. I'm
sure it wasn't for more than a week.
Ms. DICKINSON: But it worked very nicely. It was very good publicity. They
were pretty legs. And there is something about pretty legs.
GROSS: Angie Dickinson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. DICKINSON: Terry, I loved it.
GROSS: Angie Dickinson co-starred in the 1960 Rat Pack film "Ocean's Eleven."
The new "Ocean's Eleven" opens this Friday. The film has inspired the release
of two new Rat Pack CDs on Capitol Records featuring Sinatra, Dean Martin and
Sammy Davis Jr.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Gerald Early discusses his research for his
book "The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Gerald Early is the editor of the new book "The Sammy Davis Jr.
Reader." It's anthology of essays from the '50s till now. Early wrote the
introductory essay. Early is also the author of "The Culture of Bruising:
Essays on Prize Fighting, Literature and Modern American Culture." And he's
the editor of "The Muhammad Ali Reader." He's been a contributor to FRESH
AIR. He's a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Gerald Early
also wrote the liner notes for the Sammy Davis box set "Yes, I Can." Here's
the title track.
(Soundbite of song "Yes, I Can")
Mr. SAMMY DAVIS Jr.: (Singing) Yes, I can suddenly. Yes, I can. Gee, I'm
afraid to go on has turned into yes, I can. Take a look. What do you see? A
133 pounds of confidence me. Got the feeling I can do anything, yes, I can.
Something that sings in my blood is telling me, yes, I can. I was just born
today, I can go all the way, yes, I can.
GROSS: As you point out during part of the '50s and '60s, Sammy Davis was one
of the best-known African-Americans in America. In the entertainment world,
he was seen as representing two opposite extremes. Some people saw him as
representing the civil rights movement and the strides that African-Americans
were making in breaking into, you know, the mainstream entertainment world,
but other people saw him as an Uncle Tom. Can we talk about those two
contradictory visions of Sammy Davis? Let's start with him representing the
civil rights movement.
Mr. GERALD EARLY (Editor, "The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader"): Well, it's
interesting about Davis and the civil rights movement. He won the Springarm
medal from the NAACP in the late '60s which is one of the highest civil rights
award you can get which was given to him because of all the work he had done
for the civil rights movement and all the money he had raised. He did have an
association with the civil rights movement that was quite visible and quite
important and he certainly got written up a lot when he was in the black
Davis was also a guy that a lot of people thought was a sellout. One, I think
it had to do with his personality and his striving to be so sincere with
people, which I think a lot of people thought was just sort of obsequious and
distasteful a lot of times. Part of it, I think, had related to his size. He
was a very small man and I think his size made him seem more overwhelmed by
people around him than he might really have been. I think his physical size
tended to make people, in some ways, kind of disrespect him in combination
with the personality that he had. Then he always seemed like he was someone
who wanted to be around white people. And his conversion to Judaism in the
late 1950s, the marriage to Mai Britt in 1960 were all things that made people
think, `Oh, this is a guy. He's a white wanna-be.'
And so what's interesting about this--the kind of life that he was striving
for, as he made clear in his autobiography, "Yes, I Can," was actually the
life that Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were supposedly
fighting for, a black person can live this kind of life and a black person can
marry whomever he wants and can associate with whomever he wants and can live
the kind of life that he wants, and he doesn't have to live a life that's
confined by his race. So in that respect, he was kind of making his life a
rather daring public statement. But it was precisely the sort of thing that
people didn't like--not only a lot of black people didn't like it but there
were even white people who were rather uncomfortable with the way he chose to
live his life and the kind of personality he projected.
GROSS: You write part of what makes Sammy Davis interesting to the American
public was that he was so publicly desperate as a Negro. What do you mean?
Mr. EARLY: If you read "Yes, I Can"--I mean, here's a guy who so much
wants--first of all, he's tremendously self conscious about being black. I
mean, on the one hand, Sammy Davis wants to kind of present himself as someone
who is comfortable being black, but on the other hand it's very clear from the
way he acted that he, in many respects, was very uncomfortable with being
black. I mean, he was very uncomfortable in some respects about his whole
physical appearance, but being black is something he talked about a great
deal. And he also talked a great deal in his books about being ugly and...
GROSS: Being too short, having a broken nose.
Mr. EARLY: Being short, having a broken nose. I mean, he though he was an
ugly man. And one would rather expect that with the kind of performer that he
was and that he was a dancer and so forth, that he would be very aware of
himself as a physical specimen. And being black was part of that as well. So
I think it all kind of merged together in his mind in many respects. But he
came along at a time when black performers were trying to break out of the
confined sort of black entertainment world and cross over--I mean, cross over
in a way that was different from let's say the way Louis Armstrong crossed
over to get a white audience or Fats Waller crossed over to get a white
audience. I mean, Davis emerged after World War II with a cohort of people
like Poitier, Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne. I mean, he emerged
with that cohort of people essentially.
And their crossing over was meant to be something different than with the
earlier generation. And I think Davis' crossing over was very much an idea
that he wanted to blend in. And he wanted to bring a certain kind of
distinctive elements of himself as a Negro, but he wanted to make sure that
those elements were pleasing to a white audience, that they didn't really
disturb or bother a white audience. And I think that the pressures under
which he operated in order to do what he did produced a certain kind of
desperation in him. I mean, if you read his books, the tone of how he often
described what he was about, he sounds very much like a man who's rather
GROSS: Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin used to mock Sammy Davis in performance.
They'd mock him for being black and for having converted to Judaism. Of
course, Sinatra and Martin would mock each other for being Italians, but
somehow it seemed more cutting with Sammy Davis. Here's a track recorded live
at The Sands in 1963. Sammy Davis is doing some of this impressions and
Sinatra and Martin are in the background putting him down.
(Soundbite of performance from The Sands in 1963)
Mr. DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, this song was written
for the man, and not too many people sing it. We'd like you to meet a few
people singing this song. We'd like to offer some impersonations, if we may.
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: Oh, good idea, Sam.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DEAN MARTIN: Hey, why don't you go call ...(unintelligible) get on your
horse and get the hell out of here. `The Yiddish are coming, the Yiddish are
coming, the Yiddish are coming.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: Da-da-da-da-da.
Mr. SINATRA: And I love you and don't you forget it.
Mr. MARTIN: And I love booze and don't you forget it.
Mr. DAVIS: I'm telling you, boy, you guys have a ball 'cause you ain't got
many rights left.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAVIS: I would like...
Mr. MARTIN: So is your old man.
Mr. DAVIS: ...to have you meet, first of all, Mr. Nat King Cole.
Mr. MARTIN: Was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was Nat King Cole.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SINATRA: You got to keep smiling, Sam, so everybody knows where you are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SINATRA: Baby.
Mr. DAVIS: I tell you guys, if we ever get in the league, you two are going
to be first.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: No, we ain't because we're going to join you when that happens.
Mr. DAVIS: I ain't going to Africa, baby.
Mr. SINATRA: I can't go there.
Mr. DAVIS: I can't go there.
Mr. MARTIN: I joined about 11 years ago, folks.
Mr. DAVIS: Nat King Cole.
Mr. MARTIN: Was a merry old soul.
Mr. DAVIS: Oh, shut up!
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAVIS: You silly goose.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAVIS: (Singing, impersonating Nat King Cole) When somebody loves you,
it's no good unless she loves you all the way.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. SINATRA: You notice how much better he does his own people than our
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's "The Rat Pack" recorded at The Sands in 1963. My guest Gerald
Early is the editor of the new book "The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader." He wrote
the opening essay.
Gerald Early, how does that sound to you now?
Mr. EARLY: I think it's uncomfortable to listen to it. I would think
actually at the time when Davis was even going through it, it was rather
uncomfortable for him.
GROSS: In reading all that you read to put together "The Sammy Davis Reader,"
do you feel like you understand any more now what motivations Frank Sinatra
and Dean Martin had when they were ridiculing Sammy Davis Jr. during
performances? Was it just like good-natured stuff, or do you think that there
were more hostile things going on beneath the surface?
Mr. EARLY: I think they both liked Sammy Davis and they probably both
thought they were being funny, and, you know, they were all kind of high when
they were up there anyway. And so, you know, when you're high, you're apt to
say things that are kind of silly. You have an integrated act at a time when
things are kind of racially charged. They're thinking that maybe if we tell
jokes like this, it kind of makes the audience more willing to accept the fact
that we're an integrated act, and, you know, it kind relaxes whatever tensions
there might be in the audience because the audience is probably mostly white.
And so, you know, Sinatra was a liberal guy. He was a guy who--you know,
Davis got him to do some civil rights benefits and so forth and so, you know,
I don't think, you know, he's probably trying to be in any way intentionally
racist. On the other hand, I think there are other things that are probably
going on in their minds at this particular time and what's going on racially
in the United States at this particular time. And, in some ways, for them to
be doing the kind of jokes that they're doing and having Davis as a butt of
certain kind of jokes is perhaps releasing certain tensions for them as well
as is releasing certain tensions for the audience.
GROSS: Well, Gerald Early, I'd like to end by asking you to choose one of
your favorite Sammy Davis Jr. recordings, a recording that you think shows him
at his best. What would like to play?
Mr. EARLY: Well, I think the best album he made was the record he made with
Count Basie that was arranged by Quincy Jones and just about any track on that
record would be fine because I think he was at the top of his game when he
made that record.
GROSS: Gerald Early, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. EARLY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song by Sammy Davis Jr.)
Mr. DAVIS: (Singing) Did you say I've got a lot to learn? Well, don't think
I'm trying not to learn, since this is the perfect spot to learn...
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