Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sammy Visits the Bunkers

I've written before about the episode of All in the Family that first aired 40 years ago today — when Sammy Davis Jr. made his legendary guest appearance — so I won't go into the details of that episode.

Been there, done that, as the TV commercials used to say.

It is one of those classic TV moments that, if you are old enough to remember seeing it the first time, you only need to describe in a few words — and someone else who is old enough to remember it will nod knowingly, smile, perhaps laugh. Nothing more needs to be said.

It's like the episode of The Carol Burnett Show in which the cast parodied "Gone With the Wind."

Or the episode of M*A*S*H in which Henry left the series for good.

Or the episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Chuckles the Clown died.

Or several episodes of I Love Lucy.

It was ironic, too, I suppose, given the fact that Davis was a supporter of Richard Nixon — very publicly so, in fact, which was a cause of some tension between him and other black performers.

Sammy Davis never really fit the mold of prominent black entertainer. He did seem to try, but he just didn't quite make it. I always got the feeling that black Americans viewed him as something of a racial sellout, and he often appeared to be trying to make it up to them.

Maybe he didn't need to, but he may have felt that he did.

He voted for Democrats in his 20s and 30s and was a visible supporter of the civil rights movement, but he reportedly felt snubbed by John F. Kennedy when he was left off the entertainer list at the new president's inaugural party — allegedly because of his recent interracial marriage.

Consequently, he became a supporter of Nixon's during his presidency — but gravitated back to Democrats after Nixon resigned.

His sense of alienation really predated that event. In the late 1950s, as a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack," Davis objected to Sinatra's calling the group of performers "the Clan" on the grounds that it reminded people of the Ku Klux Klan.

I'm not sure if it did or not — that was before I was born, and I have no memory of hearing Sinatra, Davis, et al., being referred to as anything other than "Rat Pack."

Maybe Davis was overly sensitive. Perhaps the politically correct influences of that time put that particular bug in Davis' ear.

Anyway, when All in the Family became a hit, Davis lobbied for a guest spot on the show. It wasn't hard for him to get it — he and Carroll O'Connor (who played Archie) were friends, and I have heard it was O'Connor who had the idea of having Davis kiss him on the cheek at the end of the show.

Whatever the source, it was an inspired moment of entertainment, a good–natured way for Davis to have a little fun at his own expense. A little more than four years earlier, Davis had kissed Nancy Sinatra on a highly rated TV special. It was one of the first interracial kisses in television history, and it caused quite a stir at the time. Practically no one would so much as bat an eye at it today.

That's what icons do, I guess. They do extraordinary things that few, if any, others have done before, and they render those extraordinary things ordinary by the time they're done.

What Sammy Davis did on All in the Family 40 years ago tonight truly was extraordinary by contemporary standards.