When Sammy Davis, Jr., guest starred on All in the Family, and met Archie Bunker, on a February 19, 1972 episode, it was not the first time the famous entertainer played himself on a TV show. Nor would it be the last.
The All in the Family episode "Sammy Visits" is what everybody thinks of, when they think of a sitcom in which Sammy Davis, Jr., starred as himself, but he actually had a lengthy history of performing as himself in TV shows. By the time the All in the Family episode aired, Sammy Davis, Jr., guest starring as himself and interacting with fictional TV characters was practically an annual tradition.
It’s incredible, in fact, that Sammy Davis, Jr., never starred in his own sitcom, although it almost happened. In 1973, Davis starred in a TV movie called Poor Devil, which was intended to be a pilot movie for a sitcom, but, alas, it wasn’t picked up by NBC. If it had worked out, it would have starred Sammy Davis, Jr., as a demon from Hell trying to earn a promotion from working in the furnace room. Horror film veteran Christopher Lee played Lucifer.
As you probably know, if you're a classic TV fan, certain sitcom actors often wound up appearing on multiple shows. Sam Drucker (played by Frank Cady), for instance, was on Petticoat Junction but sometimes appeared on Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) started off on Cheers and then was the main character, of course, on Frasier, and Frasier also turned up on Wings and The John Larroquette Show.
But Sammy Davis, Jr. held a unique distinction in the realm of TV characters appearing on different TV series. Davis played a fictional version of himself 13 times on TV series – and that's not even counting when he played himself on occasional TV movies and even in feature films, such as the 1983 Jerry Lewis film Cracking Up. It really starts getting confusing if we include that.
Even the 13 times he played on TV series can be a little hard to follow since he appeared as himself on 12 different shows, or 11, if you don't count spin-offs as its own TV series. Sammy Davis, Jr.., you see, played himself twice on the short-lived sitcom Sanford, and he played himself in All in the Family but also returned in All in the Family’s sequel spin-off series, Archie Bunker’s Place.
(As impressive as Sammy Davis, Jr.’s feat was, one could argue that there are other actors who outdid him, since George Burns, Jack Benny and Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, all played fictional versions of themselves on different shows.)
Still, the point is – Sammy Davis, Jr. guest starred as himself in a lot of sitcoms and even one-hour dramas, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and it's a unique feat that's fun to examine, especially with the recent fiftieth anniversary of his appearance on All in the Family.
Here’s a quick look at Sammy Davis, Jr.'s impressive body of work in the “Sammy Davis, Jr. playing himself timeline”:
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- Cain's Hundred -- 1962
- The Danny Thomas Show -- 1962
- The Patty Duke Show – 1965
- I Dream of Jeannie – 1967
- Here's Lucy – 1970
- All in the Family – 1972
- Chico and the Man – 1975
- Charlie’s Angels – 1977
- Archie Bunker’s Place – 1980
- Sanford – 1980
- The Jeffersons – 1984
- Gimme a Break – 1985
- After All Those Years of Playing Himself on TV
Cain's Hundred -- 1962
This is a mostly forgotten one-hour drama that ran for 30 episodes from 1961 to 1962. The TV series was about an attorney who used to work for the syndicate and who now works for the federal government, with the goal of bringing in 100 top criminals to justice. In a 1962 episode of Cain's Hundred called, “The Swinger,” Sammy Davis, Jr. appears as himself. It's just a brief couple scenes where he's hanging out at a party, talking to his pal, a comedian, Hank Shannon (Robert Culp). Davis didn't have anything more than a cameo; he was there to provide some realism and pizzazz -- so that audiences would know that Hank Shannon was a successful enough comic to have a famous friend like Sammy Davis, Jr.
The Danny Thomas Show -- 1962
In the episode “Rusty’s Birthday,” Rusty (Rusty Hamer) is upset that his parents seemed to have forgotten his birthday while they’re off in Europe. Well, after a lot of emotional angst, the 16-year-old gets a film in the mail from his dad – which includes a personal standup comedy routine from Sammy Davis, Jr., to Rusty. In the routine, Davis offers up impersonations of actors like James Stewart, James Cagney, Marlon Brando and Bing Crosby. Davis concludes the routine by singing “Happy Birthday” – and, well, it’s pretty much the coolest present a teenager, or anybody, could get.
The Patty Duke Show – 1965
Sammy Davis., Jr., the character, has gone from being a performer in a fictional world to becoming a much more integral part of the plot. In fact, in the episode, “Will the Real Sammy Davis Please Hang Up?,” we see Sammy Davis, Jr., immediately.
We see a poster of him – and then Davis steps into view, introduces himself, reassuring viewers that they’re watching The Patty Duke Show, and he tells the story of why he’s on The Patty Duke Show.
In a nutshell, Patty is looking to get a star to appear at her prom, and when Davis learns about her quest, he admires her drive and decides he’ll do it. So he calls Patty, and she doesn’t believe that Sammy Davis Jr. is actually calling her. And, well, you can imagine how it turns out.
I Dream of Jeannie – 1967
Sammy Davis guest stars in an episode, “The Greatest Entertainer in the World.” Major Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) tries to get Sammy Davis Jr. to perform at General Peterson’s party, and, well, about the same time, Jeannie (Barbara Eden) decides to get involved, too. She “zaps” Sammy Davis, Jr., into her home. She then discovers that her master, Major Tony Nelson isn’t around – and returns Sammy to his own studio or hotel or wherever he is rehearsing. Sammy thinks he is having a nervous breakdown.
He finally convinces himself not to check himself into a mental facility, and then a little later, Jeannie zaps Sammy back. He sees Tony and recognizes the famous astronaut.
"You're Major Nelson?" Sammy asks.
"Yeah, that's right," Major Nelson says.
"Don't worry about it, major. We're both cracking up at the same time. We're sharing the same nervous breakdown," Sammy says.
Jeannie explains he isn't having a nervous breakdown, but Sammy won't let her explain how she got him from his hotel room to Nelson's house. He decides he won't be able to handle it, and when Tony implies it was some top secret military trick that brought Sammy here, he's grateful.
Jeannie ultimately creates a double so Sammy can perform for General Peterson -- and the second Sammy Davis can perform at the concert date he has. We end up getting treated to both Sammy Davis's -- the real one and the clone -- singing "That Old Black Magic" for their audiences.
At the end, Sammy Davis stops by Major Nelson's house, happy to see him and Jeannie -- and wants to know if they can do anything about the Sammy Davis, Jr., lookalike following him and still singing, "That Old Black Magic."
Here's Lucy – 1970
Dealing with genies and magic was a piece of cake compared to Lucy Carter (Lucille Ball). The episode is titled simply, “Lucy and Sammy Davis Jr,” and it’s painful at times to watch. Mostly because Davis is in a lot of pain. First, he hits his nose (off screen) on an elevator door, and so he comes into the Unique Employment Agency, where Carter works, to see if he can get some ice.
Lucy, of course, shortly thereafter ends up accidentally hitting Davis in the face with the front door, and a little later, after Lucy drives him crazy, he tries to leave.
"It's been a ball meeting you," Davis says, in what is presumably an inside joke. (Get it? Lucille Ball.) "But I've got to split."
Davis starts for the exit, and that's when Harrison Carter (Gale Gordon) comes into the office. He opens the door, which slams into Davis's face. We then see that Davis's nose has swollen considerably.
Davis says that his film producer might sue the employment agency, if his swollen nose means that they can't shoot his movie, and that leads to Lucy accompanying Davis to make sure his nose's condition improves and that the star doesn't sue the agency.
Later, when Sammy Davis, Jr. tries to film his scenes, Lucy naturally ends up ruining take after take, usually because she forgets she is watching a movie. Lucille Ball is deservedly a beloved icon, and Here's Lucy is an underrated gem of a series, in my opinion. That said, Ball or the Here's Lucy scriptwriters sometimes made Lucy Carter really dense, annoyingly so. For instance, Davis plays himself, acting in a scene where he's falling asleep while waiting for an important phone call. OK. So Lucy, who is fully aware that she is on a movie set, splashes water on him, to wake him up. He's just that good of an actor, that she forgot where she was.
Still, the episode is worth watching, if only to see Davis near the end perform, "And When I Die," a cover of the 1968 song by Blood, Sweat & Tears. He is mesmerizing.
All in the Family – 1972
So here’s where the famous Sammy Davis Jr. All in the Family episode lands in the “Sammy Davis, Jr. playing himself timeline.” This is definitely the most realistic Sammy Davis Jr. ever seemed in a sitcom, but the episode still kind of follows the same beats that TV audiences were used to by the time. Sammy Davis, Jr. is living his best life, and then he gets sucked into the vortex of the fictional sitcom world he is inhabiting.
One of the more sitcom-ish moments occurs shortly after Davis arrives at the Bunker residence, when a neighbor's daughter performs a tap dancing routine for Sammy Davis, Jr., who seems a bit uncomfortable by what's happening. After all, he just dropped by to get his briefcase, and now this stage mom nut is making her daughter perform for him.
Sensing Davis's unease, Archie Bunker helpfully shouts at the little girl to go home, and she runs away, crying. It doesn't sound like it, but the moment is hilarious.
Chico and the Man – 1975
In the episode entitled, “Sammy Stops In,” Sammy Davis Jr. has long since recovered from his visit with the Bunkers and drops by the garage in Chico and the Man. Davis’s car doesn’t work. He thinks it might be dust in the carburetor or a problem with the spark plugs. A lot of the episode is pretty silly, but we get some fun backstory to Sammy Davis’s fictional character – and Ed Brown (Jack Albertson), the irascible elderly man who owns the garage. It seems that Brown was a vaudeville dancer back in the day – in 1951.
It feels a little improbable that Ed Brown would have been a vaudeville dancer just 24 years earlier, but it checks out with Davis’s biography. In 1951, Davis was touring cities with a family act – that of his father and his godfather, who he often referred to as his uncle.
And, in fact, we learn that Ed Brown is partially the reason Sammy Davis, Jr. is a big star.
“My dad, my uncle and I had a big breakthrough coming, an audition in New York, and on the way to New York, our car broke down,” Sammy Davis tells Chico. “If Ed hadn't been on the road and helped us fix the car, we'd never have made it to New York."
Ed waves off the praise and is as cantankerous as ever in the episode, but when he and Sammy Davis both do some tap dancing, the episode becomes kind of magical.
Charlie’s Angels – 1977
Two years after Sammy Davis’s car was worked on by Chico Rodriguez and Ed Brown in a run down part of Los Angeles, he had a pretty frightening experience in a more ritzy part of the city. In the episode, “Sammy Davis, Jr. Kidnap Caper,” some bad guys unsuccessfully try to kidnap him from a charity event at a posh hotel. And the kidnap attempt gone awry isn’t the first time it has happened. Fortunately for Davis, his manager, Ben Brody (Harry Rhodes), immediately goes to the Charles Townsend Agency and hires Charlie Townsends private eyes -- Charlie’s Angels -- to serve as Davis’s bodyguards at a charity event for a hospital.
"I need extra help. I need special help. I need you,” Ben tells the Angels.
They agree to the assignment, and, well, things get complicated when a celebrity lookalike named Herbert (played by Sammy Davis, Jr.) is kidnapped by some crooks. After that, the Angels stick close to Sammy Davis, Jr., and his real life wife, Altovise Davis, who appears in the episode.
It's quite an episode. Sammy Davis, Jr. puts himself in harm’s way in the final minutes of the show when he teams up with the Angels to bring down the bad guys. He even gets to clock a kidnapper with a flowerpot.
Archie Bunker’s Place – 1980
Sammy Davis, Jr., no longer worried about being kidnapped, is a guest at a talk show in New York City when Archie Bunker’s niece, Stephanie, rushes into his bar and tells him to turn on the TV. Archie eventually acquiesces and turns on Channel 2, the New York City CBS station (All in the Family was a CBS show), and, sure enough, there’s Sammy Davis, Jr.
Stephanie proudly tells everybody that Archie knows Sammy Davis, Jr., and nobody believes him.
“He happens to be a very close friend of mine,” Archie says, a tad overstating things.
“Sammy Davis is a close friend of yours?” asks Veronica (Anne Meara). She laughs, and then says, “Don't make me laugh.”
Murray believes Archie’s story, that Sammy Davis, Jr., came over to his house, but doubts that the celebrity even remembers the encounter. He bets Archie $10 that Sammy Davis Jr. won’t remember him, and as luck has it, the local TV show has a number where fans can call in. So Archie does.
Indeed, at first, Sammy is at a loss. Archie reminds him, though, how he welcomed the star into his home. “I treated you like any American,” Archie says, and suddenly the light bulb goes off. Sammy Davis, Jr. remembers.
As Davis tells the talk show host, “When it comes to meeting Archie Bunker, you remember him for the rest of your life.” He adds: “You carry him with you. It's like a surgical scar.”
Archie invites Sammy Davis, Jr., to see his bar in Queens, but at first the celebrity isn’t interested. But Sammy relents after talking to Stephanie on the phone and learning that she is Jewish.
“You're Archie Bunker's niece, and you're Jewish?” Sammy says, incredulous.
He is suddenly intrigued to see Archie again. It also so happens – we don’t know this yet – that a freelance writer is following Davis around, writing about race relations. Sammy figures she ought to meet Archie Bunker. Davis clearly figures whatever the writer writes about Bunker, he’ll have it coming.
So Sammy returns, hence the name of the episode – “The Return of Sammy” – and it’s fun to see the two interact in the bar. It’s clear that Archie has softened and changed – but hasn’t entirely shed his bigoted viewpoints.
Sammy flashes some of his rings around, and Archie gets nervous. “Don't flash the gems too much. I can't even vouch for some of the white people in here,” Archie says.
Veronica offers Sammy some Swiss steak. She’s excited to serve a famous celebrity some of her delicious food, although she should have recalled another time one of her celebrity encounters didn’t go so well. Earlier in the episode, Veronica mentioned that she spilled some soup on the famous film actor George Raft.
Well, Sammy tries the steak and seems to enjoy it – before he begins choking on it. Somehow, Sammy Davis, Jr. survives battling kidnappers in Charlie’s Angels, but here he is, about to die in Archie Bunker’s bar. Thankfully, none other than Archie Bunker saves his life, by giving him the Heimlich maneuver.
Unfortunately for Sammy, Archie almost cracks his ribs, sending the star to the hospital.
When we see Sammy after being checked out, he’s singing a little ditty he just made up: "What a fool I are, to go to Archie's bar."
Interestingly enough, Sammy sang something similar ten years earlier in Here's Lucy. He sang to himself, in Lucy Carter's office, "What kind of fool am I, to walk in here." Apparently, Sammy Davis, Jr. -- or at least his fictional self -- made it a habit to not talk to himself but sing to himself.
Still, he’s happy to see Archie, when Archie – accompanied by Veronica and Murray – comes to make sure he’s okay. Later, there’s an interesting discussion among everyone about whether Archie was treating Sammy Davis, Jr., well because he is a celebrity – and that maybe if Davis wasn’t famous, Archie wouldn’t be giving him the time of the day.
The freelance writer, Olivia Belladonna, says that “blacks who have it made are treated with great respect as opposed to average blacks with average jobs. And in spite of the strides made by some blacks, the prevailing attitude in this country is still selective discrimination.”
Archie processes that and then says, “Wait a minute, it’s the same with white people, too. Ain't it, Sammy? I mean, people treat Dean Martin a whole lot better than they do an ordinary drunk, don't they?”
Sammy concedes that Archie has a point.
Nevertheless, the freelance writer concludes that Archie Bunker is the worst, having heard him use a few words that no decent person today would say (although, no, he doesn’t use the N-word, and at one point, Davis thinks Bunker is about to). Still, Sammy Davis, Jr., is probably more surprised than anyone when he comes to Archie’s defense, telling the freelance writer, “Well, you might be right about what he said. But you might be wrong about who he is.”
Murray, at one point, says of Archie, "My guy has come a long way."
Sammy agrees, saying, “Words alone don't make it. The older I get it, the more I realize, it's not what a person is that counts. It's what a person wants to be."
And Archie Bunker, for all of his failings, does grow considerably during the course of All in the Family. He isn’t the same close-minded guy he was when he first encountered Sammy Davis, Jr., back in 1972. The Meathead, Gloria and Edith’s thinking have clearly rubbed off on Archie. After all, he has a Jewish business partner running his bar. His waitress is Catholic. Another waiter, Veronica’s nephew, Fred, is openly gay, not an easy feat in 1980. Archie’s not exactly an open-minded guy in 1980, but he is trying to improve -- and is sometimes succeeding.
At the end of the episode, Stephanie gets to meet Sammy Davis, Jr., and asks, “Did you really kiss my Uncle Archie?”
“Yeah, once,” Sammy says.
“Once was enough, huh?” Stephanie asks.
“Would you like to see me do it again?” Sammy asks.
Archie protests, but then does something that would have been unthinkable eight years earlier. Talk about character growth.
“This time, it’s on me,” says Archie, and he and Stephanie each plant a kiss on Sammy Davis Jr.’s cheek.
Sanford – 1980
A couple months later, having recovered from bruised ribs and almost choking in Archie Bunker’s Place, Sammy Davis had two encounters with Fred Sanford in the short-lived TV series, Sanford (1980-1981), a sequel to Sanford and Son (1972-1977). In the first, Sammy Davis, Jr., makes a cameo appearance as himself in an episode entitled, “Dinner at George’s,” focusing on a Beverly Hills Bistro. In “The Benefit,” Davis has a much more expansive role: Fred Sanford persuades Davis to perform for Evelyn Lewis, his fiancée.
The Jeffersons – 1984
After four years of appearing in movies like Cannonball Run and a seven story arc in General Hospital and continuing to wow audiences on stage, Sammy Davis, Jr. had another encounter with a fictional sitcom family. This time, he ends up on The Jeffersons (1975-1985), which, of course, was a spin-off of All in the Family.
Davis, you see, moves into the Jeffersons' building, just across the hall from George, Louise and Florence – and he wants his privacy. Louise, meanwhile, learns that a tabloid reporter will pay $2,000 if he learns which apartment Davis is living in. Louise, however, doesn’t seem to remember that she once met Sammy Davis, Jr., back in 1972. We’d blame that on lousy scriptwriting and producing, but if we're going to stay in the mindset that the Jeffersons were a real married couple in New York City, we’ll just have to assume that Louise has a faulty memory or maybe she has blocked out most of her memories related to Archie Bunker.
Or just as likely, she is so shocked by how far she has come in life, that she decided to pretend the first encounter never happened.
After all, back in 1972, she was living next to Archie and Edith Bunker. By 1984, she is living next to Sammy Davis, Jr., who is now her next door neighbor. That would fry anybody’s brain, right?
Gimme a Break – 1985
Nell Harper (Nell Carter) has managed to get Sammy Davis, Jr., to perform at a benefit for a woman’s group. That’s the good news. The bad? When Nell calls Sammy to make sure that everything is going well, and that he’ll be there that night, she learns that he is planning on coming – but next month.
Serves her right for not booking things through Sammy’s agent. Instead of her contact is Sammy Davis Jr’s jeweler – who is Nell’s aunt’s husband’s cousin on her father’s side. This was bound to happen.
Anyway, Nell has a full house of people who have bought tickets, expecting to see Sammy Davis, Jr.
You would think she might just admit to everybody what happened and tell everybody to come next month. After all, Sammy Davis, Jr. is going to come to the benefit. But because we’re in the world of Sitcom Land, of course, Nell doesn’t do that.
And because we’re really in Sitcom Land, Nell and her friend Addy (Telma Hopkins) go to a car wash to get Nell’s station wagon washed – and to discuss how they’re going to get out of this fix, where they notice an employee named Albert, who looks an awful lot like Sammy Davis, Jr.
Albert (Sammy Davis, Jr., of course) looks like Sammy Davis, Jr., but he has a weird voice – and doesn’t seem to have any of the man’s talent. Still, Nell figures she can pass him off to the woman’s group as the real thing. Well, naturally, right around the time it becomes clear that talentless Albert’s never going to pass muster for the real Sammy Davis, Jr., the real Sammy Davis, Jr. comes sauntering in.
Nobody believes Sammy Davis, Jr., is Sammy Davis, Jr., however. They all think he’s Albert, and when Police Chief Carl Kanisky (Dolph Sweet) finds out about the Albert lookalike scheme, he threatens to arrest Sammy Davis.
Fortunately, for Sammy, he convinces everybody – he shows off his rings, and mentions the “aunt’s husband’s cousin” connection and belts out a quick tune – and after that narrow miss with being thrown in jail, he and Nell go out onto the stage and belt out a rousing rendition of “You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.”
After All Those Years of Playing Himself on TV
After Gimme a Break, Sammy Davis, Jr., took a break from playing himself but continued to take on roles in TV sitcoms and dramas. In 1989, he appeared on The Cosby Show but played a guy named Ray Palomino, a grandfather who couldn't read. That same year, on the drama Hunter, Sammy Davis, Jr. played the role of Benny Schafer, a boxing trainer.
The following year, Davis passed away, a victim of throat cancer. That same day, Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets died, and so between the two performers, May 16, 1990, was basically the saddest day ever in the world of celebrity entertainment news.
It wasn’t easy being Sammy Davis, Jr., at least when you were encountering TV characters. He was always being beseeched to perform. He had his nose banged up by Lucille Ball’s Lucy Carter. At various points throughout his life, Davis was almost kidnapped, jailed and killed, the latter thanks to a misplaced piece of Swiss steak. He nearly had a mental breakdown after a genie transported him from place to place. And he had to put up with Archie Bunker.
Still, you can see why Davis enjoyed acting playing the character of Sammy Davis, Jr., on TV. Being Sammy Davis, Jr., was his best role, one he was born to play.
Where to watch these shows (at the time of this writing): To research and watch these episodes, I found some of them on YouTube and just weird places that I don't know that I'd want to recommend. For instance, I don't think any streaming service is showing Cain's Hundreds, but I found an episode of the Sammy Davis episode on some weird site, where the quality was terrible, but you could still watch the episode and get a sense of it. So I'll just stick with the tried and true places, to recommend. All in the Family (the entire series) and can be found for free on IMDb TV. Archie Bunker's Place doesn't seem to have a home on streaming but can be found on the cable channel AntennaTV. If you want to see Sammy Davis hang out with Jeannie, on I Dream of Jeannie, and Lucy Carter on Here's Lucy, and Patty Lane on The Patty Duke Show, and Rusty on The Danny Thomas Show, check out TubiTV.com. PlutoTV has a lot of these shows as well.
Articles similar to this one: Hopefully you read the blog post that focuses on Sammy Davis, Jr's visit to the Bunker household. If you didn't, you can find it here. Or maybe you'd like to read about how the All in the Family theme song came about?