In the annals of TV history, All in the Family stands out for its unflinching look at controversial topics. There was really no topic the series was afraid to touch. All in the Family probed racism, the Vietnam War, homosexuality, feminism and the proper way to put on socks (OK, not every issue was weighty). But of all the episodes, one episode definitely stands out. The one, in which Sammy Davis, Jr., visits Archie Bunker, Edith, Mike “Meathead” Stivic and Gloria.
"Sammy's Visit" is probably one of the best remembered All in the Family episodes of the series – for good reason. It was hilarious, contemplative and thought provoking, and of course, its ending became legendary.
It isn’t simply a funny episode to watch, though. The backstory of how the episode came about is interesting, too, and many people may not realize is that All in the Family was really just one of many TV episodes in which Sammy Davis, Jr., interacted as himself in a fictional universe.
But never mind that for the moment. "Sammy's Visit" aired 50 years ago, on February 19, 1972. It seems like as good as time as any to examine the Sammy Davis All in the Family episode and how it came about.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
How Sammy Davis, Jr. Ended Up on All in the Family
It was Sammy Davis, Jr.’s idea.
He was a fan of the series, and Davis suggested to Norman Lear that he appear in the show.
In fact, according to the book, Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family by Donna McCorhan, which came out in 1987, Davis was such a fan, he was arranging his Saturday nightclub appearances, when possible, to begin after All in the Family episodes ended (newspaper accounts of the time back that assertion up).
As Davis said around that time, according to McCorhan’s book, “All in the Family has turned the heads of the nation. It is exposing some of the ills of today's society and doing it in good taste via humor and entertainment. I just wanted to be part of it all."
“He hounded me,” Norman Lear said years later in an interview. “He loved the show. I said, ‘We don't do guest stars. There are no guest stars.’”
Lear also recalled, to the Associated Press, in 1972, that Sammy Davis, Jr., when he was appearing on talk shows would bring up All in the Family. But Lear just couldn't see how he could get Davis on the show without it feeling contrived. The Bunkers were not people who hobnobbed with the stars.
Couldn’t Sammy Davis, Jr., play a character other than himself on All in the Family? You know, like a guy who works as a teller at a bank who denies Archie a loan? Or maybe some attorney Archie has a beef with? According to accounts of the time, Lear felt that if they went that route, it would overwhelm the episode because Davis was such a big star. The audience wouldn’t see a teller or an attorney – they would see Sammy Davis, Jr.
Lear had a point. All in the Family didn’t traffic in big name guest stars. When you watch reruns today, you’ll spot actors who had successful careers. Doris Roberts, future mother and Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, for instance, appears in the sixth season of All in the Family, but back then, she wasn't exactly a household name. Larry Storch of F-Troop fame, and all-around amazing TV character actor, had a part in the third season as a guest star, but, he, too, wasn't larger than life, and he had a way of disappearing into a part, where you could forget you watching Larry Storch.
There were definitely some big names who appeared on All in the Family, but you weren’t going to see larger than life actors on the show. Bob Hope or Jack Benny were never going to take the role of a plumber in the way that happened on The Lucy Show. Lucille Ball wasn’t going to play Edith’s wacky aunt for an episode, fun as that might have been to see. All in the Family may have been about a fictional family, but it was rooted in the real world, as much as was possible for a sitcom.
Still, how do you say, “No, thanks,” to Sammy Davis, Jr., when he wants to appear on your show?
Norman Lear didn’t have an answer for that.
Writing the script, “Sammy’s Visit”
Bill Dana, an actor and writer, penned the script of “Sammy’s Visit,” and the way he told the story to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation in North Hollywood, he and Lear were old friends. Dana was a big presence on television in the 1950s and 1960s – he had his own series, The Bill Dana Show, from 1963 to 1965 – but he was a writer, too, and he really wanted to write a script for All in the Family.
When he approached Lear about writing an episode, according to Dana, there were plenty of scripts already written. Lear didn’t need another one. But Lear rethought that. And he said something to Dana, along the lines of, "If you could come up with a way for the real Sammy Davis, Jr., to come into the Archie Bunker household…”
Dana says that he and Lear started brainstorming ideas right there, in the executive producer's office.
“I had done some homework and knew that Archie moonlighted as a cab driver,” Dana says.
Now, John Rich, one of the main directors on All in the Family, remembered things slightly differently in his 2006 memoir. He recalled that several episodes before “Sammy’s Visit,” the idea of Archie driving a cab to make extra money was introduced specifically because they were trying to make it believable that he would encounter Davis. That suggests that it was Dana who came up with the idea of Archie driving a cab -- and then Lear had that concept introduced earlier in the series.
No matter. The point is that Dana knew cab drivers transported all walks of life, from the rich and famous to your average and unknown, and so he suggested to Lear – why couldn’t Archie Bunker pick up Sammy Davis, Jr., and maybe Sammy leaves a package or something important in the cab?
Lear loved the idea, and Dana was tasked with writing what would become one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of All in the Family.
“I was so lucky,” Dana said, of writing “Sammy’s Visit.”
As it turned out, Dana was an inspired choice to be the writer. For starters, Dana and Sammy Davis, Jr. were friends. But more than that, Dana had experience on the touchy topic of race relations. Dana achieved stardom as an actor playing a role that, by the 1970s, was deemed insensitive to Hispanics.
Dana, of Hungarian-Jewish descent, became a household name when he debuted a character on The Steve Allen Show in 1959 -- called José Jiménez. Dana ended up taking the character to Danny Thomas's sitcom, Make Room for Daddy, and then had a spin-off, The Bill Dana Show, featuring Jiménez, and his character had an appearance on Batman in 1966.
But by 1969, Dana "killed off" José Jiménez. He attended a festival called the Night of Pride and Unity in Los Angeles and told a crowd of 11,000 that he was done with the character. But as he made clear in 1970 to Vernon Scott, a writer with the news service, UPI, Dana wasn't pressured by Mexican-Americans to retire the character. Dana himself worried that the character was hurting Hispanics.
"Too many people were telling me they loved that dumb Mexican I was doing," Dana said. "Actually, I picked up the dialect in Puerto Rico, and I never played him as dumb. I don't think José was a stereotyped Mexican, lazy and wearing a sombrero. He was none of those things."
But Dana worried that the character was nonetheless perceived in that way.
"I liked José and what he stood for," he said. But Dana recognized that he wasn't the right guy to play a Hispanic character. He told UPI, "If I were a Mexican instead of Hungarian, José might still be alive."
So ethnicity and race was not a topic new to Dana. In many ways, he may have been the perfect person to pen "Sammy's Visit."
Taping “Sammy’s Visit”
John Rich won an Emmy for directing the episode, “Sammy’s Visit.”
Rich directed numerous shows before coming to All in the Family and ultimately directed 81 episodes of the series. He did seven episodes of The Brady Bunch in the first season. He directed 26 episodes of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and 14 episodes of Gunsmoke, four episodes of Gilligan's Island and 41 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In other words, Rich knew his way around a sitcom.
Rich told the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation that they were struggling with a scene in which Sammy Davis, Jr., had a long monologue. At some point, Davis took the director aside and said, “John, I gotta have a cue card.”
According to Rich, he said, “Sam, there are no cue cards on this show. I've seen your work with Bob Hope, and other people, and Hope, and all those guys, and they're all reading cue cards. Dean Martin. It's obvious. Nobody looks anybody in the eye. They're looking off camera, and it's clearly a reading. That will not happen on this show. You go home and learn it.”
Davis objected. “I can’t. It’s too long,” he said, according to Rich.
Rich insisted, and the legendary performer gave in. Sammy Davis, Jr., Rich added, “did the speech, brilliantly.”
What Sammy Davis, Jr. Thought of the Episode
He certainly seemed to enjoy the experience and the result, from what he said in the press. In an article that ran across the country in newspapers like the Kenosha News, on February 19, 1972, Davis told journalist Joan Crosby: "Bill Dana wrote the script, and he did a brilliant job. The idea is this: what happens to Archie Bunker's kind of bigot when he meets a black celebrity."
Davis said in the article that the original script was a bit different than the final draft.
"Originally, the script had us in a confrontation, with me getting angry and uptight. Well, that's not the way I would handle it. I'd try to take care of that man intellectually," Davis said.
Davis told Crosby, "As a black man, I love to see the Archie Bunkers exposed for what they are."
But Davis also said that he disagreed with people who put down the show or said it catered to racists who identified with Archie: "They're only saying those things because the show is popular. Where were those intellectual minds before this show was on television? If someone like Cousteau, with that great series of his which exposes how we pollute the water, can be popular but still not educate people who continue to pollute the water, how can we educate the Archies?"
"I'm not interested in haters," Davis added. "I don't care for extremists, black or white. You're not going to change them. It's the guy on the fence I'm interested in reaching, and a show like All in the Family reaches him."
What Happened on the All in the Family Sammy Davis, Jr. Episode
As for the actual episode, if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it sometime. The entire All in the Family series can be found, for free, on IMDB TV.
But in a nutshell, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) returns home, excited, because he had a celebrity riding his taxi. Archie wants them to guess who, and Edith (Jean Stapleton) is game to try. She wants to know: “Living or dead?”
The expression on Archie’s face is priceless. He points out that he was driving a cab and not a hearse.
Eventually, we learn that Sammy Davis, Jr., was a passenger in Archie's cab. Davis was also a generous tipper – giving Archie a $5 bill on a $1.25 trip. And Davis was very friendly.
“As fine a gentleman as ever you’d want to meet,” Archie says. “Sat in the back of the cab. Talked about the weather. All kinds of things, just like a regular person. Fact, if it weren’t for the rearview mirror there, I’d have thought he was a white guy.”
“Arch,” Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner) groans. “What do you gotta say things like that for?”
Archie gets annoyed – and isn’t sure what he said that was so wrong. But, of course, that was Archie Bunker.
Before long, we learn that Davis has left his briefcase in Archie’s cab, and of course, as we know, arrangements are made so that he ends up coming over to the house to retrieve it.
While they wait for the famed entertainer to show up at their doorstep, Archie and Mike have some interesting commentary on race and class. Archie refers to Sammy as “Mr. Davis,” and Mike notes that he doesn’t treat his friend and their neighbor, Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans), in the same way.
“Because he worked himself up to being called Mr. Davis, and he deserves that, because in this great country, a man can overcome the unequalness of his color... and rise to become a great star,” Archie says.
“Arch, what do you mean, ‘unequalness’?” Mike demands. “What's the difference between our neighbor Lionel Jefferson and Sammy Davis, Jr.?”
“Ten million dollars and five purple Cadillacs,” Archie responds.
When Sammy Davis, Jr., arrives, as you would expect, there are some truly cringe-worthy moments. But also hilarious ones. Edith curtsies, for instance. A little later, Archie -- having warned Edith not to say anything about Sammy Davis Jr.'s glass eye -- inadvertently asks him, "Now, Mr. Davis, do you take cream and sugar in your eye?"
Davis mistakes Lionel for the husband of Gloria (Sally Struthers), and Archie is kind of horrified by the idea that Sammy Davis, Jr., thinks a black man is his son-in-law. Archie quickly makes introductions, and then Archie allows Sammy to sit in his special chair, and that -- for anyone familiar with the show -- is a big deal.
Unfortunately for Davis, Archie's boss hasn't yet arrived with the briefcase, and so Sammy is stuck at the house, waiting for it. In the meantime, Davis is getting a lot of close personal time with Archie, Edith, Mike and Gloria and a lot of neighbors who want to meet the famous celebrity.
Archie Bunker tries his best to be a good host, but his prejudices keep undermining him.
At one point, Archie says, “Well, Mr. Davis, I want to tell you, it's a real honor to have you in our home, thank you. Breaking bread with us this way.”
If only Archie had just left it at that, but then he says, “I was just saying to my family before you came in, I said, ‘Sammy Davis Jr. is maybe the greatest credit to his race.’"
“Well, thank you very much,” Sammy says, diplomatic. “I’m sure you’ve done good for yours, too.”
“I try,” Archie says.
Later, during a toast, one of the Bunkers’ neighbors, Barney Hefner (Allan Melvin), toasts Archie and “the greatest entertainer in the world.” Barney takes a sip from the glass of beer, and then Archie does, and then Sammy Davis, Jr. takes a sip of the beer and adds that he would like to toast to “friendship.” Archie happily says he would like to toast to that and starts to take a sip but realizes he would be drinking from the glass that Sammy Davis, Jr., just sipped from.
And Archie can’t do it.
For the viewer, it's an awkward, tense, moment. Later, when Archie is out of the room, Gloria apologizes to Sammy.
“I'm sorry, Mr. Davis. Sometimes my father says the wrong things,” Gloria says.
“Yeah, I've noticed that,” Sammy says.
“But he's not a bad guy, Mr. Davis,” Lionel says, sincere. “I mean, like, he'd never burn a cross on your lawn.”
“No, but if he saw one burning, he's liable to toast a marshmallow on it,” Sammy quips.
The two laugh and hug. It’s a nice moment. Incidentally, the month the episode aired, All in the Family creator Norman Lear told a Chicago Tribune critic that he didn’t think Archie Bunker was really the sort of person to toast a marshmallow on a burning cross on a lawn. That said, Lear didn’t defend Bunker much.
"If Archie were with a friend, he might stop,” Lear said. “But not if he were alone."
There are so many iconic moments throughout this episode. For instance, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Archie Bunker discuss interracial kissing on TV, and that leads to a Bible and history lesson of sorts.
“I think that if God had meant us to be together, he'd have put us together,” Archie says. “But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, he put the rest of us in all the white countries.”
Sammy says dryly: “Well, you must have told him where we were, 'cause somebody came and got us.”
And later, Archie complains that "these kids" -- gesturing toward Gloria, Mike and Lionel, all sitting on the couch -- think he is prejudiced, and Sammy assures his host that he is most decidedly not.
Sammy delivers an amazing speech that utilizes some colorful and powerful language that we'll not mention in print. It's quickly obvious to the TV audience -- and certainly Mike and Gloria and Lionel -- that Mr. Davis does believe Archie Bunker is, in fact, prejudiced.
But Sammy Davis, Jr., sums up his feelings this way, cheerful and non-confrontational throughout his speech:
“If you were prejudiced, you would, like some people, close their eyes to what's going on in this great country that we live in. But not you, Archie. Your eyes are wide open. You can tell the difference between black and white. And I have a deep-rooted feeling that you'll always be able to tell the difference between black and white. And if you were prejudiced, you'd walk around thinking that you're better than anybody else in the world. But I can honestly say, having spent these marvelous moments with you, you ain't better than anybody.”
Sammy offers up this devastating commentary with a smile, and naturally Archie assumes he is being given a first-class compliment.
Of course, shortly after this, the episode ends with that famous kiss. Archie’s boss finally arrives with the briefcase and wants to take a photo of Sammy, who readily agrees, as long as Archie can be in it with him. At the last second, Sammy kisses Archie on the cheek, and quickly leaves.
Archie is left looking annoyed, but mostly stunned.
Words can’t do the episode justice. It really is something that any All in the Family fan should see in its entirety – and if you grew up on All in the Family reruns, you probably have seen it, again and again. Of course, now, All in the Family isn't in reruns on TV channels across America, where generations of all ages can easily stumble upon the show and discover it. Which means Sammy Davis, Jr. is probably not reaching those guys and gals on the fence, and younger generations aren't getting to see Archie Bunker go to battle on the world's problems with Mike Stivic, Maude, George Jefferson and a slew of others who challenged his close-minded thinking.
Which is kind of a shame. The television audience of the 1970s and 1980s really had something special, just a remote control button away, on Saturday nights, and later, Sundays. There was nothing like All in the Family before All in the Family, and there's really been nothing like it ever since.
Where to watch All in the Family (at the time of this writing): All in the Family (the entire series) can be found for free on IMDb TV.
Articles similar to this one: Well, if you enjoyed this article, you've really got to read the sequel to this article, in which The TV Professor takes a look at all of the series that Sammy Davis, Jr., appeared on, playing himself, including a return visit with Archie Bunker on Archie Bunker's Place. Or maybe you'd like to read about how the All in the Family theme song came about?