Sammy Davis Jr. in the opening credits of the 1973 TV pilot for Poor Devil. Still taken from a shitty millionth-generation bootleg video copy.
If nobody else is willing to say this out loud, I’ll step up to the plate. Barack Obama is totally ripping off Sammy Davis Jr. I’m willing to overlook their general similarities (cross-racial appeal, Amazon brides, chain smoking), but the senator’s appropriation of Sammy’s mantra is what really gets my goat. What’s worse, this alleged master orator is actually guilty of motto misquoting.
Quite frankly, Obama’s “Yes, We Can” is a hackish catchphrase that invokes the empty sloganeering of the old politics he decries, and its bland meaninglessness makes a glut of unwatchable celebrity YouTube videos inevitable. But Sammy’s sublime ‘Yes, I Can” is a pledge that genuinely means something. “I Can” represents Davis’ refusal to recognize barriers, be they Jim Crow policies, societal norms, or sodomy laws. And “Yes” is basically what Sammy would say if anyone offered him anything.
All that Mr. Entertainment needed to partake in a new vice was an invitation. From clichéd descents into drug addiction to rebellious embraces of Republican politicians, he took everything to an obsessive extreme. Sure, everyone wacks off to porn, but after the nanosecond-long “porno-chic” trend of the 1970s (when Deep Throat had celebrities lined up to appreciate Linda Lovelace’s big-screen talents and it was cool for couples to go to porn theaters on dates), Sammy spent years in shame-free indulgence, screening 35 mm porn prints at parties, visiting adult-movie sets where he treated the actresses like Hollywood royalty, and, according to her biography, taking fellatio lessons from Ms. Lovelace herself. As Sammy explained in his 1989 memoir, Why Me?, “I wanted to have every human experience.”
There’s no better example of this than Sammy’s dabblings in Satanism. Christian by birth, Jewish by choice, Sammy started his personal relationship with Satan during a 1968 visit to the Factory, a nightclub he partially owned. He was invited to a party by a group of young actors sporting red fingernails, signifying their allegiance to the Church of Satan. Founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey, a horror fan with a background in carnival work, ghostbusting, and nightclub organ, the San Francisco-based ministry combined LaVey’s interests in ancient paganism, a media-savvy flair for publicity, and a philosophy of indulgence over abstinence.
When Sammy arrived at the party (whose theme he summarized as “dungeons and dragons and debauchery”), all attendees were wearing hoods or masks. The centerpiece of the “coven” was a naked woman chained spread-eagle on a red-velvet-covered alter. Davis was confident though that human sacrifice was not on the menu that evening. “That chick was happy,” he wrote, “and wasn’t really going to get anything sharper than a dildo stuck in her.”
Not all the Satanists at that orgy would be so lucky. As Sammy was getting stoned and serviced, one of the ritual’s leaders tilted back his hood, revealing himself as Jay Sebring, the singer’s barber. Hollywood’s all-time greatest hetero hairdresser, Sebring was responsible for the shaggy style sported by Jim Morrison, helped get Bruce Lee on TV, and was engaged to actress Sharon Tate. During the Manson Family’s infamous 1969 massacre, Sebring would be bound to Tate, shot, then stabbed seven times. His bio on the website for Sebring International (his still-active haircare company) fails to mention his Satanism, though until recently the company’s logo was an ankh, a symbol frequently used by occultists.
Sammy continued to attend Satanic orgies and eventually joined the Church of Satan, though the chronology of his association presented in Why Me? deviates from the one offered by estranged LaVey associate Michael Aquino in his 1983 history of the church. Aquino’s account is supported by numerous Satanic interoffice memos, though it should be noted that the one time fourth-degree Satanic priest was known for creating documents he claimed to have transcribed from conversations with high-profile supernatural demons (his 1970 Diabolicon quotes Satan, Asmodeus, and Leviathan).
In 1972, after several years of partying with hooded hedonists, Sammy decided to put all his eggs in Beelzebub’s basket by reinventing himself as the star of the first satanic sitcom. Though far worse ideas have made it onto network schedules, it is fair to say that the feature-length NBC pilot for Poor Devil (aired Valentine’s Day 1973) is genuinely fucked. Inverting the story of Clarence the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life, it features Davis as a bumbling coal-shoveling demon who is offered a chance to move up in hell (and to finally fuck Satan’s fine black secretary) if he can successfully procure the soul of a San Francisco accountant played by Jack Klugman. After 73 minutes of Sammy’s bumbling attempts to fulfill Klugman’s bitter revenge fantasies, the one-eyed devil with a heart of gold takes pity and lets his client out of his contract, returning to his sulfuric furnace with a comedic shrug.
Even without the satanic overtones, this is a profoundly disturbing film, with Sammy employing that creepy “innocent” voice he utilizes in the talk-sing opening of “Candy Man,” and the soulless sitcom non-funniness rendered even more sinister by the lack of a laugh track. But what makes this show stand out is the “realism” of hell. There have been plenty of comical pop-culture devils (Hot Stuff, the comic-book devil of mudflap and tattoo fame, Bedazzled), but never with this detail. Not only is Lucifer played by the genuinely evil Christopher Lee (who opted not to notch down the Hammer horror vibe), but his imposing office features a gigantic inverse pentagram behind his desk, framed by walls of lurid, glittering flames. Each devil wears a pentagram pendant, and Lee casually gestures to his minions using a devil horn salute. And just in case there was any ambiguity that this show was turning a sympathetic horn to Satanism, at one point Klugman, in search of Sammy, lunges for the phone book declaring, “I’ll call the Church of Satan downtown, they’ll know how to contact him.”
Upon seeing Poor Devil, an excited Aquino drafted a letter to LaVey, calling the show a “magnificent commercial for the church.” It was decided to offer Davis an honorary second-degree Church of Satan membership. LaVey’s sorceress wife, Dianne, pondered, “Wonder what Mr. Davis would think about being a black, Jewish, Satanic Warlock?”
He apparently thought pretty well of it. Davis extended an invitation to a Bay Area concert, where he gleefully accepted a membership certificate, card, and a IIÞ Baphomet medallion, which he wore during his performance. After the show, Davis invited Aquino and LaVey’s daughter Karla to dinner, where he discussed his interest in the occult, and assured them that the Poor Devil shout-out was no coincidence. Soon after, LaVey himself struck up a friendship with Davis, who began appearing in public with a painted fingernail. When Sammy was in the Bay he would reserve front-row seats for LaVey’s entourage and flashed them the Sign of the Horns during the show. In private conversations, Davis revealed a deep, passionate interest in the Satanic philosophies and LaVey reportedly considered making him a senior official of the Church.
But it was not to be. The first blow to the ascension of Satanic Sammy was Poor Devil not being picked up as a series because, in addition to sucking, the pilot reportedly received a good deal of protest from religious groups. One can only wonder what the series would have been like. Would Klugman continuously vacillate between heaven and hell, ultimately accepting Sammy as his satanic slave every week? Or would it be a series of celebrity soul-sellers, a Love Boat on the River Styx?
The world will never know, nor shall this mortal realm know what a Sammy-led Church of Satan might have wrought. Early on, LaVey decided to keep Davis’s entourage at arm’s length, branding Samala’s PR chief David Steinberg “a professional Jew” bent on separating Sammy from the Dark One. And by 1974, probably without Steinberg’s influence, Davis decided to move on. In Why Me? he offers that “one morning after a ‘coven’ that wasn’t all fun and games… I got some nail polish remover and I took off the red fingernail.”
In a New York Post advance excerpt from his 1980 memoir Hollywood in a Suitcase (subsequently edited out of the final edition) Sammy placed his devilish experiences in the context of his “Yes, I Can” philosophy. “It was a short lived interest, but I still have many friends in the Church of Satan… I say this to only show that however bizarre the subject I don’t pass judgment until I have found out everything I can about it. People who can put up an interesting case will often find that I’m a willing convert.”
And he often was. And until a certain politician gets the pronouns in his buzz phrase right, I’m voting for Sammy.
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