EXCLUSIVE: Paramount Pictures is moving forward with a biopic of Sammy Davis Jr. Studio has set Charles Murray to write the script. The film is produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura; fellow musical icon Lionel Richie, latter of whom was instrumental in gathering rights from Sammy Davis Jr’s estate; and Mike Menchel. The movie is based on several resources, among them the singer’s 1965 memoir Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr, which Davis wrote with Jane and Burt Boyar.
Menchel said after they set the project at Paramount under di Bonaventura’s deal, they searched long and hard for the right writer, and eventually found themselves on Murray’s doorstep. Physically, Charles Murray is the polar opposite of the wiry and diminutive film subject, nor would you confuse him with Arthur Murray for that matter. His credits as a writer/producer include the muscular dramas Sons of Anarchy and Luke Cage, and he looks like he could be a character in each of them. But Menchel was surprised to find that the writer had read pretty much everything written about Davis Jr and came in with an encyclopedic knowledge of the iconic entertainer’s life and pretty much all dance movies.
“If you saw me, I’m 6’4″ and 290 pounds, maybe 300 if I’m being really honest,” Murray told Deadline. “So it might surprise you that I grew up loving musicals, and gravitated to Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Elvis and James Cagney, and this little black dude I would see on TV, who held his own alongside Frank Sinatra,” Murray said. Growing up in Gary, Indiana across the street from Michael Jackson and his siblings, Murray would run home each day to watch the 3:30 afternoon movie on ABC. There was a steady diet of classic films populated mostly by white casts, but there was that one exceptional actor that a young fan of musicals could latch onto.
“I would see movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Sammy just stood out,” Murray said. “Singing with Frank, dancing like Fred and Gene, and none of those cats looked at him any different in those movies because he was black. I think I made the proclamation to my parents around eight that I wanted to make movies when I grew up. They’re from the South and knew all about what racial tension was and they said, ‘good luck.’ There weren’t a lot of actors on TV who looked like me. I would watch Bill Cosby as the gym teacher Chet Kincaid, and sometimes we would see Diahann Carroll in Julia. But of all those people, Sammy stood out. There was something completely unique about him and I never forgot him.”
As Murray began to build currency as a writer/producer, he tried hard to gain the rights to Davis’s life, but was rebuffed. When told of the writer search, he asked for and aced the meeting and quickly signed on.
Murray didn’t take the job to fawn over his subject. Davis was plenty provocative, a mix of out-sized talent and ambition, courage and defiance, with a need to constantly prove his worth at all times that led to a lot of loneliness. Murray is convinced the singer/dancer paid a price earning his way toward being the only black man on those sets and on the stages of casinos where he wasn’t allowed to book a hotel room. James Brown could support Richard Nixon, but Davis Jr took heat when he did. Davis Jr. was forced to hide his love affair with Kim Novak, and faced a backlash when he married the white Swedish actress May Britt at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many states. Davis made his stands when he could, eventually refusing to work for companies that engaged in segregation, an effort that was helped by the likes of his Rat Pack pals Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who did not see the world through skin color. Davis Jr marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr numerous times during the Civil Rights movement and when a 1954 car crash in San Bernardino nearly killed him and took his left eye, Davis began studying Judaism as he recovered. He converted along with wife May in 1961. The film will cover it all, from his vaudeville origins to becoming a star as a member of The Rat Pack, and the highs and lows in Las Vegas and Hollywood.
“James Brown didn’t get the same flack for bonding with Nixon because James was seen as the ultimate independent black man,” Murray said. “Sammy had to ask himself, how do I become normal to the majority, and do I subjugate my ego and personality to do so, even when my talent is equal to or better than most everyone else? He was proving himself, every moment he was in the public eye. Imagine the toll that must take? His father and uncle would take him on walks through the city while touring, where no hotel would take them in, even ones they performed at. He understood what they are trying to avoid saying to him, as he saw the shame in the face of his father and uncles. He thought, eventually my talent will equalize the situation, but imagine being told you can be just as talented as the others, but you’ll never be equal. If I had to deal with that type of stuff today, at least I know I have rights and that there is a majority of people who embrace equality, so it’s only words that you can say or clandestine actions you can take to keep me from getting a job. But people were open about it back then; you’re black, stay back. You’ll never get a lead role in a studio movie ever, no matter how good you are. And this diminutive dude kept getting stronger.
“All this drove him but was his demon,” Murray said. “He was constantly trying to impress people, and did not like being alone because that’s when the insecurities and terrible thoughts played in his head.” Being the life of the party kept him from distracting internal thoughts borne of a lifetime enduring racism, Murray said. “That is what most fascinates me about him. In public he could be defiant. When threatened about dating white women, he dives in deeper. He spends money he doesn’t have. The act becomes your life. It was only during the course of interviews later in his life that he realized this, and only found peace with himself when he stopped worrying whether or not he fit in, and realized that fame doesn’t erase how people mistreat you. Being told you can play The Sands, but take your ass over there to the black hotel, to sleep. That colors the great time you are having and makes you not enjoy the times in his life that were fabulous, those moments with Frank and Dean, making a ton of money and doing plays. What drives us can damage us. We saw it in Rocketman, the painful time Elton John went through in finding his sexual identity. And he was on top of the world.”
Anonymous Content reps Murray.