‘Autopsy’ Revisits the Death of Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy Davis Jr
Jim Brett/Everett Collection

On May 16, 1990, Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis Jr., died at the age of 64. He died of pneumonia due to laryngeal carcinoma just eight months after being diagnosed with cancer. Reelz took a more extensive look into his death in the recent Autopsy: The Last Hours Of Sammy Davis Jr. (available to stream on Peacock). Even advanced laryngeal cancer can be cured so why did this legendary performer die so quickly? Renowned forensic pathologist and medical examiner Dr. Michael Hunter analyzed every detail in his records to discover whether there was something else going on that contributed to his early death.

Davis spent almost his entire life on stage dating back to when he began his performing career touring the Vaudeville circuit with his father and uncle at the age of 3. He quickly became a natural on stage and it was clear the direction his life would be headed. He established himself as a phenomenal solo performer, as well as being a legendary member of the Rat Pack. However, Davis didn’t always make things easy for himself as he smoked and drank heavily. Here we look back at his life and career through a handful of images.

Did You Know?

His Father Was Instrumental in His Career

American singer and actor Sammy Davis Jr. (1925 - 1990) (center) shows his photography equipment to his father, Sammy Davis Sr. (left), and his 'uncle' Will Mastin in a dressing room, 1953. The three men had comprised the Vaudeville act, The Will Mastin Trio, following World War II.

Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

As an infant, Davis was raised by his paternal grandmother, until the age of 3 when his parents separated. His father, Sammy Davis Sr., not wanting to lose custody of his son, took him on tour. Here a young Sammy quickly learned how to dance from his father and godfather Will Mastin, which led to him joining The Will Mastin Trio. Pictured above is Sammy Davis Jr. (center) showing his photography equipment to his father, Sammy Davis Sr. (left), and his ‘uncle’ Will Mastin in a dressing room in 1953.

The Hardships He Endured Serving in World War II

Sammy Davis Jr signing book for Robert Kennedy

Maher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During World War II, when Davis Jr. was just 18 years old he was drafted into the U.S. Army. This was a difficult experience for him as he faced brutal racial abuse from white soldiers. Davis was quoted saying: “I must have had a knockdown, drag-out fight every two days.” At one point he was offered a beer laced with urine from the other soldiers who also had broken his nose so many times it was flattened. Davis was eventually reassigned to the Army’s Special Services branch, which put on special performances for troops where he earned the American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory medal. He’s pictured in June 1968 signing the book of condolences for Robert Kennedy at the American Embassy in London.

Lost His Left Eye in an Accident

Sammy Davis Jr. 16th July 1974.

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Davis and comedian Eddie Cantor had built a strong friendship over the years, so much so that Cantor had gifted Davis Jr. a mezuzah, which instead of putting it by his door which was the traditional blessing, he wore around his neck for good luck. The only time Davis forgot to where it was in November of 1954 when Davis was making a trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when he got hit by a car that drove into his lane, resulting in injuries where he lost his left eye. Davis was featured on his debut album Whats My Line? with an eye patch that was later traded for a glass eye that he wore the rest of his life. According to the Desert Sun, when Sammy lost his left eye in the automobile accident, Frank Sinatra paid his medical bills and had him recover at his Rancho Mirage compound. He’s pictured here in 1974.

His Rat Pack Legacy

OCEAN'S ELEVEN, from left: Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, 1960

Everett Collection

They were the coolest of all cool. Handsome, savvy, brutally funny, chain-smoking, martini-fueled, gangster-friendly, middle-aged icons who mesmerized the entertainment world in the 1950s and ’60s. While they were known by many monikers — the Clan, the Summit, the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were Hollywood’s most unpredictable stars who dominated stage, film (pictured above in Ocean’s 11), late-night TV and the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.



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