Encore

Play It Again, Sammy

The unflappable Sammy Davis Jr. -- The young performer loses his eye, but not his swagger in a 1954 car crash

On the morning of Nov. 19, 1954, Sammy Davis Jr. was driving his Cadillac down Route 66, headed from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to record the soundtrack for the film Six Bridges to Cross. At 8 a.m., near San Bernardino, Calif., a 72-year-old woman backed her car out of a driveway into Davis' path. The impact of the crash drove his face into the pointed center of the steering column, breaking his nose and effectively destroying his left eye. Davis, 28, was rushed to San Bernardino Community Hospital, where he was informed that he would lose his damaged eye and have it replaced with a plastic one.

Support for one of Vegas' coolest young performers came quickly from the entertainment world. Actress-singer Betty Hutton, who had retired from show business just a week and a half earlier, filled in for him at the Old Frontier. Gossip czar Walter Winchell sent Davis a message on his radio program: ''Sammy, remember, no champ ever lost a fight by being knocked down. Only by staying down!''

Davis' first top 20 hit, ''Hey There,'' had just begun revving up his career, but the publicity put it into overdrive. While recuperating, he was offered Vegas bookings for $25,000 a week — more than triple his old price. Fortune smiled on him outside show biz, too. The passenger in the other car, Bessie Roth, 70, who claimed she was injured, sued Davis for $75,000 for negligent driving but lost the case.

Less than two months later, Davis, sporting a silk patch over his false eye, was back on stage. An audience packed with such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra had come to witness his emotional comeback at Ciro's, Hollywood's hip show-biz hangout. Davis gave his usual tireless performance — singing, dancing, doing impressions, and playing several different instruments. Partway through, turning to his blind side, he accidentally banged his head into the microphone stand with a resounding thud. The whole crowd gasped and froze in mid-applause. The unflappable Davis kept right on going. ''Sorry, Frank,'' he cracked. ''Didn't see you come in, baby.'' The audience screamed with laughter. Sammy hadn't missed a beat.


Time Capsule: November 19, 1954
Readers cuddled up to Irving Stone's Love Is Eternal, and Liz Taylor starred in The Last Time I Saw Paris. On the radio her future hubby Eddie Fisher crooned ''I Need You Now,'' while I Love Lucy was tops on TV.

Originally posted Nov 20, 1992 Published in issue #145 Nov 20, 1992 Order article reprints