Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. Impression


I normally try not to get into what Soap alumni are doing these days because I would rather devote the time to finishing up this book. However, I would like to offer a few words on the whole “Billy Crystal did ‘blackface’ during the Oscars” fracas.

First yes, you really have to expect a certain amount of guff if you’re going to perform in blackface on American national television in 2012; you’d have to be Alien Burt not to see this coming.

However, the media trying to spin it as some sort of horribly racist faux pas is displaying an ignorance of the performer’s history at best, or being utterly disingenuous at worst.

The reason Billy Crystal introduced his Sammy Davis Jr. impression on Saturday Night Live in the ’80s in the first place was not because there was a great deal of mileage to be gotten out of sending up the famed member of the Rat Pack, but because Crystal, more than anything else, wanted to BE Sammy. This shines through in his memoir 700 Sundays, as well as in the stage play based on the book. This also explains why Crystal was purportedly so dissatisfied with his work on Soap: he didn’t want to be an actor playing one character, he wanted to be an entertainer in the classic sense of the word. (You can glimpse the producers trying to accommodate this in the final season of Soap when Jodie is hypnotized into thinking he is a 90-year-old Jewish man.)

OK, it’s a bit much to expect today’s Oscar viewers to know this much about Crystal. (Then again, how many viewers have the first idea of who Sammy Davis Jr. was?) They simply see a white man dressed up as a black man and that’s unacceptable to them. And that’s fine. And it’s also kind of sad.

Racism’s not going anywhere any time soon; there will always be shots fired over the fence between groups. But if a performer with a talent for mimicry can’t mimic his boyhood idol (who he knew personally, by the way), what does that say about us?

I saw the quote below on a friend’s Facebook page this morning:

Maybe the answer to the question being posed to Crystal — “Why did you perform in blackface” — is this: “Because you’re still bugging me about paying tribute to an iconic performer…simply because he was black.”

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7 comments on “Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. Impression

  1. Hi Aaron, nice to see you posting again. Thanks for filling us all in on Billy’s history re: Sammy Davis Jr. Did you know Billy Crystal is on TWITTER? It’s an OFFICIAL account. I hope he tweets you if you decide to follow him.

  2. Billy’s film that opened the Oscars the year “Titanic” won showed Sammy on the Titanic. So this isn’t even new for Billy and the Oscars.
    Next year Billy can play Sammy and invite the surviving Step Brothers to join him.

    • Cheers for the link, Becky! I think that’s something that a lot of people forget: Sammy was a cool guy with a great sense of humor. Who doesn’t remember his appearance on All in the Family? Just a brilliant, brilliant performer.

  3. You’re Welcome Aaron. Sammy was a great guy with a good sense of humor and The All In The Family episode was hysterical. Billy like his idol appeared on All In The Family too.

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