Flashback Friday: When Sammy Davis Jr. got devilish.

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(Image Source: Vice)


Last week in the Anton La Vey post, I mentioned how Sammy Davis Jr. became a member of The Church of Satan for a while. This struck me as… well, pretty weird. I could see why the publicity-loving Jayne Mansfield would sign up to be Team Lucifer, but Sammy “Member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack” Davis Jr.? He was so… laid-back and… cool. And Jewish. He most definitely had converted to Judaism. So what the what? Let’s go to Helen O’ Hara at The Telegraph for more:


Sammy Davis Jr, the singer, actor and Rat Pack member whose own philosophy of life drove him to try just about everything that presented itself – women, men, religion, drugs – became involved in 1968. He had noticed a gang of lively young people each with a single red-painted nail at The Factory, a nightclub he co-owned, and was invited to go with them to a party he described as “dungeons, dragons and debauchery”.

He was, in other words, introduced to the church at an orgy, of course, and surrounded by writhing bodies the prospect of a religion promoting freedom and the complete absence of guilt must have chimed with the adventurous performer.


During his flirtation with the religion Davis held seats for adherents at gigs, and even tried to launch a Satan-friendly sitcom, 1973’s Poor Devil, which never went beyond the pilot stage. There, Davis played a minor demon offered the chance to move up the ranks if he could win a soul for hell, with Christopher Lee in his full Hammer Horror flow as Old Nick himself. Despite Davis’ best efforts, however, he repeatedly bungled the deal, and eventually let the sinner and his soul alone.


The pilot was terrible, which might have been enough to ensure it never went to series, but protests from religious groups sealed its fate. Soon after Davis took out the nail polish remover, wiped away his own red nail and left the church in 1974, though he maintained friendships there.


Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino and the Church of Satan’s founder and high priest, Anton Lavey, in San Carlos, California, after he had become a Warlock IIº in the church. (Image and Caption, Vice)


Over at Vice, Jake Austen gives us more about Davis’ Church of Satan association and that failed TV pilot:


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.”


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…. 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… 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.”

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.”


And Davis moved on, to other, far more human devils. But that’s another story for another post.

1 Comment

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June 18, 2021 at 8:43 am

I just saw Charlie’s Angels and his little fingernail was painted red. It was made in 1977.

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