“American Masters” (8 p.m., PBS, TV-PG) presents the 2017 documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.”
Brimming with great period footage, performance clips and interviews, “Me” emphasizes the many facets of its subject, presenting Davis as actor, performer, rebel and activist while also examining some of the demons that drove him to over-the-top extravagance.
A brilliant dancer, comic and mimic seemingly from birth, Davis won his first talent show when he was 3 and performed on the road from an early age. A Vitaphone short shows him singing with Ethel Waters at an age when most children were in school. Like other juvenile performers, including Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Michael Jackson, Davis never really recovered from the experience.
Davis was among the first popular black performers to do impersonations of white entertainers, a comedy taboo at the time. He and the Rat Pack went a long way toward integrating Las Vegas, even if Davis had to endure an onslaught of “Amos & Andy” jokes from his fellow performers. In “Golden Boy,” he was the first black performer to embrace and kiss a white woman onstage, a gesture that resulted in threats from the KKK and other terror organizations. His affair with one white actress (Kim Novak) and marriage to another (May Britt) estranged him from powerful forces, from Hollywood moguls to the Kennedy White House.
Raised in the segregated entertainment culture of the 1930s, mentored by elders dating back to vaudeville, Davis was not alone in adjusting rather poorly to changes in popular culture. At the same time his brand of showbiz was becoming outdated, Davis seemed to embrace “groovy” fashions with larger-than-life gusto. The film is quite sensitive in pondering the sadness of a figure so talented and often brave reducing himself to a punch line.
“Me” spends too much time on Davis’ support for Richard Nixon in 1972 and in seeing this move entirely through the prism of race. Other performers, among them James Brown, Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley, endorsed Nixon, too. All four men shared hardscrabble upbringings and seemed grateful for their proximity to presidential power.
“Me” concludes with clips from an ABC special that aired shortly before Davis’ 1990 death. Ravaged by throat cancer, he still manages to completely upstage acclaimed dancer Gregory Hines.
The film shows Sammy Davis performing at the height of his extraordinary powers, both as a child and as a dying man, reminding us that the essential story of its subject is one of near supernatural abilities exhibited with wit, grace and professionalism. Besides that, everything else is gossip.
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- Seth Meyers, Tig Notaro and Sarah Silverman appear on “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates” (7 p.m., PBS, TV-PG).
- A reporter’s murder fits a pattern on “FBI” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
- A change of habit on “The Kids Are Alright” (7:30 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
- Beth returns on “This Is Us” (8 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
- Don discovers a new way to attract talent on “American Soul” (8 p.m., BET, TV-14).
- A murdered source reunites Pride and Oliver Crane (Mark Gessner) on “NCIS: New Orleans” (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
- A case shakes Sharpe on “New Amsterdam” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
- Missing evidence casts doubts on new recruits on “The Rookie” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-14).
Director Robert Rodriguez followed up his low-budget debut “El Mariachi” with the 1995 thriller “Desperado” (6:13 p.m., Starz), starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek.
Back to high school on “NCIS” (7 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) ... “Ellen’s Game of Games” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) ... Friction between partners on “Lethal Weapon” (7 p.m., Fox, TV-14) ... Greg lets loose on “American Housewife” (7 p.m., ABC, TV-PG) ... Lauren feels powerless on “The Gifted” (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14)