Written By: Eliza Berman

When LIFE editor Thomas Thompson reviewed Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1965 autobiography Yes I Can, he noted an unfortunate parallel between the story the book contained and the story of its release unto the world:

It seems appropriate that the week Sammy Davis’s autobiography Yes I Can was published, its author collapsed from nervous exhaustion and the New York newspaper strike prevented two prestigious Sunday reviews of his book from being published. Such bad breaks seem to follow the natural order of Sammy’s life. They are almost an unwritten final chapter in this remarkable book.

Davis’ life was, indeed, marked by many hardships. At 28, he nearly lost his life to a car crash that left him with one eye. His remarkable success as a singer, dancer and star of screen and stage did not shield him from the pain of racism, both subtle and overt. (He was once turned away from an Upper East Side supper club as the band inside played the theme song from his Broadway musical Mr. Wonderful.) On the other hand, he felt rejected by many in the black community who criticized him for what they perceived as his ingratiating himself with whites, including his second wife, the Swedish actress May Britt. Davis and Britt, who married in 1960, divorced in 1968.

Nevertheless, the spirit LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe captured when he spent time with Davis and Britt in 1964 was one of exuberant charisma—the charisma that earned Davis, who died in 1990, the nickname “Mr. Show Business.”

Sammy Davis Jr. with his wife May Britt and their children, 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with his wife May Britt and their children, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Tracy demands a piggy-back ride from her father. Sammy's Rolls-Royce is parked at the curb. This is one of his four cars among them a Mustang and a Cadillac with bar, TV, stereo and two telephones.

Tracy demanded a piggy-back ride from her father, with his Rolls-Royce is parked at the curb. This was one of his four cars—among them a Mustang and a Cadillac with bar, TV, stereo and two telephones.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. with his son Mark and wife May Britt, 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with his son Mark and wife May Britt, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. with wife May Britt, 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with wife May Britt, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. with wife May Britt, 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with wife May Britt, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. with his 4-year-old adopted son Mark.

Sammy Davis Jr. with his 4-year-old son Mark.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr., 1964

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. eats spaghetti in his dressing room during "Golden Boy", while watching "The Huntley-Brinkley Report " ("My only contact with reality," he tells LIFE. "Whatever I'm doing, I stop to watch these guys"). Reflected in the mirror: LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe.

Sammy Davis Jr. ate spaghetti in his dressing room while watching `The Huntley-Brinkley Report ” (“My only contact with reality,’ he told LIFE. ‘Whatever I’m doing, I stop to watch these guys’). Reflected in the mirror: LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. tries to grab some shut-eye on a hotel room floor during the tour to preview Golden Boy.

Sammy Davis Jr. tried to grab some shut-eye on a hotel room floor during the tour to preview “Golden Boy.”

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr., 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr., 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. onstage in 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. plays the drums, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. plays the trumpet, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr., 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. 1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with his wife (left) and Julie Andrews (right), 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. with Richard Burton,1964.

Sammy Davis Jr. with Richard Burton, 1964.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. clowns backstage during Golden Boy's run on Broadway.

Sammy Davis Jr. clowned backstage during Golden Boy’s run on Broadway.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In a New York pub, Sammy applauds as Richard Burton kisses May, Elizabeth beams.

In a New York pub, Sammy applauded as Richard Burton kissed May, while Elizabeth Taylor beamed.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. laughs over dinner with his then-wife, Swedish actress May Britt.

Sammy Davis Jr. laughs over dinner with his wife, Swedish actress May Britt.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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