It was a rousing final ovation for a man who’d lived his life for applause. And it was just the way Sammy Davis Jr. wanted it, with black and white, famous and not-famous joining hands to rejoice in his life and to share their grief at his passing.
“He has answered the curtain call over and over again, and now we want an encore,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told an estimated 2,500 friends and fans who packed the hilltop sanctuary at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, “Encore, encore no more. Let him rest. Let Mr. Bojangles rest. He has earned it.”
Still, it wasn’t easy letting go. Some said their goodbyes with words. Others—including a young man who’d shaved Sammy’s name into his hair—without them. “How lucky we all were to have Sammy in our lives,” Davis’s widow, Altovise, said in a voice cracking with emotion. “And how dearly I will miss him.”
Though the sheer number of mourners delayed the ceremony’s start (“Let’s get this show on the road—the house is sold out,” one of his peers whispered at one point), no one seemed in any hurry to see it end. It was announced that the Las Vegas strip would go dark for 10 minutes that night in Davis’s memory.
After the service, the polished brass casket, topped with a shroud of yellow tiger lilies and white roses, was lowered into the ground alongside the graves of Davis’s father, Sammy Sr., and unofficial “uncle” Will Mastin. Sixty years ago, Sammy Jr., a dance prodigy, joined the two men to form what would later become the Will Mastin Trio, and on this day they were finally a threesome again.