In 1954 the Cadillac Eldorado was the height of luxury, but it had a prominent design flaw. "It has no functional purpose, just to look cool," says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, referring to a conical protrusion that was in the center of the steering wheel – standard in the Eldorado at that time. And that automotive styling nearly killed the greatest entertainer of the day.
When fast-rising star Sammy Davis Jr. got into a horrible car accident driving his own Eldorado in San Bernardino, Calif., in the wee, small hours on November 19, 1954, Davis' head hit the dangerous steering wheel hub. (The car also had no seatbelts.)
"He did not have time to react, get out of the way, so he went flying," said Anderson. "His head came in and hit against that protrusion and it went right into his left eye socket. In fact, knocked the eye out of the socket."
The accident nearly ended Davis' career and could have changed the course of entertainment history, as explored by Mo Rocca in this week's edition of the CBS News/Simon & Schuster podcast "Mobituaries."
Rocca talks with Davis' many friends and colleagues to explore the life of the man many consider to be the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. The episode, which debuted Friday, features interviews with such luminaries as Kim Novak, Dionne Warwick, Carol Burnett and Chita Rivera.
Rivera, who once dated Davis, talked to Rocca about his talents: "He was everything. He could play any instrument, he could sing, he could dance like a maniac."
After that accident in San Bernardino, Davis asked his surgeon, Frederick Hull, if his legs were okay, according to Hull's daughter, Nancy Golob. More than fearing that his life would be over, Davis feared his life in showbiz would be over. The thought of not pleasing audiences was unthinkable to him.
"I would like to think of myself as the entertainer … whatever it takes to make the people happy," Davis told CBS News later in his life, in 1985.
Entertaining was all Davis knew since he started on the vaudeville circuit when he was three years old. For more than 60 years, Davis thrilled audiences with his many talents – impressions, dancing, singing, acting. He was a quadruple threat – quintuple if you count his gun-slinging routine!
But more than his talents, he was a one-of-a-kind personality whose daring would open doors, and sometimes cause controversy. His legacy is an incredible body of work, and generations of performers who say Davis paved the way for them.
Singer-actor Ben Vereen told Rocca "If there was a black actor on TV in those days, we'd watch. Sammy would come on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' and do everything."
And actor Levar Burton sums up what most say about Davis: "There will never be another performer in show business more talented than Sammy Davis Jr."
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