EXCLUSIVE: MGM has set a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic that will be based on Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father, a 1996 book written by Davis’ daughter Tracey Davis and Dolores A. Barclay. Studio has Hillman Grad’s Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani producing with Sight Unseen’s Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman. David Matthews is writing the script.
The project reunites Waithe with MGM’s Pamela Abdy, who most recently collaborated on Queen and Slim at Makeready. In the book, daughter Tracey recounted a loving but distant relationship with her father, describing how she confronted him and how they drew closer as she grew older. The movie will look at the singer’s later life. In his 60s, he tried to pull off the biggest showbiz reunion in history — but first, he had to mend all the relationships he’d broken along the way to stardom, including the one with his daughter. The drama will be told from that vantage point, with impressionistic flashbacks painting the picture of his rise from child prodigy to global superstar. It includes the unimaginable racism he faced, and his determination to fight prejudice in Hollywood and elsewhere, along with his personal demons in a last-ditch attempt to reclaim his former stardom.
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“I am thrilled to know my father’s life, both private and public, will be brought to the big screen with this team of storytellers,” Tracey Davis said. “He and my mother May Britt took on the world, choosing love and compassion over hatred and bigotry, and I am a product of that decision. My father was an extraordinary man, who experienced tremendous joys and fought tough battles throughout his years coming up in the industry. His was not an easy road, but, like he did in all aspects of his life, he gave it everything he had. We plan to do the same with this film.”
Said Waithe: “Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the most impactful and influential figures in America. As Black culture continues to define popular culture, Sammy’s immense mark is undeniable. His story as a generational talent trying to make his way as a father, husband, and a Black man in America is one I have long wanted to help tell. I’m honored to be a part of this great team bringing such an important story to our community.”
This becomes the third percolating project about the life of Davis, and credit to him that his life and accomplishment was broad enough that the films have very different handles. Paramount and producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Lionel Richie, and Mike Menchel, got music rights from Sammy Davis Jr’s estate and have Charles Murray scripting a life story that leans in on how Davis’ determination to overcome every racist hurdle placed against him to become a pioneer on the Vegas stage and movie screens took a toll on him to where he had to be on all the time and could barely stand to be by himself, because of the bitter memories that would rear up in his mind. That movie is based on several resources, among them the singer’s 1965 memoir Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr, which Davis wrote with Jane and Burt Boyar.
Another pic package has Emmy-nominated Hollywood star Jeremy Pope poised to play Davis Jr with Janet Mock (Hollywood and Pose) directing a drama about the interracial love affair between the entertainer and actress Kim Novak, who at the time was the top box office draw in Hollywood. Jonathan Glickman (the upcoming Aretha Franklin film Respect) and Jon Levin are producing that one. It looks like Netflix will get first crack at that one with Mock’s deal there, and the intention is to start in April.
Lebedev and Vaisman’s Sight Unseen produced/financed the Cory Finley-directed Emmy-winning HBO film Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, as well as the Justin Simien-directed Bad Hair, acquired by Hulu at Sundance and premiering October 23rd.
Hillman Grad Productions was formed by Emmy-winning writer Waithe and Rishi Rajani, and has projects at Universal, Netflix, Disney, BET, Showtime, HBO and Amazon. Their current release is the Sundance award winner The 40-Year-Old Version, which springs from the talent of director/writer/star Radha Blank and her attempt to remake herself from a down on her luck New York playwright to a rapper at age 40. Netflix just released the film. Cynthia Erivo is starring in Talent Show for Universal, with Hillman Grad Prods exec producing alongside State Street Pictures. BET’s comedy series Twenties was just picked up for a second season and Showtime’s The Chi was just picked up for a fourth season.