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suppliedTitle,A Man Called Adam

A Man Called Adam

One of the world's most famous entertainers by the mid-1960s, Sammy Davis, Jr. was not only a versatile showman but a firmly entrenched member of the Rat Pack, with whom he appeared in various configurations in films like Ocean's Eleven (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). However, Davis was anxious to be taken more seriously as an actor and was looking for a role that would help him break down the racial barriers he was still fighting in show business.

The perfect opportunity seemed to present itself in the form of a script called Adam, which was originally acquired and announced by Nat "King" Cole alongside a modern-day adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He wouldn't see either to completion, however, as the music legend died in 1965 at the young age of 45. Cole had intended the title role of Adam for Davis, who snapped it up as the inaugural project for his own company, Trace-Mark Productions (named after his two children, Tracey and Mark). Davis openly admitted ambitions to have his own multimedia business like pal Frank Sinatra, though Trace-Mark would only go on to produce two more films, Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970). All of the Trace-Mark films featured the same pair of stars, Davis and another Rat Packer, former MGM contract performer Peter Lawford.

On this particular film (whose named was soon changed to A Man Called Adam), Lawford amusingly had his own sign made for dressing room and chair: "White Actor." This designation for the British-born actor was a lighthearted reference to the film's impressive cast predominantly comprised of notable African-American musicians and thespians including Ossie Davis, Louis Armstrong, Cicely Tyson, and in her debut role, Ja'Net Du Bois (using her real name, Jeanette Du Bois). The film featured an unusually heavy roster of Broadway talent; Ossie Davis had a stage gig in The Zulu and the Zayda, and down the street, Sammy was starring in Golden Boy, six of whose players were brought over for supporting turns in A Man Called Adam (and couldn't show up on set on matinee days).

While the talent roster may be significant, perhaps the biggest racial breakthrough on this film actually occurred behind the camera thanks to co-producer Ike Jones, a former member of Cole's organization who, with this film, became the first black producer of a major American film production. (He was also UCLA's first black film school graduate.) The film's other producer, Jim Waters, was Davis's former manager; together they all announced another project together with the same writers of this film (Tina Rome and Lester Pine), a comedy entitled Freudian Slip, though this never came to fruition.

Sammy Davis, Jr. was aggressive promoting the film in the press during production and touted it in the Los Angeles Times's "Calendar" section as the first realistic jazz film made in America. "We're using musicians not actors who play musicians, the way Hollywood does it," he explained. "That's why Hollywood can't turn out a good jazz picture." The film's supporting cast is heavily stacked with diverse music talent of the period, too, including Frank Sinatra, Jr. (of course), Mel Tormé, Benny Carter, Johnny Brown, and Kai Winding, with famed jazz cornet and trumpet player Nat Adderley providing the music for Davis's nimble on-camera music performances. Advance publicity boasted of cameo roles for Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett as well, though they didn't materialize in the final cut.

In addition to verisimilitude in the music performances seen in the film, Davis also opted for realism in the film's big party scene. Real booze was served on set, and visiting newsmen and even a Cannes Film Festival scout were recruited as extras. The bid didn't really pay off, however, as the film received highly mixed reviews praising the actors but docking points for the script and direction. The New York Times opined that "the picture fails, although it tries hard and, in some ways, admirably... the movie not only stars a Negro artist but also has both Negro and white players in key roles." Newsweek was harsher, feeling "it spends its good intentions on hollow caricatures and tries to mix the standard ingredients of a jazz picture with social significance and drug-store psychiatry." Nevertheless, the film's striking credits by Hubley Studios were often noted among its strongest points, and Benny Carter's soundtrack became a hot item on LP among jazz aficionados. The film was also fairly successful in its initial theatrical run, prompting a colorful Variety ad boasting "Adam is the big box office swinger! Opening week... Palms... Detroit... Second week bigger than the first! Topped everything in town - except for that other swinger... Virginia Woolf!"

A Man Called Adam encountered no issues with the United States' Motion Picture Production Code during its development or release, but it wasn't so lucky in the United Kingdom. Censors there demanded that Embassy Pictures "remove the whole episode in which Adam forces Manny to crawl before him by threatening him with a broken bottle," presumably as part of their mandate against easily imitated violence. Nevertheless, while the film remains unavailable on commercial home video in America, it has remained far more popular in England where it not only remains in circulation on DVD but inspired the name of an influential British electronic/acid jazz outfit, whose name is often referred to by the acronym AMCA. In one form or another, it's clear that Davis's jazz-fueled labor of love will endure far longer than the main character's ill-fated final note on his trumpet.

By Nathaniel Thompson


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