Cast & Crew
Sammy Davis Jr.
Frank Sinatra Jr.
Black trumpet player Adam Johnson stalks off a Cincinnati bandstand when a white patron heckles him. Returning to New York City, Adam finds that his best friend, Nelson Davis, has lent his apartment to Willie "Sweet Daddy" Ferguson and his granddaughter, Claudia, a civil rights activist. Intrigued by the young woman, Adam flirts with her but is rejected. Claudia's grandfather explains that Adam is guilt-ridden because he feels responsible for the death of his wife and child in a car accident 10 years earlier. Despite Adam's heavy drinking and bad temper, Claudia comes to understand him, and eventually she falls in love with him. In trouble because of the Cincinnati walkout, Adam is now forced to grovel before a ruthless agent, Manny, who sadistically offers him a tour of one-nighters in the segregated South. With Vincent, a young musician, as the only white member of his troupe, Adam reluctantly accepts. Claudia goes along and is happy to see that Adam is trying to control both his temper and his drinking. When Vincent is unmercifully beaten up by three white youths, Adam stands helplessly by, stunned by the injustice and violence that seem to plague his life. After Claudia has left him, Adam makes one last attempt to play his trumpet--at a casino where Willie is appearing. He begins to miss notes, collapses, and is carried offstage, where he dies.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Frank Sinatra Jr.
Jeanette Du Bois
Gerald S. O'loughlin
Joseph E. Levine
A Man Called Adam
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
A Man Called Adam
A Man Called Adam - Sammy Davis Jr. in A MAN CALLED ADAM on DVD
Davis had been a welcome presence in movies and television since 1959; we knew him as the Rat Pack's ultra-cool black member in pictures like Ocean's Eleven. Financing A Man Called Adam outside the studio system, Davis turned to independent filmmaking talent and his plentiful connections in the music scene. The 1966 musical drama's strength is its excellent mixed-race cast, which includes a number of musical heavyweights.
Jazz trumpet legend Adam Johnson (Davis Jr.) is his own worst enemy. A heavy drinker with a bitter grudge against the world, he alternates between nice-guy sweetness and self-destructive rages. Reacting violently to a heckler, Adam walks out on his own band; when he defies his agent (Peter Lawford) he becomes temporarily unemployable. Faithful friend Nelson Davis (Ossie Davis) admits that he can do little to help, especially when Adam lashes out at those that care for him the most. Adam meets Claudia Ferguson (Cicely Tyson), a civil rights volunteer who offers him love and stability. Hitting bottom, Adam begs his agent for work, offering to tour the South as had been planned. He takes his young trumpet protégè Vincent (Frank Sinatra, Jr.) along on the tour and "shows self-discipline" when taunted by a racist in the audience. Returning to New York, Adam is welcomed back by his band, but continues his reckless drinking.
A Man Called Adam is a handsomely produced and well-acted B&W character study set against an authentic jazz music background. Trumpeter Nat Adderly is the ghost musician behind Sammy Davis Jr's. expressive mime, and the jazz session scenes are top quality. Louis Armstrong acts as well as sings, playing a popular club performer nearing retirement and feeling left out of the changing music scene. Only Mel Tormé participates as a conventional guest star, showing up to sing at a party.
Screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine show the same sympathy for the problems of minorities that they brought to the later comedy-dramas Popi and Claudine. What A Man Called Adam sorely lacks is a sense of humor. Davis's acting is good but the character of Adam Johnson is ultimately unsympathetic. Despite his underdog status and tragic history (a car crash took away his family), Adam is not a good emotional investment. As with Robert De Niro's insufferable musician in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, we spend most of the movie hoping that the unpredictable protagonist will stop torturing his associates. Adam spews hateful verbal abuse at loved ones, only to come back later begging to be forgiven. Ossie Davis' Nelson advises Cicely Tyson's Claudia that a relationship with Adam will only result in pain, a prediction borne out by events. Adam abandons needy friends and seems eager to be provoked into brawls. Nelson defuses one of Adam's fights with an upbeat announcement from a bandstand microphone, reminding us that disruptive behavior can get the most talented artist blackballed. The irony is that when Adam reforms and ceases striking back at the world, we can sense that some essential part of his spirit has been broken.
Director Leo Penn (the father of actor Sean Penn) worked almost exclusively in television. His fine work here shows an excellent eye for staging and camera blocking. With his editor Carl Lerner, Penn gives the essentially downbeat drama a lively pace and creates unusually good optical montages to span scene transitions. He elicits a fine supporting performance from Frank Sinatra Jr., and allows the esteemed Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson the rare opportunity to play fully dimensional middle class characters. Tyson's Claudia sports an authentic early Afro hairstyle, as opposed to the club-crawling beauties around her with their straightened hair and fancy dresses.
Lola Falana, Michael V. Gazzo and Kenneth Tobey have small parts, and we're told that a young Morgan Freeman can be spotted as an extra in a party scene.
Lionsgate's A Man Called Adam is presented in a special Music Makers edition. The enhanced widescreen B&W transfer is very sharp, with good contrasts. An animated title sequence has the appearance of a jazz record album of the time. The DVD comes with a second CD disc with Sammy Davis Jr.'s excellent cover version of "I Want to Be Wanted" (sung in the movie) as well as four other unrelated songs by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles and Omara Portuondo.
An exceptional musical drama not easily pigeonholed as a "black issue" film, A Man Called Adam gets the atmosphere right yet forgets to give audiences a character they can root for. It missed the brass ring in 1966 but now plays as a solid and uncompromised character study.
For more information about A Man Called Adam, visit Lionsgate. To order A Man Called Adam, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
A Man Called Adam - Sammy Davis Jr. in A MAN CALLED ADAM on DVD
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
He was born Raiford Chatman Davis on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia. His parents called him "R.C." When his mother registered his birth, the county clerk misunderstood her and thought she said "Ossie" instead of "R.C.," and the name stuck. He graduated high school in 1936 and was offered two scholarships: one to Savannah State College in Georgia and the other to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he could not afford the tuition and turned them down. He eventually saved enough money to hitchhike to Washington, D.C., where he lived with relatives while attending Howard University and studied drama.
As much as he enjoyed studying dramatics, Davis had a hunger to practice the trade professionally and in 1939, he left Howard University and headed to Harlem to work in the Rose McClendon Players, a highly respected, all-black theater ensemble in its day.
Davis' good looks and deep voice were impressive from the beginning, and he quickly joined the company and remained for three years. With the onset of World War II, Davis spent nearly four years in service, mainly as a surgical technician in an all-black Army hospital in Liberia, serving both wounded troops and local inhabitants before being transferred to Special Services to write and produce stage shows for the troops.
Back in New York in 1946, Davis debuted on Broadway in Jeb, a play about a returning black soldier who runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan in the deep south. His co-star was Ruby Dee, an attractive leading lady who was one of the leading lights of black theater and film. Their initial romance soon developed into a lasting bond, and the two were married on December 9, 1948.
With Hollywood making much more socially conscious, adult films, particularly those that tackled themes of race (Lonely Are The Brave, Pinky, Lost Boundaries all 1949), it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling for Davis. His first film, with which he co-starred with his wife Dee, was a tense Joseph L. Mankiewicz's prison drama with strong racial overtones No Way Out (1950). He followed that up with a role as a cab driver in Henry Hathaway's Fourteen Hours (1951). Yet for the most part, Davis and Dee were primarily stage actors, and made few film appearances throughout the decade.
However, in should be noted that much of Davis time in the '50s was spent in social causes. Among them, a vocal protest against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and an alignment with singer and black activist Paul Robeson. Davis remained loyal to Robeson even after he was denounced by other black political, sports and show business figures for his openly communist and pro-Soviet sympathies. Such affiliation led them to suspicions in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early '50s, but Davis, nor his wife Dee, were never openly accused of any wrongdoing.
If there was ever a decade that Ossie Davis was destined for greatness, it was undoubtly the '60s. He began with a hit Broadway show, A Raisin in the Sun in 1960, and followed that up a year later with his debut as a playwright - the satire, Purlie Victorious. In it, Davis starred as Purlie, a roustabout preacher who returns to southern Georgia with a plan to buy his former master's plantation barn and turn it into a racially integrated church.
Although not an initial success, the play would be adapted into a Tony-award winning musical, Purlie years later. Yet just as important as his stage success, was the fact that Davis' film roles became much more rich and varied: a liberal priest in John Huston's The Cardinal (1963); an unflinching tough performance as a black soldier who won't break against a sadistic sergeant's racial taunts in Sidney Lumet's searing war drama The Hill (1965); and a shrewd, evil butler who turns the tables on his employer in Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969).
In 1970, he tried his hand at film directing, and scored a hit with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a sharp urban action comedy with Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as two black cops trying to stop a con artist from stealing Harlem's poor. It's generally considered the first major crossover film for the black market that was a hit with white audiences. Elsewhere, he found roles in some popular television mini-series such as King, and Roots: The Next Generation (both 1978), but for the most part, was committed to the theater.
Happily, along came Spike Lee, who revived his film career when he cast him in School Daze (1988). Davis followed that up with two more Lee films: Do the Right Thing (1989), and Jungle Fever (1991), which also co-starred his wife Dee. From there, Davis found himself in demand for senior character parts in many films throughtout the '90s: Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Client (1994), I'm Not Rappaport (1996), and HBO's remake of 12 Angry Men (1997).
Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, In This Life Together, and in 2004, they were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Davis had been in Miami filming an independent movie called Retirement with co-stars George Segal, Rip Torn and Peter Falk.
In addition to his widow Dee, Davis is survived by three children, Nora Day, Hasna Muhammad and Guy Davis; and seven grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
Adam's trumpet playing was actually done by Nat Adderley.
Filmed on location in New York City. Other songs include "I Want To Be Wanted," "Playboy Theme," "Back O'Town Blues," "Someday Sweetheart."
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States 1966