LOS ANGELES — Nearly a month ago, you heard it here first: Fast-rising "Hairspray" star Elijah Kelley was in talks to star in a "Walk the Line"-like biopic about the legendary Sammy Davis Jr.
This week, the young actor caught up with us to break some additional news: He got the gig.
"It's going pretty well. It is in the works — I'm allowed to say that now," he beamed, navigating the crowded "Hairspray" red carpet. "Something is definitely in the works to be done on that project, and that's a dream project for me. I feel like that would open so many avenues and so many doors."
This candyman ain't kidding. Before his death in 1990, Davis was regularly billed as the "greatest living entertainer in the world." From vaudeville (he began touring at age 3) to Hollywood to Las Vegas, from civil-rights marches to a conversion to Judaism to a world-famous kiss he planted on bigoted TV icon Archie Bunker, and from a car wreck that took his left eye to his controversial support of President Nixon to a poverty-stricken death with his third wife by his side, it would seem like one of the richest biographical parts of all time. As Davis once said: "I'm 64 years old, but I feel I've lived the life of a person at 164."
"I want to capture what actually made him what he was," Kelley insisted. "He got really commercialized as he got older, [but] I just want to show everybody, along with the producers, how he came to be the way he was."
Based on the 1965 autobiography "Yes I Can," Kelley's film will focus predominantly on the younger days of the tap-dancing, comedic, multi-instrumentalist actor. "At age 15, 16 he was in the Army, and that's how his nose got messed up," the star said of a World War II period in the Army when Davis was beaten by his fellow soldiers. "He endured a lot of racial issues, and he got beat down a lot. But the funny thing about Sammy was although he was a bit smaller than I am, and these big guys would beat up on him, he would never stay down."
Much like "Ray," Kelley expects the flick to focus on the racism Davis faced in those days (and in later days, during a relationship with white actress Kim Novak) and depict how the adversity made him stronger. "He would never stay down," Kelley marveled. "The one reason why he was driven to dance so much and do so well was because that was the one place that nobody could touch him. Regardless of who you were, even if you were 7 feet tall ... when he was on that stage you physically couldn't touch him, and you couldn't touch his performance."
Kelley is already hard at work studying the dance moves and songs that made Davis an icon. But as those who've already caught his scene-stealing moves in "Hairspray" know, he's already no slouch.
Which might be a good thing, since Kelley and "Hairspray" producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are currently in an "Armageddon" vs. "Deep Impact"-like race to the big screen. The other competing Sammy projects include "In Black and White," produced by Denzel Washington and Brian Grazer, and "Sammy and Kim" with Andre 3000 (see "Outkast LP 'Could Be Two Years' Off As Andre 3000, Big Boi Put Solo Work First").
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed and keeping my prayers up," Kelley said of the competition, adding that he'll try to just look past the others and do his own thing. "You know what? It's like this: I just want to make the project a quality project. ... Regardless of whether there's 25 of them out, [I want to make] the one that's supposed to be seen, and supposed to be heard, and supposed to be felt."
Kelley hopes that the momentum behind "Hairspray" will get the ball rolling even faster, but in the meantime, Davis fans can't help but wonder about his equally iconic friends. So as the young star went walking into his premiere, we had one more question about the script: Will the original "Ocean's 11" crew of fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin also be featured in the movie?
"Yeah," Kelley grinned, making a promise. "They'll probably make some cameos, like later on in the movie."
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