Man Called Adam, A (1966): Leo Penn’s Tale of Jazz Musician, Starring Sammy Davis, Cycley Tyson, Louis Armstrong

Directed by Leo Penn (actor Sean Penn’s father), the rambling tale A Man Called Adams offers Sammy Davis Jr a juicy dramatic role as a self-destructive jazz musician, engaged in several tumultuous relationships.

Grade: B- (*** out of *****)

In addition to Davis, the film features appearances by such noted musical names as Louis Armstrong, Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra Jr, and Lola Falana in her film debut.

A Man Called Adam
A Man Called Adam film poster.jpg

Film poster

Davis plays Adam Johnson, a talented African-American jazz cornetist, plagued by ill health, racism, alcoholism and a short temper, as well as guilt over the deaths of his wife and child.

As a result, he abuses even those who care about him, such as his best friend Nelson (Ossie Davis), and Vincent, a young Caucasian trumpeter whom Adam mentors.

Arriving unexpectedly at his New York home drunk after walking out on his jazz quintet, Adam finds in his flat prominent Civil Rights Movement worker Claudia Ferguson (the young Cicely Tyson) and her grandfather, Willie (Louis Armstrong), a well-known jazz trumpeter.  Despite having authorized them access, the drunken Adam is rude to both, that including making a vulgar pass at Claudia. The next day, a sober, yet still volatile Adam is apologetic and strikes up a new friendship with the two.

The relationship with Claudia goes well until an encounter with some racist police officers. Claudia is upset when he intentionally antagonized them, while Adam can’t understand why she thinks he should submit to being humiliated. They quarrel, leading to Adam drinking more and beginning to lose control of his temper.

Eventually, after all kinds of crises, Adam resurfaces at the club, looking “chewed up and spit out,” as Willie puts it.  Despite his physical condition, Adam accepts invitation to join the group on stage. His performance is first brilliant, with Claudia, Willie and Vincent all watching. Soon, though, Adam begins to struggle physically and his playing turns frenetic. Everyone stops playing, leaving nothing but Adam’s fevered trumpeting, which he attempts to continue while virtually doubling over in agony.

In the downbeat last scene, Adam collapses and dies, leaving his friends to grimly mourn him.

Davis’ trumpet performances were dubbed by Nat Adderley.  A Man Called Adam features musical numbers, including Armstrong performing “Back O’ Town Blues”, Mel Tormé performing “All That Jazz” and Sammy Davis, Jr. performing “Whisper to One”, the latter two songs composed for the film by Benny Carter.

Sammy Davis Jr. as Adam Johnson
Ossie Davis as Nelson Davis
Cicely Tyson as Claudia Ferguson
Louis Armstrong as Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson
Frank Sinatra Jr. as Vincent
Peter Lawford as Manny
Johnny Brown as Les
Mel Tormé as Mel
Jeanette DuBois as Martha
Lola Falana as Theo
Michael DeSilva as Ron
George Rhodes as Bassist
Kai Winding as Trombone Player
Morgan Freeman as Party Guest (Uncredited)


Directed by Leo Penn
Written by Lester Pine, Tina Pine
Music by Benny Carter
Cinematography Jack Priestley
Edited by Carl Lerner
Distributed by Embassy Pictures

Running time: 103 minutes