Given the Chance to Wish Sammy Davis Well, No One in Hollywood Stayed Home

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

God forbid, but had the earth opened up and swallowed Los Angeles's Shrine Auditorium during a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., the entertainment industry would have been reduced to a few backup singers and bit actors. "I've never seen a turnout like this for one performer," said Bob Hope, gazing upon the likes of Eddie Murphy, Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Richard Pryor, Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Stevie Wonder, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Goldie Hawn and Bill Cosby.

While billed as a benefit for the United Negro College Fund—and raising a tidy $250,000—the evening gave Hollywood the chance to let Davis know, in spoken tributes, jokes, songs and dance routines, how much they support him in his battle against throat cancer. "He's the most talented performer I've ever known," said Sinatra. "Sammy taught us black performers that there were no barriers," said Quincy Jones. Even Michael Jackson (and where's the last time he opened his mouth?) had words for Davis. "Thanks to you, there's no door we all can't walk through," said Jackson. "I'm here because you were there."

And Dean Martin, of course, was on hand to read a poem. "Roses are red, violets are pink," he said. "If I had your talent, I wouldn't drink."

The only star who hadn't much to say was Davis, on doctors' orders. "They gave me good news today," he whispered backstage. "I only have four more treatments. Then I have to rest my voice for another month. I hope to be back working the beginning of next year."

Hosted by Eddie Murphy, the ceremony registered a 10 on the emotional Richter scale. Especially when Gregory Hines coaxed Mr. Candyman, who was sitting in a box with his third wife, Altovise, to join him onstage for a routine. Sammy's soft shoe brought the house down.

Scheduled for airing on ABC early next year, the tribute featured entertainment by Ella Fitzgerald, Diahann Carroll, Nell Carter, Debbie Allen and Dionne Warwick, among others. "Sammy was just overwhelmed," said Altovise. "This has been the most wonderful night of his life. He's going to be just fine. All this love from his friends—it really helps."

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