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Is It Finally Comeback Time for Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin?

Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Groff may make two classic music stars sing to a whole new generation

Michael B. Jordan is one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, and will only be more so when “Black Panther’ opens next month. He could probably do whatever he wants next. It just might be bringing singer Sam Cooke to cinematic life. Jonathan Groff has been nominated for two Tony awards and is currently starring in the edgy Netflix series “Mindhunter.” And what might be on his upcoming wish list? Playing Bobby Darin.

Who knows why long-dead celebrities suddenly make comebacks? It could be a book or a documentary about them. It could be younger generations finally “getting” the music their parents grew up with. It could be celebrities like Jordan and Groff becoming attached to their stories.

There has been talk for decades about making a movie about Cooke. Taylor Hackford, who made films about Ray Charles and Ritchie Valens, was asked years ago about doing his magic on the man behind songs like “Cupid” and “You Send Me.” Like others since, Hackford found it difficult to get a grasp on the singer’s life story, mostly due to how it ended.

Cooke was shot to death in 1964 by a motel owner after he claimed a “woman” in his room robbed him. The story hit the front pages, millions of fans lines up to view the coffin, and reporters were anxious to follow up conspiracy theories, until Cooke’s wife begged them to stop.

When Michael B. Jordan told GQ, “I want to play Sam Cooke one day,” the singer’s fans were given reason to hope. Jordan is obviously aware that besides the infectious music, the singer’s impact was huge and his conscience was rising at the time of his death. He had declared he would no longer play to segregated audiences, and his last song, released posthumously, was the civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It was performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration and many times since.

A similar personal evolution might be said of Bobby Darin, who went from “Splish Splash” to “If I Were a Carpenter.” This month, a narrated concert titled “The Bobby Darin Story,” starring Jonathan Groff, sold out five performances at New York City’s 92nd St. Y auditorium. Groff was long a fan of Darin, who died at 37 of a disease that was supposed to kill him by his mid-teens.

No, we have not forgotten that Kevin Spacey — gulp — was also obsessed with the singer. He miscast and directed himself in the film “Beyond the Sea,” and last year, weirdly sang one of Darin’s songs at the end of the Tony Awards.

In truth, Bobby Darin’s life seems to be better suited for one of the jukebox musicals so popular on Broadway these days. And wouldn’t Groff — who appeared in “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” — be the man to take it there? “I would totally do it,” Groff said in a TV interview. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel proclaimed the recent performance a smash.

Darin’s story comes not only with countless great songs, but with a driving ambition, a tabloid marriage to America’s sweetheart Sandra Dee, and even one of those “Chinatown” realizations that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. This was a true Bronx tale.

His marriage to Dee — whom he met on the set of “Come September” — came at the time entertainment journalism was hitting a gossipy peak. Both performers were at the top of their professions, and it was one of those romances — like Eddie and Debbie’s and Robert and Natalie’s — that the fan magazines could not get enough of. Every sighting, every spat, every rumor was reported.

This did not abate during the Darin-Dee divorce. But reporters lost interest when, in the early ’70s, the singer went through a serious midlife — and mid-career crisis. He called himself Bob Darin, gave up all possessions, grew a mustache, discarded the toupé and the suits, and got off the lucrative nightclub circuit. The reporters largely ignored the fact that he had spent three months of 1968 working on the Robert Kennedy campaign, and was at the Ambassador Hotel when the presidential candidate was killed.

Michele Willens met Darin at that time, at a creative writing class at UCLA. He dropped the class, but they got together intermittently. “He would occasionally show up at my bungalow in Malibu,” she says, “and I recall dinners we had in Topanga, That’s where his trailer — yes, the trailer he lived in — was parked. He was clearly a lost soul.”

Her personal Darin story is, in a way, a perfect metaphor for the end of his story. About a year after she’d last seen him, she was interviewing a recording artist in Los Angeles. Someone came in and excitedly announced that, “Bobby Darin is recording in the next studio!” Michele excused herself, walked next door and there he was–in a blue suit, mustache gone, toupé on, microphone in hand.

“Well, I tried, but they wouldn’t accept me as that other guy,” he said, almost apologetically. He was recording an album and was preparing for a stint at the Cocoanut Grove. (Ironically, inside the Ambassador Hotel.)

That was then. Now, Bobby Darin’s full story seems to be of interest, because of the quality of the amazing and multifaceted music, much of which he — like Sam Cooke — wrote and produced. They were conflicted, but hugely talented, artists who overcame challenges, personal revelations, and constant stereotyping.

Both died way too young. We predict their stories aren’t yet over.

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.