To Sir with Love

Black History Month – Recognizing the contributions of those who came before.

There have been many kind words said about the late Sidney Poitier over the past few weeks since the world learned of his passing in January of this year. Poitier would have turned 95 this Sunday, the 20th of February. While most of the accolades have stressed that Poitier was the first African American male to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Homer Smith in 1963’s Lilies of the Field, they don’t always point out the significance of how his career decisions blazed the trail for African American actors who followed him to be offered better roles.

Sidney Poitier’s break-out role as Doctor Luther Brooks in 1950’s No Way Out

No Way Out

Prior to Poitier’s 1950 screen debut in the Joseph Mankiewicz film No Way Out, no African American actor had been offered a part in a major motion picture that didn’t involve the portrayal of a stereotypical character. Mankiewicz personally selected Poitier out of an array of relatively unknown African American actors to play young Doctor Luther Brooks. Make no mistake about it, Poitier was the star of this film, but he received only fourth billing behind Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, and Stephen McNally. While it could be argued that Hollywood’s clandestine racist policies were the reason behind Poitier’s fourth billing, the reality is that he was an unknown. Humphrey Bogart was also unknown when he stole the picture in The Petrified Forrest back in 1936 – but like Poitier, he also received fourth billing in the credits.

No Way Out was only the 87th top grosser of 1950 at $1,300,000, but filmgoer’s and critics alike were impressed by Poitier’s powerful performance. Mankiewicz was unrelenting with his insistence that Widmark’s racist character’s continual verbal and physical abuse of Poitier’s Doctor Brooks remain intact during the film’s editing. Widmark was so appalled with his vitriolic racist lines that he often apologized at length to Poitier after a scene was completed. The film was the first of Poitier’s skillful representations of African American protagonists employing the strength of dignity in the face of ongoing racist attacks in order to prevail.

Poitier & Curtis shared top billing in 1958’s The Defiant Ones – a first for an African American film actor

The Defiant Ones

While many consider 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle to be Poitier’s breakout film, it was likely 1958’s The Defiant Ones that elevated Poitier to the position of leading man. Receiving co-top billing with Tony Curtis in Stanley Cramer’s tense drama about two escaped convicts – one black and one white – both who needed to rely upon one another to remain free, both actors were nominated for an Academy Award. Poitier’s nomination was a first for an African American male.  Although he didn’t win, his outstanding performance as a strong-willed black male who stood toe-to-toe with Curtis’ racist character earned him a higher degree of respect than Hollywood had ever shown to any previous African American male actor.

Poitier’s role as Homer Smith in 1963’s Lilies of the Field won the actor the first Academy Award for Leading Man presented to an African American actor

Lilies of the Field

Homer Smith was a different character from Poitier’s other roles. The racial aspect was mostly missing and while his performance was once again stellar, the fact that he took home his Oscar for this particular role seems almost odd. Perhaps it was the film industry’s way of rewarding Poitier for his all of his work to date, but in doing so with this film perhaps it wouldn’t be as offensive to the racist South as giving him the nod over co-star Curtis would have been five years earlier had they had the Academy chosen Sidney over Tony. While the artistic side of the movie making business was open to tackling sensitive social issues of the day, the business side was ever wary of offending any of their theater-going audience.

With his Oscar in hand, Poitier instantly became the most bankable African American film star in Hollywood. There would be no more questioning his holding out for roles that portrayed strong-willed characters. He would be the first African American movie icon capable of calling his own shots – a true pioneer for others to follow.

Another stellar performance by Poitier in 1965’s A Patch of Blue featured the first inter-racial kiss in an American film. – just another first of many that Poitier was able to pull off.

A Patch of Blue

By 1965, there were no more questions about Poitier receiving top billing in just about any film he chose to perform in. A Patch of Blue was set in contemporary America with its wide racial divides during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe befriends a white blind girl, Salina D’Arcey, portrayed by Elizabeth Hartman in her motion picture debut. Salina is uneducated and abused, and Gordon tries to help her escape her cruel world by teaching her some educational basics during their encounters at the park and then by contacting a school for the blind where she can learn to live on her own. What begins as a budding friendship evolves into romance – something Gordon fears won’t work. Hartman was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress, and Shelly Winters, who played her cruel and racist mother, won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Rose-Ann.

A scene that shows one of the first interracial kisses on the big screen was supposedly edited out of the film when it was shown in the South. But again, Poitier breaks another racial barrier with a solid performance as a strong African American male in a society where such depictions were almost unheard of.

What is perhaps the best performance of all time by two leading actors in a single film was accomplished by Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Steiger’s Sherriff Bill Gillespie in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.

In the Heat of the Night

What were possibly Poitier’s finest moments on screen came two years later when he co-stared with veteran actor Rod Steiger in producer Walter Mirisch’s screen adaptation of John Ball’s 1965 novel, In the Heat of the Night.

It was in late 1965 when Mirisch sent director Norman Jewison a script written by Sterling Silliphant based on Ball’s novel. The original plan was to do a low-budget movie set in the south. Jewison loved the idea. He saw the social importance the film could illicit and convinced Silliphant to rewrite the script to make the characters more believable than they had appeared in the book. The finished product was so good that it earned Silliphant an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

From a 2017 Hollywood Reporter interview with Jewison on the eve of the film’s 50th anniversary screening on TMC:

There weren’t that many black actors for the Tibbs role. The only other one that was close was Harry Belafonte, and I would’ve gone with him, but Sidney Poitier had done Lilies of the Field for Mirisch. I met with Sidney, and he was so intelligent that I thought he would be brilliant.

In that first meeting, we talked about his wife, where he was from — I was from Canada, he was from the Bahamas — and he told me about his family and about his work with the theater in New York. And then we talked about the importance of the project, that it was important for him to wear a $1,500 suit and tie and be different from the other African-American people that Sheriff Gillespie would see, because he was going to stand out. I wanted him to stand out in that community; his character had a lot of pride, a lot of confidence, and very little experience with being a second-class citizen, because he wasn’t one.

Mirisch regarded Poitier as “the outstanding black actor in film,” he told The Guardian in a 2016 article. United Artists was concerned that the film’s content could cause unrest, even riots, in the south – remember, this was 1966 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Mirish suggested that they limit distribution and asked management how that would affect the budget. He was told with distribution limited to theaters above the Mason Dixon Line, that the film had to be made for no more than two million dollars. That equated to approximately forty days of shooting. Mirisch convinced Poitier to sign on for a $200,000 salary, well below his then average rate, and Jewison was given the green light to begin production.

The studio had wanted to cast George C. Scott as Gillespie, but Jewison held out for Rod Steiger, a method actor with a reputation of bringing an intensity to his characters that few performers could achieve. His role of Charley Malloy in the 1954 film, On the Waterfront, had earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1964’s The Pawnbroker, he played the lead, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Sol Nazerman. That performance led to a Best Actor nomination for the Academy Award. Life Magazine praised Steiger’s “endless versatility” when it came to his ability to take on difficult roles.

According to Jewison, early in the production, Poitier was taken aback by Steiger’s intense and realistic delivery, asking his director, “Do you think he’s over the top?” And I said, “Don’t worry about Rod. I’ll handle Rod. You just stand up to him, and if he hollers at you, you holler back. You’ve got to just stay in character. You’re a very strong personality: You know more than he does, you’re smarter than he is, you know? This guy’s a small-town guy, and you have to understand where they’re all coming from. So don’t worry.”

Good advice. Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs was riveting, especially in the scenes he shared with Steiger’s Bill Gillespie.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle Jewison faced in filming this picture was Poitier’s insistence that that it be shot north of the Mason-Dixon Line. During the summer of 1964, Poitier’s good friend, Harry Belafonte, had convinced him to accompany him to Mississippi where they would deliver some $70,000 in cash to aid southern civil rights activists during what would be known as the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register black voters. Mississippi had a well-earned reputation for committing civil rights atrocities at that point. In August 1955, 14-year old Emmet Till had been brutally murdered after being beaten and disfigured by two white men for allegedly flirting with one of their wives. In 1963, Medgar Evers had been assassinated outside his Jackson, Mississippi home in the early morning hours of June 12th, just hours after President Kennedy had delivered a speech on civil rights on national television.

After landing at the airport in Jackson, Poitier and Belafonte set out to deliver the money. The car Poitier and Belafonte were in was followed by a group of white men the actors assumed were members of the Ku Klux Klan. There was a high-speed chase, and men following the pair fired upon their vehicle.

They eventually escaped and safely delivered the money, but the incident was upsetting enough that Poitier vowed then and there to never venture below the Mason-Dixon Line in the future.

Jewison, a stickler for detail and accuracy in his films, cut a deal with Poitier. He would find a town in the north to film most of the picture, but Poitier would have to agree to give him one weekend to film the scenes on the cotton plantation. Poitier reluctantly acquiesced.

Jewison took the crew to Dyersburg, Tennessee for a three-day shoot in the autumn of 1966. Only the Holiday Inn would accept blacks and whites together, the other hotel in Dyersburg was for whites only. The local sheriff told Jewison to keep his people at the hotel when they weren’t filming. He didn’t want them in town. He knew the trouble they would face. While the director obliged the sheriff’s request, a few white men showed up at the hotel looking for trouble anyway. Jewison assembled the largest men on his crew and the white men eventually drove off. Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow for the entire weekend.

The Slap Heard Round the World

In a world that was clearly dominated by rich white men, the thought of a black man slapping a white man might have been quite a stretch in 1966. Contrary to the multitude of false articles that have been published over the years about Tibbs’ quick return of the slap across the face to plantation owner Endicott, that slap was neither improvised nor left in the film at Poitier’s insistence. According to both Mirisch and Jewison, that slap was always intended to be part of the scene. During a 2017 interview, Jewison went into some detail about his instructions to Poitier. He even suggested that Sidney practice on him. According to Jewison: “A black man had never slapped a white man back in an American film. We broke that taboo.”

In a test screening of the film before an all-African American audience, the viewers broke into cheers and applause when that scene played. Another first for Poitier and another mold broken.

In the Heat of the Night was nominated for seven Academy Awards and took home five, including one for Best Actor by Rod Steiger. Ironically, Sidney Poitier was not nominated by the Academy, although he was nominated for a Golden Globe, a British Film Academy, and a Laurel Award for best actor along with co-star Steiger. Steiger took home all three.

1967’s To Sir with Love was one of three blockbuster films that starred Poitier that year. Yet another brilliant portrayal of an educated and in control African American male that the film industry was finally coming to accept.

To Sir, With Love

Sidney Poitier and director James Clavell wanted to do the film, but Columbia Pictures was reluctant to pay Poitier his going rate. Both Poitier and Clavell agreed to make the film for smaller fees (Poitier agreed to only $30,000 up front), provided Poitier got 10% of the gross and Clavell 30% of the profits. Shot in between In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the early spring of 1967 on a budget of a little over $600,000, according to the Worldwide Box Office, the film grossed over $42 million, making Poitier’s payout over $4.2 million.

To receive equal billing with two film legends of the magnitude of Hepburn & Tracy was a validation of how highly regarded Poitier had become in the eyes of both film makers and moviegoers alike by the time 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

By 1967, there were no more two better known film stars than Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The fact that Sidney Poitier got equal billing with these two icons was in itself a monumental accomplishment. Perhaps the best lines in the film came when Poitier’s Doctor John Prentice was arguing with his father about his attempting to decide whether or not to marry Joanna Drayton: “Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

Those words sum up Sidney Poitier’s entire career as an actor and the roles he chose to play.

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Denzel Washington took home the award for Best Actor for his performance in Training Day in 2002 and made sure to mention Poitier in his acceptance speech. 

“Forty years, I’ve been chasing Sidney… I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney.”

“I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” Washington continued. “There’s nothing I’d rather do, sir.” 

Big shoes to fill indeed. A pioneer whose legacy is a changed world for African American actors. If only the rest of America could follow suit.

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