Times Arts Editor

It is a chilly, dank, late afternoon in Monrovia, a few miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. There are puddles from a morning rain, with more rain a likelihood. A residential neighborhood has been turned into an extension of Hollywood. Equipment vans and mobile homes line the street and grips hustle around on their inscrutable errands.

In one of the trailers, Sidney Poitier awaits his call for the next shot. He turned 60 on Feb. 20 during the shooting, and he has been making movies for a long time, since the controversial "No Way Out," which was banned in Chicago and parts of the South when it was released in 1950. "Little Nikita," which he is shooting here in Monrovia for director Richard Benjamin and producer Harry Gittes, with 16-year-old River Phoenix co-starring, is Poitier's 42nd film as actor or director.

He plays an FBI agent dealing with a boy whose parents, beneath their suburban cover, are Soviet agents. It is Poitier's return to acting after a decade in which he concentrated on producing and directing. He had started directing in 1972 with "Buck and the Preacher," in which he also co-starred with Harry Belafonte. He did double duty on four other films, "A Warm December," "Uptown Saturday Night," "Let's Do It Again" and "A Piece of the Action." He directed but did not act in three other films, including the very successful Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy "Stir Crazy."

Poitier says he has no wish to return to the double harness of actor-director. "It is so hard physically. What am I doing now? I'm acting. What does that mean? It means I'm sitting around a warm dressing room talking to a couple of nice guys about matters that interest me. As a director, you can't do that for months .

"When you're directing, you work half the night on your shot list for the next day. You arrive with 10 or 15 shots to do to complete a sequence. But after two or three shots, other shots suggest themselves. Everybody is asking a million questions, and you are the one who gets to answer all of them.

"What's seductive about the work? Ah, well, if we didn't have very large egos, we wouldn't be directing. It's very heavy stuff."

For a few years, Hollywood discovered the black audience and made films for it that also drew a crossover audience. Poitier himself as actor and director, had a hand in several of the best of them. But, almost as suddenly as it began, the black film as a phenomenon disappeared.

The reason, Poitier says sadly, was "the gluttonous approach to that area. A budding new film experience was tarnished by the influx of exploitation films. The real issues of life in America, especially as they affected minorities, were never dealt with. More and more, the films never got beyond the exploitation of the racial thing in which the minorities were heroes and the baddies were white guys.

"As a result, the black audience, which was always there, still is. But no one respected it enough to service it with things that were born of the audience's own experiences, and the black audience turned away."

The black audience could still be served positively--and profitably, although probably at a modest level, Poitier is sure, if it were not for the stampede of costs to ever higher levels, fueled by the lust for the brass ring--the blockbuster film.

"Even a profitable $2-million film is not thought of as a success," Poitier says. "The profits seem insignificant. Guys are driven even on a subliminal level by the dreams of the really, really big score. But in order to chase the big dream, you have to exclude so many themes, so much material that you could be doing."

Poitier has a treasonable thought that would attack one major component of the cost frenzy: the actors' salaries. "We as actors don't deserve $6 million or $10 million up front if a picture doesn't get its cost back. You're getting that kind of money because you're supposed to be a good investment, and in some instances it works out that way. But just as often it doesn't."

Unlike the legend used to justify the huge salaries up front that the actor can't get an honest count on a picture's earnings and thus on his own participation, Poitier insists that you can, and that he does.

Poitier has taken what he calls rather modest salaries but has had so-called "dollar one participation"--that is, from the rental revenues returned to the producers--on several pictures, including "In the Heat of the Night," "To Sir With Love," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Stir Crazy."

"All into profit," Poitier says, "and all returning to me sums that I could not possibly have earned as a fee up front."

It has been fine for him, but what has been equally important, "I've helped productions come into being that wouldn't have if I had demanded a huge salary. Then, when they were successful, I could make a claim to have been worthy of my compensation.

"Nothing would upset me more than to be in a film, for which I was paid a great deal of money, that didn't work. I would feel my contribution wasn't deserving.

"It would help the business immeasurably if everybody involved took somewhat of a chance. Then, when there's a bonanza, everybody shares in the bonanza."

There was a knock at the trailer door and Poitier put on his jacket and his shoes and went off to play a scene in a backyard with River Phoenix. Poitier looked with kindly understanding and compassion on director Benjamin, who all the while, had been on the damp lawn in the raw afternoon, lining up the shot.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World