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The Staying Power of Poitier : N.Y. Museum’s Tribute Spotlights Career of Veteran Actor-Director

Times Staff Writer

Tonight, those attending a black-tie gala held by the American Museum of the Moving Image here won’t have to guess who’s coming to dinner. They know Sidney Poitier will be the main event.

The party is for him, followed by a March 3-17 retrospective of his better-known films, including “The Defiant Ones” that earned him him both an Oscar nomination in 1958 and star status.

That was the year Poitier--whose first film job nine years earlier was in an Army Signal Corps documentary on religious counseling--became one of the few black actors to join Hollywood’s front ranks.

Big changes since then, much progress for blacks in leading roles, he says. “Today, we have Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby. . . .”

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And don’t forget the new kid on the block, Forest Whitaker, star of “Bird,” he adds: “A wonderful actor, by the way. . . . I watched him the other day and I marvel at how easy he works. He’s got it.

“Anyhow, that’s what we see today. And from my time to now, one has to characterize their appearance on the scene as progress, although it’s far from complete, certainly.”

One also must keep in mind that there still are Latino and Asian actors “who are struggling very hard for some identity in the film business,” he says. “And we all have essentially had the same problems.”

The tall, dignified actor, who won a best actor Oscar in 1963 for “Lilies of the Field,” spoke by phone from Los Angeles shortly before heading east for tonight’s dinner tribute at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

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He praises what he calls “the healthy number of people” in Hollywood who have worked to expand opportunities for minorities, including himself, through the years: “We’re lucky to have them.”

But he feels the bottom line is the belated realization that there is a sizable black audience in the United States. That, he says, is largely “responsible for these new opportunities.

“The fact is, the black community is a sizable portion of profit balance . . . we go to movies and what we would like to see . . . is ourselves, our life styles, our values. At least we would like to see ourselves represented on the screen.”

He’s had some success at that. He regrets, though, that one project he always wanted to film never came to pass for various reasons.

It was the life story of the late Air Force Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James, the first blackto rise to four-star rank in the U.S. military.

James, who died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 58, was a respected, decorated jet fighter pilot who flew combat in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He began his career in a segregated unit in Alabama.

“I spent many hours trying to get that (James project) going--as did many others--but it never materialized,” Poitier says, a note of sadness in his voice. “Chappie was a great man. I knew him. He was like a guide to me.”

When interviewed, Poitier was amid preparations to direct his ninth film and his second with an old pal--Bill Cosby, the NBC sitcom star.

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The new effort, a comedy that starts production either on April 23 or May 1, is “Ghost Dad,” says Poitier. He first directed Cosby and co-starred with him in another comedy in 1974, “Uptown Saturday Night.”

Despite acting two years ago in “Little Nikita,” and then “Shoot to Kill” with Tom Berenger, Poitier has spent more time behind the camera than in front of it in recent years.

The reason for his second career as a director is that, as he gently puts it, “things do change.”

Poitier was born in Miami and reared the son of a poor farmer on Cat Island in the Bahamas. His first acting career began with various roles on and off Broadway after World War II service as a physiotherapist in the then-segregated Army.

He came to Hollywood 40 years ago for “No Way Out,” a 1950 film co-starring Richard Widmark, the first of 43 Hollywood films on which he has worked, most of them as an actor.

The 20 years that followed were exciting and satisfying for him, he says, a period when films in which he had roles tried “in a very courageous way” to understand and examine racial relations in America.

Much of the effort, he emphasizes, came through directors, producers and writers, “men like Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch Brothers, Richard Brooks and Martin Ritt, people who had great courage to step outside the framework, and came up with pictures like ‘The Defiant Ones, ‘Edge of the City,’ ‘Heat of the Night,’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’

“It was a very vibrant period, a very active period. It was during the civil rights struggle in America, during a tumultuous time in society. So parts coming to me at that time had some currency to them.

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“Then, of course, subsequent to the Vietnam War, we (Hollywood) got into a different syndrome, more cops-and-robbers stuff. We had just begun to examine the social fabric during those (previous) 20 years, but then we started drifting away from it as an industry.

“I don’t know if that’s because . . . we didn’t replenish our mavericks, or if it’s just the natural drift of things. But we floated away from that kind of examination. And with that went, for me, the kind of material that kicked my juices over. . . .

“So I withdrew, rather than deal with what was available.” Poitier chuckles. “Mind you, I must be honest, what was available (to me) didn’t come in profusion.”

That led to his segue into directing. The beginning, in 1971, was “Buck and the Preacher,” a comic black Western in which he co-starred with Harry Belafonte--with whom he alternated lead roles back in the struggling New York days when they belonged to the American Negro Theatre company.

Poitier did double duty in four subsequent films.

But he stayed behind the camera for three others, including “Stir Crazy,” the eminently successful comedy that co-starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

“Buck and the Preacher,” he says, “was terrific. It sort of got me into the game, and I found there was more satisfaction (in directing) than playing parts that were not quite substantial.”

There are some Hollywood veterans who, when faced with a black-tie salute to themselves and their careers, privately wince at such things. Not Poitier. He looks forward to tonight’s tribute and makes no bones about it.

“I take it with an appreciation,” he says. “It does me good to know that there are people who feel that my work has encouraged them to do this.

“Now, that might very well be my ego speaking,” he concedes, laughing. “But be that as it may, I don’t mind. I rather like it. Because the bulk of my life and my work is certainly behind me.

“The only caveat I have there is that I would hope that maybe my best work is ahead of me. . . .

“I’m 62 years old, and if I can continue for another 10 or 12 years, God willing, maybe I can do some things that are better, or at least interestingly different.”


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