Guess Who's Coming to TV? : Sidney Poitier Couldn't Refuse the Chance to Play Thurgood Marshall

Times Staff Writer

It's early morning at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills and all eyes in the crowded restaurant are glancing over at Sidney Poitier. It's hard not to notice him.

Dressed in a pink sweater and dark slacks, the tall, lean actor looks two decades younger than his 64 years, just as if he had stepped out of "To Sir, With Love,' "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" or "In the Heat of the Night."

The actor-director was at the famed show biz haunt to discuss his role as Thurgood Marshall in the GM Mark of Excellence Presentation "Separate But Equal," airing tonight and Monday on ABC at 9 p.m.. Over the next two hours, Poitier, exceedingly polite and gracious, will talk passionately and thoughtfully of the miniseries, his long career, racial prejudice and young black filmmakers.

Poitier had turned down numerous miniseries and TV movies over the years until now. In fact, "Separate" marks just his fourth acting project for any medium in the past 14 years and his first TV appearance since the 1956 drama "A Man is 10 Feet Tall."

"I just couldn't refuse this," Poitier says. "This is a piece of American history and as such, it ought to be itemized, carved out and preserved in some way."

"Separate But Equal" dramatizes the events that lead to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. That watershed moment in American history had begun four years earlier as a simple plea for the use of one school bus for black children in the rural South Carolina community of Clarendon County, and became part of the package of civil rights cases remembered as Brown vs. Board of Education.

Marshall, a Supreme Court justice since 1967, had been the chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and led the fight to end school segregation.

Not only does "Separate" focus on an important period of American history, it allowed Poitier, for the first time, to speak words that have lived before him.

Poitier said that during filming in South Carolina the whites and blacks he met agreed "Separate But Equal" illustrated a dark period in American history. It was a period "we had to grow through and mature from, and we have done it to some extent. Things have changed. The mayor of Charleston is a wonderful man and a very healing kind of personality."

For Poitier, the move away from inequality has been "painful and laborious and gradual. It isn't so much as a movement away from, but a maturation of the nation's value system. The nation has grown a bit, it has gotten to be a better place, needless to add, with miles to go before we sleep. But there has been movement. Times have changed vastly and times have not changed at all."

Whereas Marshall led the fight to end school desegregation, Poitier was the prime player in the desegregation of the movies. He never played butlers, chauffeurs or shuffling buffoons. His parts weren't edited out of films for Southern audiences. In fact, he was the first black actor to reach a crossover audience. He was the first (and only) black to win the best actor Oscar (for 1963's "Lilies of the Field").

Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 racial drama "No Way Out." Some areas of the South, he recalls, didn't show the movie. "But it was not closed out entirely," he says.

After his enormous success in the 1960s, most notably with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and "To Sir With Love," Poitier acted in just a handful of films in the '70s, including the three popular comedies "Uptown Saturday Night," "A Piece of the Action" and "Let's Do It Again," all of which he also directed. During the last decade he has directed numerous films, including the box-office hit "Stir Crazy" and last year's "Ghost Dad."

Part of the reason he "stepped back" from acting, he says, was because of the rise of black-exploitation films, such as "Superfly" and "Shaft."

"The other reason was that life is only interesting if we are only able to, within reason, accept risks," Poitier says. "When one repeats oneself in artistic terms, one is not accepting risks. And when the exploitation films came into vogue, I could not find real substance in that genre and I stepped aside. I came back with more personal comedies like 'Uptown Saturday Night,' which was different than the exploitation films. From there I went on to other things."

Poitier now has a three-year deal at Columbia Pictures to produce, direct and even star in movies. "I have six first-draft screenplays being developed presently. One of the mottos of my company is that Hollywood should not be the province of $60- to $100-million movies only, because if we allow that, then many very important questions won't be aired or explored."

Poitier says he is impressed with the new crop of black filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. "It gives me great pride and joy, having been a party to a movement of sorts, because to have these young men creating ideas and putting them on film and having the opportunity to put them on film is a plus factor that could only have been dreamed of when I started."

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