They called him a "landmark" and "role model."
They called him "Mister Tibbs," too, at Thursday night's elegant dinner honoring actor, director, producer Sidney Poitier with one of the most prestigious of film industry honors--the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
But only hours earlier, as if to underline the significance of Poitier's achievements--his 1963 best actor Oscar in "Lilies of the Field" was the first for an African American--Hollywood had been reminded why his career has played such a notable role in a changing America.
The jolt came in the form of a report that, coincidentally, surfaced Thursday about continued racism in Hollywood, issued by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The chapter claimed that complaints about racial discrimination in the entertainment industry are on the rise, and it has sought help to deal with the growing caseload from the Equal Opportunity Commission.
The night, however, was a celebration that accentuated the positive. For the first time in its 20 years, AFI's Life Achievement Award was going to a man of color, whose talents rank with such previous recipients as Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck.
It was also a night when you could see newcomer African-American director John Singleton (nominated for two Oscars for his 1991 "Boyz N the Hood") walking and chatting with veteran director Wilder.
Actor Denzel Washington joined with Poitier's contemporaries, industry giants like Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones, among many others, to salute the man who they credited with paving the way.
"He was a source of pride for many African Americans," said Washington, recalling the time years ago when he was new to show business, ran into Poitier at a Wilshire Blvd. bookstore and awkwardly approached him. Poitier didn't give him a job, but he was encouraging. In 1989, Washington won a supporting actor Oscar for his supporting role in "Glory."
And if there were any doubts that conditions have improved, at least somewhat, the evidence was the growing list of leading black actors, including Danny Glover, Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones, who recalled the days when Poitier was Hollywood's only leading black star.
"He played a great role in the life of our country," said Jones. "He marched on Montgomery and Memphis with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said of Sidney: 'He's a man who never lost his concern for the least of God's children.' "
Actor Jones noted Poitier last year took his commitment to human rights to the television screen for his first role that medium in 35 years. In "Separate But Equal," he played now-retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who, as a lawyer, argued to strike down segregation laws in the 1950s.
It was, as Jones, said, "A landmark actor portraying a landmark figure, in one of the landmark moments of our history."
A surprise tribute to Poitier's role in the civil rights movement, was the introduction of Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to sit at the back of the bus reserved for blacks only in Montgomery, Ala. Parks' attendance had not been previously announced and her introduction drew the celebrity audience at the Beverly Hilton to its feet for an ovation. Parks had been seated, little noticed, at a table with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and as the audience continued applauding, Poitier went to her table to give her a hug.
Parks did not address the crowd, but afterward she told The Times that she was there as a fan. "He's always been a great actor and a role model," she said.
The evening, which will be televised by NBC on April 4, also included stories told by several of Poitier's fellow actors, including Richard Widmark ("No Way Out," 1950), Tony Curtis ("The Defiant Ones," 1958), Gossett ("A Raisin in the Sun" 1961), and Lee Grant and Rod Steiger ("In the Heat of the Night," 1967).
In a clip shown at the dinner, Steiger, who played the red-neck local sheriff, challenged Poitier's character of a Northern big-city police officer with a series of slurs and asks him what people call him. In an answer that became Poitier's signature line, he responded: "They call me Mister Tibbs!"
"Congratulations, Mister Tibbs," said Steiger, using two words he did not say in in the Oscar-winning best picture.
Stanley Kramer, who directed Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" and in 1967's "Guess Whose Coming to Dinner," called Poitier "special" and "a contribution to my life."
Belafonte, a lifelong friend and host of the evening, told the audience that with "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "To Sir, With Love," all released in the same year, Poitier's popularity reached a peak. A year later he was named the biggest box-office star by theater owners.
The actor's career began to fade toward the mid-1970s and he segued into directing and producing, teaming with pal Bill Cosby on several popular comedies. He continued his longtime relationship with Columbia Pictures and his friends included some of entertainment's most powerful behind-the-scenes players, including Marvin Davis, Berry Gordy and Merv Griffin.
When Poitier finally took to the stage, he credited his success to the "many the world has not held up" and to people who paved the way for him: the great black actor Paul Robeson, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Thurgood Marshall, Belafonte, Dr. King and baseball star Jackie Robinson.
"My thanks also goes to that community of filmmakers who made room for me to be and room for me to grow."
"To the young African-American filmmakers who have arrived on the playing field, I am filled with pride that you are here," Poitier said. "I am sure that you have likely discovered it was never impossible. It was just harder."