“This man endured what most men cannot even contemplate,” Sidney Poitier says of the indomitable South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Poitier stars as the man who became an international symbol of freedom in Showtime’s “Mandela and De Klerk,” which can be seen Sunday. Shot on location in South Africa last year, the docudrama chronicles Mandela’s harrowing years as a political prisoner to his election as leader of the new democratic nation in 1994.
Michael Caine plays the Afrikaner South African president, Frederik W. de Klerk, who ended the ban on the African National Congress in 1990 and negotiated Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years. Tina Lifford stars as Mandela’s wife, Winnie.
Poitier, 69, who won the best actor Academy Award for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” has appeared in such classic films as “The Defiant Ones” (for which he received his first Oscar nomination), “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir, With Love.” He also has directed films and in recent years has starred on television in such movies as “Separate but Equal,” “Children of the Dust” and “To Sir, With Love II.”
Question: Had you ever met Mandela during his U.S. visits?
Answer: When he was here, Mayor [Tom] Bradley had him at City Hall. I was asked to come. I am not a limelight seeker, so I was in the crowd at the back. As he was walking down through [the crowd], suddenly he stopped and saw me about seven deep behind the other people. He said, “Sidney!” I kind of raised my hand and nodded to him, just because I didn’t expect him to stop. He came through the crowd and he greeted me and we talked. Then I saw him again another time at USC.
Q: What made “Mandela and De Klerk” such a special project for you?
A: I was poised to do another picture on South Africa. I had promised someone, pending the outcome of the script, that I would be available for it. It was probably earmarked as a miniseries at that point. It was a very interesting script, but it wasn’t about Mandela. It was about apartheid. It was my feeling, and still is, you can’t dramatize apartheid. Apartheid has to be reflected through the lives of the people.
Sometime after [I turned it down], my agent said he would like to send a script to me. It was this script and it was what I wanted to play--meaning it was apartheid reflected through the life of a person and his compatriots and his time, so that you could get the feel of what his struggle was and the struggle of those he represented.
Q: You made “Cry, the Beloved Country” in South Africa in 1950. What was it like filming there then and going back in 1996?
A: The experience in South Africa in 1950 [made an impact]. I mean, it was stunning in its brutality. The law required that we live 26 miles outside the city [of Johannesburg]. They rented us a farm for that purpose. A car would come and get us in the morning and take us into Johannesburg to the studio. When we were done, we would get in the car and it would take us out of the city and back to the farm.
I was a fairly alert kid when I was that age, so I knew to expect that it would be different from where I came from, but I really wasn’t ready for the extent of it.
So when I went back, I went back with those impressions calcified in my memory. I found what had happened as the result of Nelson Mandela, the ANC and the whole struggle against apartheid was that the country had changed considerably in those 40 years between visits. Terrible prices were paid, but it was worth it from what I saw. I saw the birth of a new nation. I saw a people who had endured and took everything the evil forces of apartheid had designed for them and managed to persevere and win.
Q: What was the response from the South Africans about “Mandela” being filmed in the country?
A: Their response to my being there was, I think, from my exposure to it, terrific. There were some actors who weren’t particularly happy [laughs] that American actors were being brought in to play Mandela and Winnie, and that an English actor was being brought in to play De Klerk. All of that took place before I got there. When I got there, [the supporting roles] had been cast with South African actors. The American and English actors arrived and we went to work because it has been solved by then.
Q: This movie, though, was not officially authorized by Mandela.
A: [Mandela] had written his book [“Long Walk to Freedom”], and his book was optioned by [South African producer] Anant Singh. He was planning to do a movie on Mandela’s book. I don’t know that we stepped on his toes in any way, because South Africa is public domain in terms of drama and Mandela is in public domain. There are many, many approaches to South Africa and the life of Nelson Mandela. Singh had no legal recourse because we were using the Mandela who belongs to the world--the information that the world already has about his life.
Q: Did Mandela ever acknowledge the production while you were filming there?
A: Yes, he invited us--meaning my wife and my daughter and her friend and my assistant--to his offices in Capetown on a morning and called out the press very early. They all came and he introduced me to the press with a very complimentary introduction. I was a little embarrassed by this great man saying such nice things.
Q: Did meeting Mandela previously help you with his accent and his stiff gait?
A: Of course. In my research on him, I found that he had some difficulties with his walking and he had kind of a tilt to his walk. For his speech, since I have never spoken and I cannot speak his tribal tongue, I could only adopt his rhythmic patterns of certain words.
But I spent a great deal of time [during my research] looking into the values of the man, because that’s where he needs to be articulated on film.
Q: Pay-TV networks have a limited audience compared to commercial networks. Are you disappointed “Mandela” won’t be seen by a bigger audience?
A: It’s wonderful that cable is doing it. If it gets a 5 million viewership, that’s 5 million people who will see the flesh-and-blood life unfolding before their eyes.
See, cable knows they are in competition with the mainstream stuff. In order to be competitive, they know there are slices of the American public who will respond immediately to something that is dimensional, direct and honest about their culture and their lives. They look for it on mainstream network programming and they don’t see it. Ninety-five percent of what we see are images that do not give us a dimensional look at the African American culture.
“Mandela and De Klerk” can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.