Still in the Action
Nearly 50 years ago, a young New York theater actor named Sidney Poitier arrived in Hollywood, where he would become the cinema’s first black superstar--and a role model for generations of African American performers.
Making his film debut in 1950 in Joseph Mankiewicz’s powerful racial drama “No Way Out,” Poitier paved the way for other black actors in film in the ‘50s with his memorable performances in “The Blackboard Jungle,” “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Something of Value.”
He received an Oscar nomination for best actor for “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. Five years later, Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor for his warm portrayal of a handyman who helps a group of nuns build a church in “Lilies of the Field.” He is still the only African American to have won a best actor Oscar.
Six years ago, he became the only black actor to be the recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
Next week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pays tribute to Poitier, 71, with two special evenings at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
On Thursday, the academy will present a salute to the trailblazing actor. The evening will feature clips from his films and special guests, including Diahann Carroll, Richard Benjamin, Norman Jewison, Phil Alden Robinson, James Earl Jones and Richard Roundtree, who will share stories of working with Poitier, who will be present for the event.
Poitier will also appear the next night for a screening of a newly restored print of the 1967 Oscar winner “In the Heat of the Night,” in which he played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs. A reunion of the cast and crew, including director Jewison, will follow.
Born in Miami, Poitier was raised in the Bahamas and dropped out of school at 13. After working in a variety of menial jobs and serving in the Army, he began his acting career with the American Negro Theater in New York.
He became one of the biggest box-office stars of the ‘60s, thanks to such hits as “The Bedford Incident,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Patch of Blue” and “Duel at Diablo.”
In 1967, he starred in three of the year’s most popular films: “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love.”
Poitier made his first foray into directing with the 1972 western “Buck and the Preacher” and subsequently directed the box-office hits “Uptown Saturday Night,” “A Piece of the Action” and “Stir Crazy.”
He has kept busy in front of the camera during the ‘90s, starring in the TV miniseries “Separate but Equal” and “Children of the Dust,” and the Showtime presentation “Mandela and De Klerk.” His most recent features include “Sneakers” and “The Jackal.”
Poitier recently discussed the academy’s tribute and his long career over breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Question: What was Hollywood like when you arrived at 20th Century Fox to make “No Way Out”? Was it difficult being one of a handful of African American actors working in films?
Answer: It wasn’t difficult at all. It was stimulating. It was interesting. It was new to me.
Q: Fox also seemed to be producing more socially conscious films like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Pinky” and “No Way Out.”
A: I think that Fox seemed to be innovative because there were some interesting guys at Fox. Joe Mankiewicz was at Fox and [studio chief] Darryl Zanuck was at Fox. If it wasn’t for Joe Mankiewicz and Darryl Zanuck, those pictures wouldn’t have been made. So I think something should be said about the people who were at the various studios, who had a need to make the statement that they made with those films. They were speaking of something that they thought comment should be made on.
The race question was a very, very intense question. You know the pictures that were made by the men who made them were terribly personal comments by all of them, and there was a risk attached in them deciding to do what they did.
Q: Did you feel while you were making “No Way Out” that it was going to be a groundbreaker?
A: You never really know that. I didn’t think it [the subject matter] was that particularly special. If I was a white person looking at the African American experience, I might have thought it a groundbreaking experience. But for me, the contents of the film, I was familiar with it in my own life.
Q: Wasn’t the film banned in certain areas of the country, especially the South?
A: I think there were some areas where it was not [seen]. That was the pattern in the country. Clearly, the America of those days is somewhat different than the America of today.
Q: I’ve read that when you made Richard Brooks’ 1955 classic “The Blackboard Jungle” at MGM, you and the shoeshine man were the only African Americans on the lot.
A: The set of the film was not that unusual from life, do you follow? That was a situation that was typical in America and almost everywhere I went.
Q: Didn’t Brooks also have to put up a fight to get you registered in the hotel where the production was staying when you made 1957’s “Something of Value” with him in Kenya?
A: Yes, it was in Nairobi. That was a colonial power that was still entrenched. They did things the colonial way. He just put his foot down, and they changed their minds. When I arrived there, it had all been smoothed out. I had no idea about it until someone mentioned it to me much later that Richard had jumped all over the management. I did two movies for Richard. I liked him a lot. He was quite a remarkable fellow.
Q: Did you turn down roles you thought were demeaning when you were starting out in films?
A: Of course. More than a few, I’ve got to tell you. Hollywood might or might have not been surprised [I turned down roles], but it didn’t matter. I was here under my own terms, and I knew I had no power to influence except the power to say “No,” which was a power I exercised more than a few times.
I didn’t come into this business for the fame and fortune and all of that. I had points to make to myself and to the world on behalf of myself and my family. I had to be here on my terms.
Q: Your Oscar-nominated role as the escaped prisoner shackled to a white inmate [Tony Curtis] in “The Defiant Ones” must have changed your status in Hollywood.
A: You know, anyone who tries, myself included, to do a chronology of how the momentum started and what sustained it--it’s a fool’s errand, I think.
Q: You made your directing debut with 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher” after the original director left the project. Had you long aspired to try your hand at directing?
A: Well, I recognized the mercurial nature of the business. Actors come and go, and I had had quite a remarkable career to that point. I thought, though, what happens if things slow down or I became out of season or whatever, and the career is over, what would you do? I like the business. I wanted to stay attached to it, so I set out and tried to learn about other aspects of the business other than acting.
I paid attention to directors. There wasn’t a director I didn’t watch very carefully to see what they were doing. I tucked all of those things I learned in the back of my head somewhere with an eye of maybe using it if I wanted to create some kind of longevity in this business in another area.
When [singer] Harry Belafonte said he thought I should take over the direction until Columbia sent someone I said, “OK,” because I felt confident enough that I could at least hold the line for two or three or four days. As it happened, they eventually said, “Never mind. Just go ahead and finish the picture.” That’s how I started directing.
Q: You recently made a movie for Showtime with your daughter Sydney called “Free of Eden,” which is described as a modern-day “Pygmalion” story. How did that work out?
A: She’s a delightful person, a very good actress and really very good. I was very pleased with the way she worked.
Q: Did you try to talk her out of becoming an actress?
A: I couldn’t do that and I didn’t try because she would never understand why I said that. Her mother [Joanna Shimkus] was a successful actress. I am a successful actor. Conditions were 10 times tougher when I came along, and they were more difficult for her mom than things are today.
Q: Lots of people wish you would do more movies.
A: I don’t want to keep busy at filming. I’d rather keep busy at living, because if I live to be 80, I only have 8 1/2 years. If I live to be 90, I have 18 1/2 years. Look at all the time there is on the other side of 90--there’s infinity. Infinity makes my possible 8 1/2 years or my possible 18 1/2 years the most valuable in the world.
Q: What was your reaction to the academy tribute?
A: I’m overwhelmed by it. . . . If someone says nice things about you and someone else says something nice about you, after a while you begin to think, hopefully it’s true!
It’s wonderful to have been a part of that kind of career work. When I say a part of it, it is precisely that. I have been a part of it because those things for which the academy seems to feel some comment should be made was a collective effort.
You know, in each instance, there was a director and in each instance, there was a writer and each instance, there were fellow actors. So it is in that spirit that it means the most.
* Both Thursday and Friday events begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 for general public; $3 for academy members. Tickets are available at the academy during regular business hours or by mail. If tickets are still available for either evening, they will go on sale when the doors open at 7 p.m. The academy is located at 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Information: (310) 247-3600.