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Phil Alden Robinson: Sidney Poitier ‘wasn’t just a good man; he was a great man.’

Two men sit in a convertible.
Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford on the set of the movie “Sneakers.
(Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) directed Sidney Poitier in “Sneakers” (1992), which co-starred Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn and Dan Aykroyd. The film followed an eccentric team of cybersecurity specialists led by Redford who hire themselves out to test the vulnerability of companies’ computer systems. Its eclectic cast and twist-filled story earned favorable reviews and made more than $100 million globally.

Robinson spoke with The Times about the passing of the trailblazing Poitier.

Morgan Freeman, Viola Davis and former President Obama are among the many saluting the legacy of pioneering actor Sidney Poitier, who has died at 94.

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How did you manage to get him in the movie?

I was such a fan. I had known him a little bit at that point and I thought the opportunity to work with him was something I couldn’t pass up. I took a shot: I called him and said, “I’ve got something to send you,” and he said, “Alright.” He didn’t sound in a hurry to get back to work. But he called me later that afternoon and said, “This is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever read.”

I called River [Phoenix, who had starred with Poitier in “Little Nikita” in 1988] and said, “Guess what? Sidney Poitier is going to play Crease!” I heard him literally drop the phone and yell, “Mom! Mom! Sidney Poitier’s going to be in the movie!”

“Sneakers” wasn’t exactly lacking star power — Robert Redford was the lead — how did Mr. Poitier’s presence affect the set?

Everybody ups their game when Sidney’s on the set. He was the greatest combination of talent, professionalism, kindness, warmth and class I’ve ever met. Not only did everybody up their game professionally; when Sidney was working, everyone was nicer. You’d see grips and electricians who were normally running around say ‘Excuse me’ and be polite — it was a remarkable thing to witness.

His persona was real. He really was a brilliantly talented man and a kind and classy man. One of the things he would do, every time I saw him: He would say something complimentary to make me feel good. I think he did that with everybody. He loved people and making them feel at ease. I think it was just his way.

Reporter Greg Braxton recalls the nerves, awe and finally calm that accompanied an interview with Sidney Poitier in 2000. Poitier died Thursday at 94.

How did he shape his role (Crease, a buttoned-down former CIA agent who’d spent many years in the agency before leaving under mysterious circumstances and joining the misfit Sneakers)?

He was playing the most experienced of the Sneakers — he had had the most official role in his past — he brings that to the set. Robert Redford is there, but there was no one like Sidney Poitier. He had one relationship with Bob’s character, another with River’s — it was more avuncular — and another with Danny [Aykroyd]. Danny was playing a conspiracy theorist: I told him, “Sidney’s playing a very straight guy; drive him crazy!” I think Sidney loved having that foil to play.

Did you two maintain a relationship after the movie?

We would see each other from time to time; we’d go to lunch or dinner or I’d see him at events. He was always the kindest, warmest man. I think anyone who knew him, it was a gift to be around him. When you look at the roles he played in motion pictures — his range was unbelievable. Later, he played distinguished characters, but early on, he was as explosive as any actor who ever lit up the screen.

When you think of him, what specific thing comes to mind? A moment, something he said …?

He taught me something wonderful one day. We were talking about one’s life in this profession. He said, “We pour our lives into our work as if from a cup. When the work’s over, you have to refill that cup. And you can’t refill it with work. You have to refill it with life.” It reinforced in my mind, “Don’t reserve yourself only for your work.” It reminded me, “Take time off, have adventures that have nothing to do with work.” Because that’s what you put into the work. If there’s nothing else, it becomes meta.

He loved spending time with his family and reading and playing golf and spending time with friends. He had such a rich life. He was such a great example in so many ways. I feel so incredibly lucky to have known him. He’s one of the handful of the people I think of: He wasn’t just a good man; he was a great man.

Sidney Poitier, who made history as the first Black man to win an Oscar for lead actor and who starred in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ has died.


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