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Sidney Poitier still delivers ‘Heat’

Actor Sidney Poitier introduces "In the Heat of the Night" at AFI Night at the Movies in Hollywood.
(Tomasso Boddi / Getty Images)

His walk is slow, his speech is measured, but at 86, Sidney Poitier is still a commanding presence.

The Academy Award-winning actor and a founding board member of the American Film Institute in 1967 was on hand for AFI Night at the Movies at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood on Wednesday to introduce “In the Heat of the Night,” the 1967 best picture winner in which he starred with Rod Steiger.

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Introducing films in other theaters for the AFI fund-raiser were Harrison Ford (“Blade Runner”), Cher (“Moonstruck”), Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction”), Shirley MacLaine (“Terms of Endearment”), Kathy Bates (“Misery”), Sally Field (“Norma Rae”), Peter Fonda (“Easy Rider”), Demi Moore (“Ghost”), Mike Myers (“Shrek”), Kurt Russell (“The Thing”) and Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects”).

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The audience in the Cinerama Dome was kept waiting nearly an hour for Poitier’s appearance, but no one seemed to mind much. The near-capacity crowd was on its feet applauding as soon as he made his way to the podium after an introduction by AFI President Bob Gazzale.

Poitier, at one time the nation’s top box-office star, was humble and gracious, expressing gratitude to the many great actors, directors and writers with whom he’d worked during a career that included such films as “Lillies of the Field,” “To Sir, With Love,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “For Love of Ivy.” Among those he singled out for praise were filmmakers Richard Brooks and Stanley Kramer, who cast him, respectively, in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) and “The Defiant Ones” (1958). “They stood their ground and left behind a legacy of values that continue to enrich the American film industry,” he said.

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Poitier has retired from acting and now focuses his attention on writing books.

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His only reference to “In the Heat of the Night,” in which he played a big-city detective trying to solve a murder in a small Mississippi town where racism is still rampant, came when he told the crowd, referencing the film’s most famous line: “I promise you tonight a story well told, as sure as my name is Mr. Tibbs.”

He didn’t stay to watch it, though. “My daughter tells me I gotta go home because my wife is holding dinner for me,” he said.

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