Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sidney Poitier, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT

Steve Kmetko is one of the best entertainment reporters TV ever had.  He's the man who brought serious, mature journalistic skills to E! Entertainment Television.  Steve once asked me what stars I'd like to interview.  I answered, "Sidney Poitier."  Then I told Steve that, if I ever got the chance even to meet Mr. Poitier, I'd probably break out weeping with joy and reverence.  I'd cry because of the huge impact his work and the journey of his career have had on my life as a black American. I watched the Oscars with my parents when I was a little boy.  I still recall their gasps of glee and pride when Anne Bancroft happily announced that the winner of the Oscar for Best Actor was... Sidney Poitier for 1963's  Lilies of the Field.
He was the first black man to win that Academy Award.  He was the first black actor to be nominated more than once for the Oscar.  He gave such an appealing performance in that low-budget independent feel-good family comedy, a little indie film that did big box office business.  At Sunday masses in our Catholic church, nuns had us grade schoolers singing "Amen" like the nuns in Lilies of the Field did with Sidney Poitier as Homer, the ex-GI who would build them a chapel.  He went on to give an even stronger performance in Norman Jewison's socially relevant murder mystery, In The Heat Of The Night.  The film starred Rod Steiger as the Southern redneck cop forced to work with a black detective from up North in order to solve the crime.  Poitier slammed across one of his most famous and best dramatic performances, yet it did not bring him a nomination.  1967 boasted some excellent film work from actors, I must add.  Coming up with only 5 nominees for Best Actor must've been tough.  Sidney Poitier was Detective Virgil Tibbs, the educated and articulate Northern cop on a case in the Deep South.
If these two do not get over their cultural differences and work together, if the Southern sheriff does not respect and regard Virgil's skills and intelligence, the murder does not get solved.

One of the most memorable scenes in this film is the slap scene.  There was nothing like seeing In The Heat Of The Night in a walk-in or drive-in movie theater during that scene.  Black and Latino folks shouted out when Virgil slapped that racist man back after he'd slapped Virgil.  For us minority moviegoers, it was like being in church on Easter Sunday.  We got the spirit of resurrection like a bolt of lightning.  And Sidney was that bolt.
Mr. Tibbs slapped the crap out that old coot.  The scene is still relevant today.  It was relevant in 1967 and it was relevant when Teabaggers were holding up posters with ugly, ignorant statements about our first black man in the White House, President Barack Obama.  That hothouse scene is a classic.  The movie is a classic.
In The Heat Of The Night came out during the decade of the Civil Rights movement.  It came out during the decade of Dr. King's historic March on Washington.
Sidney Poitier attended the March on Washington.
He attended with other Hollywood notables such as Charlton Heston and Harry Belafonte.
The 1960s also marked the assassinations of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King just two months before Senator Kennedy's shooting, and the racist hate murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing weeks after the March on Washington.  In The Heat Of The Night touched on some open wounds and raw nerves in changing racial attitudes of the time.  It brought up some needed change of racial attitudes in America.  In between the 1963 March on Washington and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King came Norman Jewison's In The Heat Of The Night.  Virgil Tibbs was fighting crime and fighting for respect and dignity and equal treatment from White America.  He also needs respect and truth from other black people while solving the crime.  He needs to not feel like he betrayed his race because he's educated and articulate.  Virgil is and proud to be a black man.  That slap proved it.  That slap was a Hollywood wake-up call from Black America.   Yes, the scene is still relevant today.  It was the way the NBA slapped basketball team owner Donald Sterling this week for his reported racist comments.
Sidney Poitier gave a more layered performance in this drama playing a more complicated man than he did in Lilies of the Field.  But his Oscar wasn't just for Lilies of the Field.  He'd blasted through entertainment industry color barriers with huge force.  He starred on Broadway in the historic and acclaimed, A Raisin in the Sun.
His Oscar win was for Lilies of the Field and Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis, the under-appreciated Paris Blues with Paul Newman as his best friend and fellow jazz musician in France...
...Something of Value with Rock Hudson and for recreating his role along with the other original Broadway cast members in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun.
Sidney Poitier had accomplished what many black actors and actresses pushed to do but were beaten back by limited racial attitudes in Hollywood.  He'd distinguished himself in roles that were major steps above the butler, porter, maid and mammy roles usually assigned black performers.  I've written many times that, in my long broadcast career, I encountered the biggest color barrier when I wanted to be a weekly film reviewer on New York City TV news programs and when I tried to get in on auditions to be a movie host on upscale cable channels.  If I felt a color barrier in those two categories through the 1990s and into the next decade in New York City, imagine the frustration black actors felt trying to distinguish themselves in Hollywood films beyond servant roles in the 1930s and 40s.  Look at the immensely talented, beautiful and charismatic Dorothy Dandridge.  She could act, sing and dance.  At MGM, she and her sister sang in the "All God's Chillun (Children) Got Rhythm" number of 1937's A Day at the Races, a number with a great arrangement and vocals that unfortunately devolved into a blackface number with The Marx Brothers.  Dandridge and Harry Belafonte played teacher and elementary school principal in MGM's inspirational little scholastic drama, Bright Road (1953).

After A Day at the Races, she was a knockout doing her own singing with the Nicholas Brothers and dancing to "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in 20th Century Fox's musical comedy, Sun Valley Serenade (1941).
She got mostly maid and jungle native roles.  Many times, her name didn't even appear in the credits.  I wrote before that, if MGM had been more racially advanced in its 1940s/early 50s casting and projects, Dorothy Dandridge had the talent and looks to take on the quality of parts Lana Turner played in Ziegfeld Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Bad and The Beautiful.
She was limited by race.  Like Sidney, she was also a groundbreaker.  Teamed again with Harry Belafonte, she was the first black woman nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.  She was up against Judy Garland for A Star Is Born and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl thanks to her fierce and fabulous performance in the 1954 musical drama, Carmen Jones.  Bizet's opera, Carmen, was updated and relocated with new lyrics and the same basic story.  She was the doomed vamp, manipulative and manipulated.  He was the soldier who desires her.


Dandridge was still limited by race.  Her next big movie came three years later.  1957's stylish Island in the Sun was a modern-day look at race relations set in the Caribbean co-starring James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins.  Dandridge was once again with Harry Belafonte.  But Belafonte's doctor character catches the romantic eye of Joan Fontaine.  Dandridge gets invited to a swanky political ball and a Caucasian official asks her to dance.  Dandridge gives you top shelf class and glamour in Island in the Sun.
                                                                                                        
Like Carmen Jones and Sun Valley Serenade, it was a 20th Century Fox production.  In the 1950s, Dandridge should've had leads in other glossy Fox productions like The Best of Everything and Three Coins in the Fountain.  She'd have been perfect for a reworking of Laura, taking on the Gene Tierney role.  But she was limited by race.

Her next big and last major movie lead role was in 1959's Porgy and Bess.  Like Carmen Jones, it was directed by Otto Preminger (who also directed Gene Tierney as Laura).  Her leading man was Sidney Poitier.
Dandridge's star quality and true acting talent were again evident as she worked with Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Brock Peters.


If I had the privilege to interview Sidney Poitier, I'd most definitely want to talk about Dorothy Dandridge.

After 1963's Lilies of the Field, Mr. Poitier went on to accomplish something else that was new for black actors.  He became a top box office star.  This was major.  As a kid, my family and I went to the movies and saw lots of white folks in the audience who were also there because the movie starred Sidney Poitier.  In 1967, he starred in three of the biggest hits of the year -- To Sir, With Love...
...In The Heat Of The Night....
...and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Rod Steiger was Best Actor for In The Heat Of The Night.  Katharine Hepburn won the Best Actress Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  Of the five nominees for Best Picture, two were those movies starring Steiger, Hepburn...and Sidney Poitier.  In The Heat Of The Night won the Oscar for Best Picture.

In the 70s,  I had a college buddy who was a tall, weightlifting Lithuanian-American from Chicago. He was built like a superhero.  His favorite actor was Sidney Poitier.  He told me that he didn't care what the movie was about just as long as it had Sidney Poitier.  That's star power.  He also said that he loved Poitier's slow burn mad scenes.  I love those too.  Comically or dramatically, Poitier was always great to watch as his anger simmered and simmered and then reached a boiling point.  Watch for it in In The Heat Of The Night as his anger boils and bursts with his answer, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!"

Here are some extra Poitier movie facts:  Beah Richards played the mother to his doctor character in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  She's marvelous in the movie and glows in a scene with Spencer Tracy about the nature of love when men age.  To me, that scene is the soul of the film.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress come Oscar time.  Richards also acted opposite Poitier in In The Heat Of The Night as a confrontational resident who may have important knowledge of the crime in that racially hostile town.

The operatic singing voices of Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge were dubbed in Porgy and Bess. He was dubbed by Robert McFerrin, opera star father Bobby "Don't Worry, Be Happy" McFerrin.  Sidney was also dubbed when he sang "Amen" in Lilies of the Field.  In that film, his singing was dubbed by the man who also wrote the song, "Amen" -- Jester Hairston.  Hairston later played the black butler who sees his white boss get slapped in the Oscar-winning In The Heat Of The Night.

Director Norman Jewison and his actors were on their A-game for In The Heat Of The Night.  Poitier, Steiger, Lee Grant, Beah Richards and Scott Wilson are terrific in their roles.  Wilson's other excellent 1967 release was In Cold Blood with Robert Blake.  He played one of the killers in the film adaptation of Truman Capote's masterpiece.  In The Heat Of The Night features Scott Wilson as Harvey.  TV audiences today know Wilson as Herschel on The Walking Dead.

See In The Heat Of The Night.  It still holds up.  Thank you, Mr. Poitier.






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