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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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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