by Tim Gordon (this story initially appeared on July 25, 2012)
50 years, Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier reached his creative apex with the release of THREE critically-acclaimed classics in what is widely regarded as the greatest single year any Black actor has enjoyed!
Poitier, who became Hollywood’s first Black leading man in 1950, distinguished himself early in career with films such as Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and The Defiant Ones. As the decade of the 1950s came to a close and armed with rising momentum, Poitier seemed poised to historically breakthrough onto Hollywood’s elite.
Two films in 1961 gave audiences a glimpse of his immense talent. Poitier starred opposite Paul Newman, Joanne Woodard and Diahann Carroll in the French musical drama, Paris Blues; but his next role would open everyone’s eyes. He was absolutely riveting as a man with larger aspirations, whose bad judgment loses his family a sizable amount in Lorraine Hansberry’s drama, A Raisin in the Sun.
Playing handyman, Homer Smith, Poitier’s tender, determined performance won him the coveted Best Actor Academy Award in Lillies of the Field, shattering Hollywood’s glass ceiling and making him the first Black actor to claim the distinguished honor. He followed with another strong performance in 1965 in the interracial drama, A Patch of Blue.
Poitier’s historic year began with another school drama, To Sir, With Love, released in June. Flipping the script from student to teacher since his earlier turn in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier starred as Mark Thackeray who is literally thrown in the midst of a group of rowdy of London students from East End. Much like Glenn Ford in Poitier’s earlier film, the determined Thackeray slowly wins them over and by the conclusion, he has impacted their lives forever.
Largely credited for introducing the wave of “inspirational” teacher dramas, the film was also a huge financial success. Made on a budget of less than a million dollars, the film grossed $42 million at the box office, placing it in the Top Ten for the year. Poitier also received glowing reviews for his transparent and real portrayal of an anguished educator.
Still riding the wave of his earlier success, Poitier’s next film, In the Heat of the Night, became a cultural phenomenon. Released in August, Poitier starred as Detective Virgil Tibbs who helps police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve a murder case in a small racist Mississippi town. The proverbial fish-out-of-water tale finds the intelligent Northern lawman keeping his rage in check in order to display once again that both Black and White can co-exist and work together.
The film mirrored Poitier’s early chain-gang drama, The Defiant Ones, with both Steiger and he joined together, needing each another to bring a killer to justice. The film also included a famous scene where an agitated Southern murder suspect strikes Poitier, who in the blink of eye immediately smacks the startled Southern bigot back. The first time an African-American character stood up to a White character in that way on film, the scene almost never happened.
In the original draft of the script, Poitier’s character’s reaction was not in the story. Troubled that the scene was not reflected in his upbringing, and not wanting to disappoint his father, Poitier insisted that the slap is added to the story, which the producers acquiesced. Poitier’s take on the story was later disputed by author Mark Harris in his book, Pictures of A Revolution.
In addition, the film spawned the classic line, “they call me MR. TIBBS.” In the Heat of the Night received seven Academy Awards nominations, winning five, including Best Picture as well as Poitier’s co-star, Steiger also taking home Best Actor honors.
His third film of the year, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, found Poitier acting opposite two of Hollywood’s screen royalty in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. With six Oscars between them (four for Hepburn and two for Tracy), Poitier was in awe of his acclaimed co-stars. The story of a young White woman, Joanna (Hepburn’s niece, Katherine Houghton) who has a whirlwind romance with a Black physician, John Prentice (Poitier) and gives their parents an ultimatum that they either accept their union or they would go their separate ways.
Written to eliminate any objections other than his race, Poitier plays a ultra-qualified, super safe, homogenized Negro that won him mainstream raves but created waves of discontent among younger Black audiences who thought the Oscar-winning actor was too much of a role model for the establishment.
The presence of both Tracy and Hepburn on the set had such an effect on Poitier that he couldn’t deliver his lines to the two screen legends. They were sent home and he would perform his lines to two empty high-back chairs with Hepburn and Tracy’s lines being read by the dialogue coach.
Tracy was gravely ill during the filming, resulting in the cast working from two scripts, one with the actor and the other without him. He would die 17 days after filming was completed, resulting in a pain so great that Hepburn never saw the finished film saying that memories of Tracy made it too painful.
The film was also a huge success but was a double-edged sword for Poitier. Audiences throughout the country enjoyed the film, resulting in a key shift on how movies with Black performers was marketed. Many critics, while praising Poitier’s performance, were also put off by his saintly-perfect performance, with many saying that his character was “‘too white’ to not be accepted by the Draytons.
After almost two decades of playing saintly, homogenized characters, Poitier made a series of films in an attempt to alter his image and connect with his target audience. Subsequent films included a romantic comedy, For Love of Ivy, a turn as a radical militant in The Lost Man, two sequels to In the Heat of the Night (They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and The Organization) and a turn of as an angelic presence in Brother John.
While each film were modest successes, none reached the pinnacle of 1967, when Poitier released three memorable blockbusters in six months making him the year’s Top Box Office Star. It would take 37 years for a Black actor to duplicate Poitier’s feat when Jamie Foxx received an Oscar, an Emmy for three hit films, Ray, Collateral, and Redemption: The Stan “Tookie” Williams Story in 2004.
In a career spanning five decades, Poitier released 54 films, directed nine, produced three and wrote one, winning one Oscar (and an honorary Oscar in 2001). His greatest contribution was serving as an inspiration for his people and his position as a role model and trailblazer for an entire generation of minority actors, all emboldened by his example that helped change the game in Hollywood. All Black and minority actors owe Poitier a debt that they can NEVER repay!!!