Poitier's offscreen role was equally importantThat five black actors are in contention for the 79th Annual Academy Awards barely rated a mention when this year's nominations were announced. But the fact that significant numbers of black performers are now regularly winning the sort of roles deserving of awards attention is a relatively new development. (Filmmakers of color still are extremely rare in the Academy's other categories.)
If any one star paved the way, it was Sidney Poitier, America's first full-fledged black leading man, who broke ground when he earned the best actor Oscar in 1964 for "Lilies of the Field." His trailblazing example was hailed from the stage at the 2002 Academy Awards when Denzel Washington, the best actor for "Training Day," saluted Poitier, who was recognized that year with an honorary Academy Award.
Poitier is back in the spotlight because Oprah Winfrey has chosen his 2000 memoir, "The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography," as a Book Club selection. More than just a name-dropping account of a celebrated Hollywood career, Poitier's look back at his life is a reminder that even in a business that most often determines success solely by boxoffice returns, there are other values at play.
In Poitier's case, he was always keenly aware that the decisions he made about how he conducted himself onscreen and off carried weight.
Twice, near the beginning of his career, he was asked to sign loyalty oaths — first by a studio exec at MGM, where he was about to star in 1955's "Blackboard Jungle," and then by an NBC exec when he was cast in a "Philco Television Playhouse" production called "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall." Amid the red scare of the '50s, Poitier knew he wasn't being asked simply to demonstrate his own loyalty but also to disavow such politically active actors as Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, whom he revered.
Although it meant risking a career that was only just beginning, Poitier refused. "Blacklist or not, I swore I'd find jobs, or I'd work in a littler theater, I'd work in off-Broadway theater, I'd work in Harlem, I'd work as a porter or a janitor or wherever I could find jobs," he writes. He never knew whether "Blackboard" director Richard Brooks or "Man" producer David Susskind intervened on his behalf, but in the face of Poitier's resistance, the demands were dropped.
Poitier examined the roles he played onscreen with the same care. In the original script for "In the Heat of the Night" — in which he played Virgil Tibbs, a police detective investigating a murder in the Deep South — a scene called for the character of a local businessman to slap Tibbs in the face for asking, "Where were you on the night of the murder?" Tibbs was supposed to look at the man with disdain and walk out of the room.
But aware of the struggle that his fellow blacks faced in the mid-'60s, Poitier couldn't leave it at that. "This gentleman of the Old South is acting out of his tradition, where his honor demands that he whack me across the face," Poitier explained. But he suggested: "You want a moment, you want a really impressive moment on the screen? Shoot this scene so that without a nanosecond of hesitation, I whack him back across the face with a backhand slap."
Added Poitier, "It turned out to be a very, very dramatic moment."
"Heat" became a hit. It, along with his two other 1967 releases, "To Sir, With Love" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," dominated that year's boxoffice. Poitier proved that remaining true to his own values didn't preclude boxoffice success.