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In excerpts from an interview, actress and Oscar-winning filmmaker Lee Grant reflects on the legacy of Sidney Poitier, her In the Heat of the Night (1967) co-star, who died this week at age 94. Grant also directed an American Masters documentary on Poitier in 2000.
Sidney was ahead of everybody. He broke the mold as an actor and as a Black actor.
Since he was from the islands, he had no sense of his not being equal. He had an urgency, a life urgency — going from the islands to Florida, where they told him to go to the back of the house — to fly. And so all the rules that said that Black actors play porters and have to be funny, he just had no sense of that.
He flew past all of those things that said: You can’t play leads, you can’t be romantic, you can’t be wanted by white women. You can’t be this. You can’t be that. Because they weren’t real to him. So since it wasn’t real to him, all the rules were broken. But he didn’t know that they were rules to be broken.
He had such a sense of power within himself, and humor. Because he came over to the States when he was a kid, he was grounded in his own freedom. He was himself. He was urgent and he was brilliant and he was gorgeous. We shall not see his like again.
In the Heat of the Night was my first movie coming back from the blacklist. The film broke all the rules of color. I felt I was part of something important.
Norman Jewison continued to make important films, and I think that was one of the most important. It was a seminal experience. Sidney and I improvised that scene that we had. It was one of those great experiences working with a guy who had that kind of empathy. His energy and his empathy and his concentration just filled the room. He could be intense in the scene, and then when it was over … everything was delicious.
What an experience to be with him and work with him. And don’t forget, he changed the whole way that film sees Black actors and actresses. He was the one because he didn’t know it. He had never known prejudice on the island. “So, of course, I can do it,” was the thinking.
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