'In the Heat of the Night' at 50: Why Sidney Poitier Wouldn't Go South of the Mason-Dixon Line (Guest Column)
Ahead of the film's opening night screening at the TCM Classic Film Festival, director Norman Jewison recalls "pleading" with his star to head south to shoot and talks about the movie's fresh relevance in today's political climate.
Norman Jewison was a young Canadian filmmaker who had made the transition from TV when producer Walter Mirisch sent him a script. Written by Stirling Silliphant, it was a low-budget drama set in the South — an adaptation of a 1965 novel by John Ball — about a black police detective who gets caught up in a murder investigation. Jewison liked it immediately, but he put Silliphant through six months of rewrites to create what would became 1967's In the Heat of the Night. The film won five Oscars, including best picture, adapted screenplay and lead actor for Rod Steiger, who played the racist Sheriff Gillespie opposite Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs. Jewison, 90, recalls the making of the film ahead of its 50th anniversary screening, set to open the TCM Classic Film Festival on April 6.
The script came to me in the mid-1960s from the Mirisch Corporation. Before that, I had done The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming for United Artists, and the Mirisch Corp. was kind of a middleman to UA. I wanted to make films that had some sort of impact on the society in which I lived. And that’s why I’d talked them into allowing me to make Russians Are Coming, which was a very difficult film to get made. They were pleased with how [Russians] played and the job I did: I made a political film, but I made it commercial. They felt this was kind of the same thing.
[In the original novel, Virgil Tibbs was a cop from Pasadena.] Stirling and I felt very strongly that Virgil should be from Philadelphia and that he was going down to visit his mother in Mississippi. The first time we see him, he's sitting in a railway station, and all we hear is, "On your feet, boy," which I thought was a great first line.
Stirling gave an interview once where he said I told him the screenplay was the best thing I had read in a long time. And then six months later [he was still rewriting] after we went through every scene. I liked his screenplay much better than the book, because it was more believable, and believability is everything in movies. You have to make your film believable. We were both, I think, in the same place politically. We agreed on certain things in the screenplay that had to be there.
There weren't that many black actors [for the Tibbs role]. The only other one that was close was Harry Belafonte, and I would've gone to him, but Sidney Poitier had done Lilies of the Field  for Mirisch. I met with Sidney and he was so intelligent that I thought he would be brilliant.
In that first meeting, we talked about his wife, where he was from — I was from Canada, he was from the Bahamas — and he told me about his family and about his work with the theater in New York. And then we talked about the importance of the project, that it was important for him to wear a $1,500 suit and tie and be different from the other African-American people that Sheriff Gillespie would see, because he was going to stand out. I wanted him to stand out in that community; [his character] had a lot of pride, a lot of confidence, and very little experience with being a second-class citizen, because he wasn't.
I said, "One of the funniest lines in the picture is going to be, 'What do they call you up there in Philadelphia, Virgil?' And he says, 'They call me Mr. Tibbs.'"
They wanted me to use George C. Scott [as Gillespie], another actor who was very powerful, but I held out for Rod Steiger. I knew Rod was a Method actor. I felt it would help, to tell you the truth, because Steiger looked like a redneck sheriff.
I was always putting weight on Rod. They had a wonderful pecan pie we used to eat in Illinois on the set. And I was always saying, "Have another piece of pie." I wanted his belly to hang over his belt. I was trying to make him look more like my image of a Southern sheriff. And he did. Also, he could improvise, and because he was a Method actor, he was always in character, deeply in character. When he wasn't shooting, he always wore his police cap and police boots.
At first, Sidney was a little nervous around him, because when Rod got angry or irritated as part of his character, he really all of a sudden — wow. Sidney came to me and said, "Do you think he's over the top?" And I said, "Don't worry about Rod. I'll handle Rod. You just stand up to him, and if he hollers at you, you holler back. You've got to just stay in character. You're a very strong personality: You know more than he does, you're smarter than he is, you know? This guy's a small-town guy, and you have to understand where they're all coming from. So don't worry."
I’ll never forget, it was raining like hell one night when we had a scene between the two of them, supposedly inside this house where the police chief lived. It was a really interesting scene between two guys who were both professional policemen, one black and one white. And it was raining so hard that the sound people said, “This house has got a tin roof, and we’ve got to wait until it stops raining.” So I said, “We’ll light the set, and then wait for the rain to die down a little bit, and you tell me when we can record.” And then I took the two of them [Steiger and Poitier] out into a car, and there were just the three of us and my script supervisor, Meta Rebner.
It was well known that she‘d been Faulkner’s mistress at one point. She was my personal accent coach; if someone’s Southern accent didn’t match, she would pick up on it. She would correct Steiger, which he didn’t like too much. I remember her saying, “In the South, Mr. Steiger, we always pronounce our T’s. She was always bugging Rod on his accent. So the two of them started on the scene, and I don’t know who started to improvise, but as they did, Meta wrote down what they said [and didn’t complain].
I remember it ended up being a very powerful scene, and we rehearsed it over and over again in the car, then did it very quickly when it stopped raining.
I liked Steiger and I got along with him very well because I could give him directions. He trusted me and I trusted him.
Sidney realized that he was working with someone who was a very talented actor, but before we shot he had a problem [with shooting in the South].
Early on, Sidney also had asked, "Where are you going to shoot this picture?" And I said, "Well, I've got scenes in cotton-picking fields, I've got scenes that are located in the southern United States. All my films, I try to make them believable, and the first thing I have to do is find a believable location." And he said, "Well, I'm not going south of the Mason-Dixon line." And he said it with such emphasis that I realized it was very important to him. I said, "Why is that?" And he says, "I had an unsettling experience with Harry Belafonte in Georgia, where our car was chased and we were threatened, and I don't want to go down there." So I said, "I'll do my best to stay north of the Mason-Dixon line. What can I say? I want you to do the picture."
I didn't want to make it a deal-breaker, so I started location-hunting, and I went to southern Illinois, and there's a place where it dips down and it's on the Mississippi River just across the state line from Missouri, a place called Sparta. I can remember my production designer saying, "Jesus, look at these water towers! They've got 'Sparta' written all over them. It's got the Sparta Farm Machine Co. Boy, it's gonna be a job to try and paint all of these over [with the name of the town in the book]." And I said, "We'll just make it Sparta, Mississippi. And that solves that problem." So that's what we did. And we used that town as our main set piece.
After we'd been shooting for two or three weeks, I said to Sidney, "I've got to ask you a personal favor. I cannot find a cotton plantation north of the Mason-Dixon line, but I found a location in Dyersburg, Tennessee. And I've got everything there: I've got the cotton plantation, I've got the Southern ranch that Endicott [one of the characters, played by Larry Gates] lives in, and if we isolate the two scenes that we need, I can shoot in a couple of days. So I'm asking you, if you wouldn't mind, if we can move the location to the South, just for two days, just for the weekend."
I remember pleading with him, and Sidney said, "I understand, I understand." He realized we were up against the gun and the picture was going well. I said, "Don’t worry. We'll protect you. You're not going to be out there alone with a lot of protestors." I tried to explain that he would be surrounded by a very loyal crew — and we had some big guys on that crew. So he agreed to go south, and we went for two days. We were forced to stay in the Holiday Inn because it was the only place that accepted African-American people; the main hotel in Dyersburg was a real Southern hotel and it was whites only. You've got to remember, we were shooting in 1966, so things were a little uptight. Martin Luther King Jr. had just done the march on Selma. The country was in the midst of a racial revolution, if you could call it that. There were marches; there was a lot of friction between the races; and most of it was in the South. That was the state of the union, and so we knew this was a very controversial film. And I had no idea how it was going to be received.
After the shoot, I was in Sun Valley, Idaho, skiing with my family, and my kid broke his leg, and Bobby Kennedy's kid broke his leg. And the two of us ended up sitting in this very tiny hospital. In two minutes, I told the story [of In the Heat of the Night] to Kennedy. And he was fascinated. He said, "This could be a very important film, Norman. Timing is everything, in politics and in art and in life itself." After the film came out, it won a New York Film Critics Circle Award. And who's giving out the award but Robert Kennedy. As I walked up to get the plaque, he said, "See? I told you, the timing was right." He remembered the conversation, he remembered who I was, everything. He was remarkable.
The night of the Oscars, I loved it when Rod won. That was when my hopes went up. I thought, "Oh my God, we could win." I just had that feeling. But I didn’t [count on it]. I was a realist. I've always been a realist in Hollywood, because I'm not from Hollywood. I've always felt like, "Well, they like me or they admire my work, but they know I don’t really belong here." But I really, really felt that when Rod got it, we were going to get it.
We won the best picture Oscar, but I didn't win best director. I must say I was disappointed. I can't believe it's been 50 years. It's amazing how people are telling me, "You know, that film plays today just as well as it did then." But I say, "That's sad. To still have that kind of racial confrontation in America, that's sad."
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A version of this story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.