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Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon

Wassim M. Haddad
VijaySekhar Chellaboina
Sergey G. Nersesov
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  • Book Info
    Sidney Poitier
    Book Description:

    In the first full biography of actor Sidney Poitier, Aram Goudsouzian analyzes the life and career of a Hollywood legend, from his childhood in the Bahamas to his 2002 Oscar for lifetime achievement. Poitier is a gifted actor, a great American success story, an intriguing personality, and a political symbol; his life and career illuminate America's racial history.In such films asLilies of the Field,In the Heat of the Night, andGuess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poitier's middle-class, mannered, virtuous screen persona contradicted prevailing film stereotypes of blacks as half-wits, comic servants, or oversexed threats. His screen image and public support of nonviolent integration assuaged the fears of a broad political center, and by 1968, Poitier was voted America's favorite movie star.Through careful readings of every Poitier film, Goudsouzian shows that Poitier's characters often made sacrifices for the good of whites and rarely displayed sexuality. As the only black leading man during the civil rights era, Poitier chose roles and public positions that negotiated the struggle for dignity. By 1970, times had changed and Poitier was the target of a backlash from film critics and black radicals, as the new heroes of "blaxploitation" movies reversed the Poitier model.In the 1970s, Poitier shifted his considerable talents toward directing, starring in, and producing popular movies that employed many African Americans, both on and off screen. After a long hiatus, he returned to starring roles in the late 1980s. More recently, the film industry has reappraised his career, and Poitier has received numerous honors recognizing his multi-faceted work for black equality in Hollywood. As this biography affirms, Poitier remains one of American popular culture's foremost symbols of the possibilities for and limits of racial equality.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0360-5
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-4)

    If Sidney Poitier had an acting trademark, it was the cool boil. In the movies, when injustice drove him to the brink, he became a pot of outrage on the verge of bubbling over. His eyes would blaze. His mahogany skin would tighten. His words would gush out in spasms of angry eloquence, carefully measured by grim, simmering pauses.

    But the powder keg never exploded. Itcould notexplode. For over a decade, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Poitier was Hollywood’s lone icon of racial enlightenment; no other black actor consistently won leading roles in major motion...


    • CHAPTER 1 PATCHES (1927–1943)
      (pp. 7-24)

      Sidney Poitier would stand tall, six feet and two inches. He would have broad shoulders, long legs, and perfect posture—almost a regal bearing.

      He would exude grace in every movement, emotion in every expression, conviction in every word. If only one quality could define him, it would be this energy, this vigor—thislife. But in Miami, Florida, on 20 February 1927, he was born small and sickly. A premature baby of seven months, he weighed less than three pounds, and he seemed closer to death than life.

      Reginald Poitier accepted that fate. The gaunt farmer had come to...

    • CHAPTER 2 GREAT MIGRATIONS (1943–1945)
      (pp. 25-42)

      Sidney retched himself to sleep that night. The ship’s hole stank of sickly sweet motor oil, and his stomach churned with nausea. Finally morning arrived and he climbed above deck into sunshine and fresh air. As the ship coasted into Miami’s harbor, he marveled at handsome buildings towering over steamships and sailboats. He recognized Cyril at the dock. Passing through customs and riding to his new home, he grew excited. Miami bore hope, the promise of education and opportunity and thrills.¹

      Had Sidney actually foreseen the next few months, he might have retreated into the ship’s hole and retched his...

    • CHAPTER 3 STAGES (1945–1949)
      (pp. 43-60)

      In appearance alone, Frederick O’Neal was intimidating. The generous cut of his suits accentuated his mountainous build, and his goatee punctuated a withering glare custom-tailored to pulverize the egos of cocksure eighteen-year-olds. To the black acting fraternity, O’Neal was doubly intimidating. Organizer of the Ira Aldridge Players in St. Louis, actor in the New Theatre School and the Rose McClendon Players in New York City, and co-founder of the American Negro Theatre, O’Neal stood atop the small world of black theater. His reputation extended downtown. In the spring of 1945, O’Neal won Broadway’s Clarence Derwent Award for his performance in...


    • CHAPTER 4 MESSAGE MOVIES (1949–1952)
      (pp. 63-83)

      ‘‘I been doing awful,’’ moaned Stepin Fetchit. In February 1945, he turned to John Ford, director of four Fetchit movies and then a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Calling his situation a ‘‘Home Front emergency,’’ Fetchit begged for a shred of screen time. He stroked the ego of the notoriously paternalistic Ford by delighting in ‘‘the lavish news that I was the recipient of a phone call from a Commander in the United States Navy and a Lieutenant Commander Star of Screen and Democracy.’’ The flattery worked. The next year Ford pitched a revival of Fetchit’s career to Twentieth Century-Fox...

    • CHAPTER 5 BLACK LISTS (1951–1954)
      (pp. 84-102)

      If Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball in 1947 foreshadowed Poitier’s emergence inNo Way Out, then Robinson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in July 1949 portended Poitier’s subsequent dilemma.

      At issue was a statement by Paul Robeson, the black star of song and stage. The large, handsome, All-American football player and Columbia Law School graduate had achieved celebrity for his deep bass singing voice and considerable acting skill. The star of the 1943 Broadway production ofOthellohad also acted in films, includingThe Emperor Jones(1933) andSanders of the River(1935), but he...

    • CHAPTER 6 THREATS (1955–1957)
      (pp. 103-122)

      Holding court in a dingy trade school bathroom, he presides over a band of incorrigibles. A cigarette dangles from his mouth. A white T-shirt, its sleeves rolled up to expose his sinewy muscles, offsets his smooth mahogany skin. He moves with an almost feline grace, and he exudes a selfassured calm. Only his eyes reveal an inner fire. He is Gregory Miller, Poitier’s character inBlackboard Jungle. In his first scene, he dominates the screen. Like ‘‘Rock Around the Clock,’’ the Bill Haley beat that rolls with the film’s credits, he embodies a generation of Americans less bound by behavioral,...

    • CHAPTER 7 NOBLE SAVAGES (1956–1957)
      (pp. 123-142)

      ‘‘Negro Actors Get Pix Breaks,’’ announcedVarietyin May 1956. No longer confined to playing maids, porters, singers, or dancers, black actors now had small but important parts in a few pictures. But progress was slow. Although black urbanites thirsted for more roles like Poitier’s turn inBlackboard Jungle, the major studios still had to consider the substantial southern market. ‘‘In the question of Negro casting,’’ the trade journal summarized, ‘‘Hollywood is somewhat caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.’’¹

      At the time, Poitier was shootingEdge of the City, a picture that illustrated this dilemma. The film...


    • CHAPTER 8 DECISIONS (1957–1959)
      (pp. 145-166)

      Late 1957 was Poitier’s calm before the storm: soft breezes, sandy beaches, and magnificent views. He had signed a generous contract to appear inVirgin Island, a picture produced by the British company Countryman Films. He lived in a small hotel on Guana Island, an eleven-acre stretch of paradise near St. Thomas. The cast included friends John Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, and Julian Mayfield. He had a fun, light role as a zesty West Indian. Pressures were few, telephones nonexistent. And each morning, as a motorboat ferried the cast to location, the amply endowed British actress Virginia Maskell removed her top...

    • CHAPTER 9 BURDENS (1959–1961)
      (pp. 167-188)

      When Poitier returned home from California, his wife was making breakfast. There and then, in the kitchen, before the children awoke, he told her that he loved Diahann Carroll. Juanita was shocked. Her world was crumbling. Her father had recently died, and now her husband loved another woman. She blamed Carroll. Sidney insisted that he deserved the blame, and she sobbed. As the children stirred, Juanita reined in her tears, and they postponed their discussion until that night.¹

      They resolved nothing that morning, nothing that night, and very little in the days ahead. Poitier was torn. He loved Carroll, and...

    • CHAPTER 10 BLUES (1960–1962)
      (pp. 189-207)

      As Diahann Carroll arrived in Paris in early October 1960, she resolved to choose restraint over passion, logic over emotion, and responsibility over romance. She had given birth to an infant daughter and tried to repair her marriage. She had studied with the legendary Lee Strasberg of the Actors’ Studio, broadening her career and bolstering her selfconfidence. She had a dramatic, romantic lead inParis Blues, a rarity for a black woman. Despite her continued feelings for Poitier, she steeled herself. ‘‘Perhaps,’’ she thought, ‘‘we could just do the work and leave each other alone.’’¹

      Carroll deliberately checked into a...

    • CHAPTER 11 LONG JOURNEYS (1963–1964)
      (pp. 208-228)

      In April 1963, Poitier went to Yugoslavia to filmThe Long Ships, a historical epic based on a Swedish novel. Neither Poitier nor co-star Richard Widmark were particularly enthused by the project. The actionadventure clash had a terrible script, and it lacked the political cache of Poitier’s better films. Poitier took the role while his career seemed stuck in a rut. In Belgrade, the mood was glum, the locals seemed hostile, and the weather was freezing. ‘‘I have been spending hours on the set dreaming about tropical climates and little shacks on pink beaches,’’ Poitier told theLos Angeles Times.¹...


    • CHAPTER 12 CROSSROADS (1965–1966)
      (pp. 231-252)

      After six years of hype, almost two years after Poitier filmed his cameo,The Greatest Story Ever Toldpremiered in February 1965. Despite the $20 million cost, including an expensive new single-lens Cinerama technique, producer-director George Stevens demanded a subdued advertising campaign based on the picture’s prestige. He won endorsements from major political figures; Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, Earl Warren, and Dean Rusk attended various exhibitions. Martin Luther King went to a special Los Angeles screening to raise money for the SCLC.¹

      For years Stevens had insisted on avoiding the elaborate staging and sexual innuendo of Cecil B....

    • CHAPTER 13 USEFUL NEGROES (1966–1967)
      (pp. 253-276)

      On a Caribbean sailing trip in 1967, Poitier’s relationship with Diahann Carroll arrived at its ignominious end. After their ugly spat the previous year, they had begun dating other people. Even so, they stayed close. When Poitier invited her to sail, Carroll accepted, hoping to sort out their feelings in quiet conversations. But two friends of Poitier joined them. Tension infected the vacation: Carroll burned at these unexpected companions, and Poitier glared when she made small talk. After dinner onshore, they fought in earnest. When he got into their bed that night, she got out. ‘‘I suppose sex had become...

    • CHAPTER 14 LAST HURRAHS (1967–1968)
      (pp. 277-296)

      They were Hollywood’s perfect pair, relics from the Golden Age. Through twenty-five years and eight films, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had refined a remarkable chemistry, one a yin to the other’s yang. Tracy: the rumpled Irish pug, the snowy-haired Everyman, the iron-willed champion of the human spirit. Hepburn: the blue-blood scion of a Connecticut doctor and a liberal activist, the regal product of Bryn Mawr and Old Money, the pants-wearing, tennis-playing emblem of female independence. Tracy was the grumpy hero, Hepburn his sovereign alter ego. On screen, they rarely touched, let alone kissed. But through jokes and arguments and...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. 297-312)

    • CHAPTER 15 EXILES (1967–1971)
      (pp. 315-336)

      As much as popular culture distorted the black male, it performed a greater disservice to the black female. Skin color confined her to two basic roles: dark-skinned women played domestics, and light-skinned women played exotic sex symbols. Suffering the double prejudice of race and gender, black actresses such as Ruby Dee and Diana Sands either played housewives or stayed off screen. For years, there was no female equivalent to the Sidney Poitier icon.¹

      In 1968, NBC launched the sitcomJulia. Ironically, it starred Diahann Carroll. She played a nurse, war-hero widow, and single parent. The show exposed Carroll to the...

    • CHAPTER 16 SURVIVORS (1972–1978)
      (pp. 337-357)

      When Poitier fell from Hollywood’s heights, he responded with a retreat to the Bahamas and a string of mediocre movies. Now he climbed back.

      That journey began when blaxploitation still reigned, when his future was still uncertain, and when he and his best friend still refused to acknowledge each other’s existence.

      Since their spat before Martin Luther King’s funeral in April 1968, Poitier and Harry Belafonte had completely avoided contact. Mutual friends had to avoid inviting them to the same functions. In time, their animosity drained away. ‘‘But we were two proud West Indians,’’ explained Poitier, and ‘‘stubborn pride is...

    • CHAPTER 17 GHOSTS (1978–2002)
      (pp. 358-380)

      “Everybody wants Sidney Poitier (and why not?),” announced theNew York Postin December 1978. That month Poitier signed a four-year deal with Columbia Pictures to write, direct, and/or act in movies and television programs. After his successful comedy trilogy, he owned a reputation for low-budget, high-grossing movies. Now Hollywood’s trade newspapers relayed potential Verdon-Cedric projects:China Blues, an adventure film about three Americans in China in the 1920s;Midtown Experience, a suspense movie starring three women;Timbuktu, an NBC miniseries adaptation of Eartha Kitt’s Broadway show;The Cabral Story, a revisitation of a scrapped project set in Africa;Christmas...

    (pp. 381-396)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 397-446)
    (pp. 447-466)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 467-480)