In fact, there was only one of them.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Sidney Poitier pretty much cornered the market, having inherited it from Harry Belafonte. But Belafonte never achieved the fame or runaway success that the Bahamas-born Poitier enjoyed.
Poitier got some notice in the 1951 film version of Cry the Beloved Country, set in South Africa. His appearance as a juvenile delinquent in Blackboard Jungle gained attention. He appeared on several live TV dramas and in 1957 starred opposite John Cassavetes in Edge of the City, a drama about racial tension among New York longshoremen.
His most important film of the ‘50s, though, was The Defiant Ones. Poitier and Tony Curtis played Southern prison inmates chained together at the wrist who must overcome their mutual distrust if they are to execute an escape. The popular drama earned Poitier his first Oscar nomination for lead actor.
And then along came Lilies of the Field, a low-budget, low-keyed project about an African American drifter who helps a group of European nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert.
Director Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Father Goose, Duel at Diablo, Charly) had cut his teeth on television in the ‘50s but wanted to make feature films with big humanistic themes. He knew he had found one in William Barrett’s novel. He pitched the idea to United Artists.
The studio had no faith in the project, offering Nelson a meager budget of $250,000 for the entire production. Rather than walking away, Nelson accepted it.
Problem was, he wanted Poitier for the leading role, but Poitier was already making $150,000 a film. And in Hollywood it’s never a good idea to devalue your worth by accepting a job that pays peanuts.
Poitier’s agent, Martin Baum, came up with a solution: the actor would take $25,000 up front with a guarantee of 10 percent of the profits. This was a deal that would strike the rest of Hollywood not as a sellout but as daring and adventurous . And in fact, the box office success of Lilies meant that Poitier walked away with a big paycheck.
Nelson insisted on rehearsing with his cast for two weeks before going to the Arizona location. This preparation allowed him to shoot the entire movie in only 14 days.
For his work Poitier was again nominated for the Academy Award in the lead actor category (his costar, Lila Skala, who played the head nun, was nominated as supporting actress and the film was nominated for best picture).
In his memoir This Life Poitier recalled that: “I didn’t pay that much mind, over and above the thought that such a nomination could be good for my career. I was very aware that I was in a field with four other nominees whose performances in their respective pictures made each of them an almost unbeatable competitor.”
In fact, Poitier considered not attending the Oscar ceremony but concluded he should because “it would be good for black people to see themselves competing for the top honor, especially since we as a people had not been that close to an Academy Award for some time.”
He also thought being visible was a good career movie. “Winning was the least of my expectations – entirely out of the question.”
So sure was Poitier that he didn’t have a chance that he never gave any thought to an acceptance speech. But in the middle of the ceremony he had a small panic attack.
“What if some miracle’s about to take place? What would I say if I ever got up there? If this was the night for a longshot dark horse, I was not going to get up there and look dumb. The first thing they were going to say was ‘Here comes the first black actor to win the Academy Award and he can’t even say nothing. Dumb. Dumb.’”
All Poitier had time to come up with was an opening phrase: “It has been a long journey to this moment ...”
And that’s how he began his acceptance speech when, against all the odds, he became the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor. As it turned out, his turn of phrase was just about perfect – a symbolic, lyrical, and illuminating line that referred not only to Poitier’s own journey but to that of African Americans in general.
Despite his historic win, Poitier soon found himself in the crosshairs of a national controversy over race and Hollywood. The actor had been cast mostly as “safe” characters – decent, hard-working black men. But by the early 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was forcing some big changes in American society.
Poitier was attacked for playing non-threatening “good” Negroes who worked with whites rather than standing up for their rights. He was accused of being an “Uncle Tom” and “a Negro in white face.”
In fact, had Poitier demanded to play more self-assertive, even radical characters, those films never would have been made.
A turning point came in 1967 with In the Heat of the Night, in which Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a Northern police detective who is lassoed into helping a redneck Southern cop (Rod Steiger, who won the Oscar that year) solve a murder.
The movie presented Poitier’s character as calm, collected, and the smartest guy on the screen. A scene in which he defies an old-school cotton-growing plantation owner became a classic.
Poitier went on to play Virgil Tibbs in two more films. Throughout the ‘70s he starred in pictures that openly embraced the new black culture, among them Buck and the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action.
In recent years he has found new fame as an author with This Life, The Measure of a Man, and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.