Man, Actor, Icon
Publication Year: 2004
Published by: The University of North Carolina Press
Title Page, Copyright
This book began when I was a student in the Department of History at Purdue University, under the direction of Randy Roberts. He taught me his approach to writing history, and his guidance shaped every stage of this project. I could not have asked for a more supportive, perceptive mentor. ...
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. ...
PART I: POVERTY AND PROGRESS
1 Patches (1927–1943)
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—this life. But in Miami, Florida, on 20 February ...
2 Great Migrations (1943–1945)
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. ...
3 Stages (1945–1949)
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 ...
PART II: RACE MAN
4 Message Movies (1949–1952)
‘‘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 ...
5 Black Lists (1951–1954)
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 of Othello had also acted in films, including The Emperor Jones (1933) and Sanders of the River (1935), but he abandoned that medium ...
6 Threats (1955–1957)
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, ...
7 Noble Savages (1956–1957)
‘‘Negro Actors Get Pix Breaks,’’ announced Variety in 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 in Blackboard Jungle, the major studios still had to consider the substantial southern market. ...
PART III: BLACK MAN’S BURDEN
8 Decisions (1957–1959)
Late 1957 was Poitier’s calm before the storm: soft breezes, sandy beaches, and magnificent views. He had signed a generous contract to appear in Virgin 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, ...
9 Burdens (1959–1961)
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 ...
10 Blues (1960–1962)
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 self-confidence. ...
11 Long Journeys (1963–1964)
In April 1963, Poitier went to Yugoslavia to film The 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 ...
PART IV: ALONE IN THE PENTHOUSE
12 Crossroads (1965–1966)
After six years of hype, almost two years after Poitier filmed his cameo, The Greatest Story Ever Told premiered 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 ...
13 Useful Negroes (1966–1967)
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. ...
14 Last Hurrahs (1967–1968)
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 ...
PART V: THROUGH PLAYING GOD
15 Exiles (1967–1971)
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 ...
16 Survivors (1972–1978)
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. ...
17 Ghosts (1978–2002)
‘‘Everybody wants Sidney Poitier (and why not?),’’ announced the New York Post in 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: ...
Appendix: Performances by Sidney Poitier
Page Count: 496
Illustrations: 20 illus.
Publication Year: 2004
OCLC Number: 62149292
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