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Still in the Action

'I don't want to keep busy at filming,' the groundbreaking actor says of his plans for the future. 'I'd rather keep busy at living.'


Nearly 50 years ago, a young New York theater actor named Sidney Poitier arrived in Hollywood, where he would become the cinema's first black superstar--and a role model for generations of African American performers.

Making his film debut in 1950 in Joseph Mankiewicz's powerful racial drama "No Way Out," Poitier paved the way for other black actors in film in the '50s with his memorable performances in "The Blackboard Jungle," "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "Something of Value."

He received an Oscar nomination for best actor for "The Defiant Ones" in 1958. Five years later, Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor for his warm portrayal of a handyman who helps a group of nuns build a church in "Lilies of the Field." He is still the only African American to have won a best actor Oscar.

Six years ago, he became the only black actor to be the recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

Next week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pays tribute to Poitier, 71, with two special evenings at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

On Thursday, the academy will present a salute to the trailblazing actor. The evening will feature clips from his films and special guests, including Diahann Carroll, Richard Benjamin, Norman Jewison, Phil Alden Robinson, James Earl Jones and Richard Roundtree, who will share stories of working with Poitier, who will be present for the event.

Poitier will also appear the next night for a screening of a newly restored print of the 1967 Oscar winner "In the Heat of the Night," in which he played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs. A reunion of the cast and crew, including director Jewison, will follow.

Born in Miami, Poitier was raised in the Bahamas and dropped out of school at 13. After working in a variety of menial jobs and serving in the Army, he began his acting career with the American Negro Theater in New York.

He became one of the biggest box-office stars of the '60s, thanks to such hits as "The Bedford Incident," "A Raisin in the Sun," "A Patch of Blue" and "Duel at Diablo."

In 1967, he starred in three of the year's most popular films: "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "To Sir, With Love."

Poitier made his first foray into directing with the 1972 western "Buck and the Preacher" and subsequently directed the box-office hits "Uptown Saturday Night," "A Piece of the Action" and "Stir Crazy."

He has kept busy in front of the camera during the '90s, starring in the TV miniseries "Separate but Equal" and "Children of the Dust," and the Showtime presentation "Mandela and De Klerk." His most recent features include "Sneakers" and "The Jackal."

Poitier recently discussed the academy's tribute and his long career over breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.


Question: What was Hollywood like when you arrived at 20th Century Fox to make "No Way Out"? Was it difficult being one of a handful of African American actors working in films?

Answer: It wasn't difficult at all. It was stimulating. It was interesting. It was new to me.


Q: Fox also seemed to be producing more socially conscious films like "Gentleman's Agreement," "Pinky" and "No Way Out."

A: I think that Fox seemed to be innovative because there were some interesting guys at Fox. Joe Mankiewicz was at Fox and [studio chief] Darryl Zanuck was at Fox. If it wasn't for Joe Mankiewicz and Darryl Zanuck, those pictures wouldn't have been made. So I think something should be said about the people who were at the various studios, who had a need to make the statement that they made with those films. They were speaking of something that they thought comment should be made on.

The race question was a very, very intense question. You know the pictures that were made by the men who made them were terribly personal comments by all of them, and there was a risk attached in them deciding to do what they did.


Q: Did you feel while you were making "No Way Out" that it was going to be a groundbreaker?

A: You never really know that. I didn't think it [the subject matter] was that particularly special. If I was a white person looking at the African American experience, I might have thought it a groundbreaking experience. But for me, the contents of the film, I was familiar with it in my own life.


Q: Wasn't the film banned in certain areas of the country, especially the South?

A: I think there were some areas where it was not [seen]. That was the pattern in the country. Clearly, the America of those days is somewhat different than the America of today.


Q: I've read that when you made Richard Brooks' 1955 classic "The Blackboard Jungle" at MGM, you and the shoeshine man were the only African Americans on the lot.

A: The set of the film was not that unusual from life, do you follow? That was a situation that was typical in America and almost everywhere I went.


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