When Norman Jewison got here throughout an early draft of the script for Within the Warmth of the Night time, the then-39-year-old Canadian director acknowledged that this adaptation of John Ball’s novel — a couple of Black cop caught in the midst of a homicide thriller within the Deep South — had the potential to be one thing highly effective and distinctive. A minimum of Bobby Kennedy had instructed the filmmaker that “timing is the whole lot in artwork, in life, in politics… and the time to make that film is correct now.” After lobbying onerous for the job, Jewison was in a position to persuade the producers that he was the best man for the job. He wished to make an announcement. Jewison additionally wished to work with the star who was already hooked up to the undertaking: Sidney Poitier.
The outcome ended up successful 5 Oscars, together with Finest Image, and cemented a lifelong friendship between the director and his star; it’s arguably Poitier’s best-known film to today. Jewison received on the telephone to share his recollections of Poitier, who handed away on the age of 94, clarify why the star and the position had been an ideal match, and discuss why this “isn’t just a tragic day for the films, or for me, however for everyone.” This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.
“Sidney was actually the connective tissue to Black-white relationships on the American display screen within the Nineteen Sixties. He was a star. Not solely in Hollywood — he was a star all over the world. Perhaps as a result of he was so good-looking? I can’t say. [Laughs.] However I do know he was maybe essentially the most clever actor I ever labored with. Rod Steiger [Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night costar] was a Technique actor, and was completely totally different in his method to his half. Rod was all the time simply within the second, whereas Sidney was was actually a considerate, clever individual when it got here to what he did. He didn’t simply take into consideration his position; he recognized his half, again and again, in his thoughts. They had been so totally different of their method to appearing. However you would instantly inform that they had been each going to convey one thing out of the opposite. And it undoubtedly introduced one thing distinctive out of Sidney.”
“We’d speak daily, about his half, what scene we had been taking pictures, what was happening — I might discuss something with him. I’d wished to shoot within the South; the e-book takes place in Georgia and we’d moved the story to Mississippi for the film. However we needed to shoot it in a city in Illinois, known as Sparta, as a result of Sidney wouldn’t go south of the Mason-Dixon line. He and Harry Belafonte had been arrested in Mississippi the yr earlier than, once they’d gone down to assist register voters, and had been giving cash to a gaggle related to Stokely Carmichael. That they had been arrested and attacked by guys in pickup vehicles, so he refused to shoot down South. That was why we discovered that city in Illinois and simply known as it Sparta, Mississippi.”
“Later within the shoot, I wished to shoot some exteriors in precise Southern places, so we talked about going to Tennessee. ‘I’ll offer you 4 days, Norman,’ Sidney instructed me. So all of us went all the way down to this small city with one lodge…and it was ‘whites-only.’ So all of us, the solid and crew, ended up in a Vacation Inn a bit methods away, which allowed each Blacks and whites. And I’ll always remember, these pickup vehicles got here into the car parking zone in the midst of the evening, honking their horns and waking folks up. I received a bit nervous, so I known as my crew and instructed them, “Get the most important guys within the grip division and electrical division, get them over to Sidney’s room proper now, we have now to guard him.’ Then I known as Sidney’s room and I stated, ‘Don’t fear, Sidney, we are going to deal with the whole lot.’ He stated, ‘I’m not frightened. I’ve received a gun beneath my pillow. So the primary one in every of them comes by way of my door, I’m going to blow them away.’ Thank god nothing occurred, however this naive director from Canada all of a sudden understood the extent of American racism. I started to actually get simply how vicious issues had been.”
“When he says ‘They name me Mr. Tibbs!’ and the slap Virgil offers that white enterprise proprietor after he’s been slapped…these bits had been within the script, however it wasn’t till you noticed what Sidney did with these moments that you just actually understood the ability of them. With the previous, I feel that Sidney was frightened of Rod a bit bit, as a result of he may very well be so excessive. However when he noticed all of this anger coming at him, the way in which Rod asks him, ‘Effectively, what did they name you up in Philadelphia?!’…it simply turned one thing on in Sidney as an actor. The way in which during which he responds…I imply, it’s why he’s so good. Every thing is correct there within the approach he says it. He was good for the position. It was an ideal match for him at that second, too.”
“And that slap…it was the slap heard around the world! I simply learn this e-book by Will Smith, the place he talks about interviewing Nelson Mandela. And Mandela instructed him that when he was in jail, they’d present the prisoners films as soon as a month. In the future, they confirmed them Within the Warmth of the Night time and in the midst of the film, there’s this glitch…this actually tough edit. The South African jailers has edited out the slap. This made Mandela actually curious, apparently, and he stored looking for out what was lacking. And when he discovered that it was Sidney slapping the person again, he stated that impressed him to maintain going. It impressed him a lot. You hear these items, and also you notice the ability of the films. I actually hope Sidney received to listen to that story, as a result of he would have beloved it.”
“We made what turned out to be a revolutionary transfer collectively, and we grew to become actually shut due to that have, Sidney and I. Then after the Oscars, I went to Europe to go make Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Famous person and Sidney was turning into a beautiful director in his personal proper, so we didn’t see every for a bit. However we stayed associates through the years. The final time I noticed him, I had dinner with him and Joanna [Shimkus, his second wife]…We’d all the time remained near each of them. He wasn’t feeling that properly. However Quincy Jones got here by — he’d scored Within the Warmth of the Night time — so it changed into this type of celebration of the film. It was an ideal evening.”
“What can I say? I’m heartbroken he’s gone. We misplaced an excellent actor and I’ve misplaced a detailed good friend. However it’s not only a unhappy day for the films, or only a unhappy day for me…it’s a tragic day for everyone. I do assume that Sidney will go down as one of many greats in American cinema, nonetheless. And I hope that folks actually do proceed to acknowledge him as probably the greatest.”