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Actor Sidney Poitier, who changed the face of Hollywood, dies at 94

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sidney Poitier has died at the age of 94. He appeared in groundbreaking films that include "A Raisin In The Sun" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." And as NPR's Bob Mondello explains, he changed the face of Hollywood and the views of America in the space of a single decade.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the 1950s, when race was rarely alluded to in white society, and Black performers were relegated to playing servants and musicians, this was remarkable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEFIANT ONES")

TONY CURTIS: (As John Jackson) What's eatin' you? Just because I called you a...

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) Yeah.

MONDELLO: Prison escapees Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier chained together in "The Defiant Ones."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEFIANT ONES")

CURTIS: (As John Jackson) I didn't make any rules.

POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) But you sure live by them.

CURTIS: (As John Jackson) Everybody lives by them. Everybody's stuck with what is. Even them swamp animals.

POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) Even that weasel.

CURTIS: (As John Jackson) You calling me a weasel?

POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) No, I'm calling you a white man.

MONDELLO: There weren't a lot of actors who could have said that line in 1958 and not have prompted walkouts by white filmgoers. But even so early in his career, Sidney Poitier brought a grace to his intensity that let him bridge gaps others couldn't. He had already played a principal doctor in "No Way Out" ministering to a racist who'd just shot him...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO WAY OUT")

POITIER: (As Dr. Luther Brooks) I can't kill a man just because he hates me.

MONDELLO: ...As well as a South African pastor in "Cry, The Beloved Country" and a rebellious but responsible student in "Blackboard Jungle." But "The Defiant Ones" marked the first time Poitier's name was above the title, the first time he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and the start of the most precedent-shattering decade any Hollywood actor had ever experienced, even though he took a year off from films in the middle of it to help make history on Broadway in "A Raisin In The Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) I want so many things that, sometimes, I think they're going to drive me crazy.

MONDELLO: Lorraine Hansberry's portrait of Black middle-class life led him right back to film a year later, as a young man who has a dream with which audiences of any race could identify.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) I'm 35 years old, and I ain't got nothing. I ain't going to be nothing, mama. Just look at me. Look at me.

CLAUDIA MCNEIL: (As Lena Younger) I'm looking at you, and you're a good-looking boy. You got a job, a fine wife, a son. Yes.

POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) A job? No, I open and close car doors all day. I drive a man around in his limousine. And I say yes, sir, and no, sir and, should I take the drive, sir? Mama, that ain't no kind of job. That is nothing at all.

MONDELLO: There was - it later became clear to white audiences - an arc to Poitier's first decade of stardom. "The Defiant Ones" had asserted that his Black convict was as deserving of sympathy as the white convict to whom he was chained. "A Raisin in the Sun" placed his young dreamer in a relatably to white suburban context. And his subsequent films kept moving the empathy bar higher. "Lilies Of The Field" placed his ex-GI in the company of white women in a way that got around the Hollywood production code strictures on Black-white relationships. The women are nuns who trade Bible verses with him...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LILIES OF THE FIELD")

POITIER: (As Homer Smith) For the laborer is worthy of his hire.

MONDELLO: ...Over his salary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LILIES OF THE FIELD")

POITIER: (As Homer Smith) Now, that's not exactly what I had in mind, but you get the idea.

MONDELLO: They figure he's been sent by God to help them build a chapel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LILIES OF THE FIELD")

POITIER: (As Homer Smith) Proverbs 1:4. Cast in thy lot amongst us, let us all have one purse - look, I am a poor man. I got to work for wages. Now, I can't work for...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Matthew, Chapter 6. Smith, read it in English.

POITIER: (As Homer Smith) Why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin. Yet I say unto you, not even Solomon, in all his glories, was arrayed as one of these.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Consider the lilies.

MONDELLO: Aware that some audience members were watching his performances and judging his entire race, Poitier chose roles carefully. He was the voice of sanity in the nuclear thriller "The Bedford Incident," the voice on a helpline calming Anne Bancroft in "The Slender Thread," the sympathetic voice in "A Patch Of Blue" that helped a blind girl escape her abusive family - a girl for whom the color of his skin was simply not visible.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A PATCH OF BLUE")

POITIER: (As Gordon Ralfe) Those beads seem to mean a lot in your life.

ELIZABETH HARTMAN: (As Selina D'Arcey) It's my work, and I promised to do double today.

POITIER: (As Gordon Ralfe) Tell you what, I could give you a hand for a couple of minutes if you want.

HARTMAN: (As Selina D'Arcey) I think you're a real nice person.

MONDELLO: Each film brought him closer to parity with the roles given to white stars of the era. And then in 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, he leapt past them all with three films so popular that theater owners voted Sidney Poitier the biggest box office star of the year. He was "In The Heat Of The Night's" Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, butting heads with racist Mississippi sheriff Rod Steiger. He was an inspirational teacher in "To Sir, With Love." And just six months after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on interracial marriage, he was the doctor Katharine Houghton brought home to meet the folks, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")

POITIER: (As Dr. John Prentice) Mrs. Drayton, I'm medically qualified, so I hope you wouldn't think it presumptuous if I say you ought to sit down before you fall down, I mean.

KATHARINE HOUGHTON: (As Joey Drayton) He thinks you're going to faint because he's a Negro.

KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Christina Drayton) Well, I don't think I'm going to faint, but I'll sit down anyway.

MONDELLO: That was a laugh line, but it spoke to a dizzying turning point America was still processing. Poitier, virtually that era's only Black movie star, had been taking giant leaps on screen, but social change comes slowly. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote that she hoped "A Raisin In The Sun" would help viewers see in Black people the very essence of human dignity. But when the movie's cast was shooting in a Chicago suburb, white residents thinking a Black family was trying to move into their neighborhood called the police. "The Defiant Ones" never considered filming in the South, where it was set, the Klan being too great a threat. And just weeks after millions had watched Poitier make history at the Oscars...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The winner is Sidney Poitier.

(CHEERING)

MONDELLO: ...As the first African American ever to win Best Actor, he was chased and harassed by Klansmen during a Mississippi voter drive. With his celebrity offering him no protection, Poitier resisted filming in the South for years. And for those same years when Hollywood studios calculated budgets for his films, they assumed theaters in the South would refuse to show them - an assumption that proved largely correct. And still, Sidney Poitier in 1967 was the biggest box office star Hollywood had, starring exclusively in movies that challenged the assumptions of the white audiences to which Hollywood had always catered, none more influential than "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in which Poitier was so dashing and charismatic, there was never much doubt that Hepburn and Tracy would give their blessing. The biggest obstacle to the match, actually, was the prospective groom's own father, whose objection prompted from Poitier first a furious response and then a gentler one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")

POITIER: (As Dr. John Prentice) I'm your son. I love you. I always have, and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.

MONDELLO: It's fair to say his work moved even resistant white viewers to think of him that way, too. He went on to appear on film and TV for three more decades while directing films that elevated other Black artists, Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones among them. Artists he didn't direct came to regard him as a mentor and elder statesman. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Viola Davis and Will Smith are among the many Black performers who cite Sidney Poitier as an inspiration. By opening doors and building bridges with these 17 films he made in that decade between "The Defiant Ones" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," he made their careers not just possible but necessary.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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