When director Joseph Mankiewicz cast the pioneering Black actor in his first film role in 1950, one of the defining screen stars of the 20th century was born
There was no mistaking the figure making his way across the concourse at halftime of a UCLA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion in the fall of 2002. Seventy-five years old and still strikingly handsome, Sidney Poitier couldn’t have stood out more if he’d had a spotlight on him. I must have been 100 feet away, but I felt those little electric currents firing in the tips of my fingers, the internal buzz created only by the charisma of the kind of movie star who takes your breath away—the kind who stands, I can say without hyperbole, as the most important American movie actor of the 20th century.
For what it’s worth, I hardly ever approach celebrities. But this time was different. At the Academy Awards earlier that year, Poitier had been given an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” In his speech, Poitier, who died this month at 94, remarked on the uncharted path he had followed since arriving in Hollywood in 1949 as a 22-year-old Bahamian-American, brand new to the movies.
“Poitier credited his success to ‘courageous, unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers.’”
Almost instantly, Poitier credited his success to “an untold number of courageous, unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers…each unafraid to permit their art to reflect their values, ethical and moral.”
“They knew the odds stood against them,” Poitier continued. “Still, those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us. And I’ve benefited from their effort. The industry benefited from their effort. America benefited from their effort. And in ways large and small, the world has benefited from their effort.”
Then he named those “visionary filmmakers.” The first one out of his mouth struck a deep chord. “With respect,” he said, “I share this honor with the late Joe Mankiewicz,” before going on to speak of Richard Brooks, Ralph Nelson, Darryl Zanuck, Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch brothers, Guy Green and Norman Jewison.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Poitier would start with Joseph Mankiewicz, since my great-uncle Joe had featured Poitier in the actor’s first film, “No Way Out” (1950), a melodrama about a young Black doctor who treats two racist gangsters. One was played by Richard Widmark, igniting a lifelong friendship between him and Poitier. Joe had gone to Harlem to look for Black theater actors to play the lead in “No Way Out,” and he’d been impressed by Poitier, who was simultaneously working as a janitor at the American Negro Theater, taking acting lessons in lieu of a salary.
Poitier didn’t yet have a clear understanding of how Hollywood worked, but he was a quick study. When he auditioned he told a rather innocent lie, telling Joe he was 27 years old when he was really 22. Poitier figured a young doctor interning in a big city hospital had to be considerably older than 22. He didn’t give the lie much thought because he assumed he’d never get the part, and besides, he’d already committed to star in a play in New York. When he landed the role, he thought Joe would fire him if the truth came out.
Turns out, of course, everybody in Hollywood lies about their age; Poitier had nothing to fear. The play was another matter, but Joe Mankiewicz and Poitier’s agent got him out of the $75-a-week play and into a $750-a-week major motion picture. Not long after the film’s release, Poitier’s parents, Reggie and Evelyn Poitier, went to a theater in Nassau, The Bahamas to see “No Way Out.” It marked the first time they’d seen their son in a movie. It was also the first time they’d seen a movie.
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It’s hard to imagine so humble an origin story for an actor who became one of the defining screen stars of the 20th century, yet it’s a piece of what sets Poitier apart from the other greats of his era, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Dean and William Holden among them. As great as those actors were, never did they bear the responsibility for all white people, or all Christians, or all Jews. That kind of weight fell on Sidney Poitier. From “No Way Out” through 1967, when he became the top film star in the country on the backs of three huge hits—“To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”—Poitier shouldered a unique burden. To millions of viewers, he represented every Black man trying to manage life in postwar America.
There were no other Black leading men. The white men who ran Hollywood wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t write it down that Poitier was to be the only Black male movie star, but they didn’t have to. Scholars like film historian Donald Bogle, who has written extensively about the Black experience in movies and television, make clear that actors such as James Edwards or Ivan Dixon, who possessed all the charisma, talent, good looks and masculinity required for stardom, would always have to settle for supporting parts in major films.
“‘I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,’ Poitier wrote in a memoir. ”
While Newman, Brando, Holden and their brethren pursued whatever role piqued their artistic interest, Poitier chose his parts carefully, always understanding what his characters represented to white and Black America. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he wrote in a memoir published in 2000.
I doubt I had much of that in mind as I was overtaken by the compulsion to cross the Pauley Pavilion concourse and thank Poitier for mentioning my great-uncle at the Oscars. “Mr. Poitier,” I said, perhaps stopping him from buying a jumbo hot dog and a beer at the concession stand. I followed it with something like, “My name is Ben Mankiewicz. On behalf of the whole family, I want to thank you for bringing up my uncle Joe at the Oscars. It really meant…”
I’m certain I rambled. None of that matters. What I recall is Poitier mercifully putting me out of misery by placing his hands on my shoulders and meeting my eyes. I had to look up how tall he was: He was 6’2”. He seemed 6’10”. I’ve interviewed hundreds of movie stars over the last two decades, but Poitier’s presence felt like it filled the entire arena.
“Joe Mankiewicz gave me my start,” he said. “He gave me my career, everything. I’m so grateful to him. There was no scenario where I wouldn’t have thanked him that night.” He gracefully excused himself and exited. Stage right, if I recall.
The most important actor of the 20th century paved a road that hundreds of actors of color can now travel, a road that didn’t exist for Poitier when he got to Hollywood in 1949. That he thought he owed a debt of gratitude to a few filmmakers who recognized his prodigious talent is a testament to his considerable character.
Essay by Ben Mankiewicz for The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Mankiewicz is a host on Turner Classic Movies.