When Norman Jewison came across an early draft of the script for In the Heat of the Night, the then-39-year-old Canadian director recognized that this adaptation of John Ball’s novel — about a Black cop caught in the middle of a murder mystery in the Deep South — had the potential to be something powerful and unique. No less than Bobby Kennedy had told the filmmaker that “timing is everything in art, in life, in politics… and the time to make that movie is right now.” After lobbying hard for the job, Jewison was able to convince the producers that he was the right man for the job. He wanted to make a statement. Jewison also wanted to work with the star who was already attached to the project: Sidney Poitier.
The result ended up winning five Oscars, including Best Picture, and cemented a lifelong friendship between the director and his star; it’s arguably Poitier’s best-known movie to this day. Jewison got on the phone to share his memories of Poitier, who passed away at the age of 94, explain why the star and the role were a perfect match, and talk about why this “is not just a sad day for the movies, or for me, but for everybody.” This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Sidney was really the connective tissue to Black-white relationships on the American screen in the 1960s. He was a star. Not only in Hollywood — he was a star around the world. Maybe because he was so handsome? I can’t say. [Laughs.] But I know he was perhaps the most intelligent actor I ever worked with. Rod Steiger [Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night costar] was a Method actor, and was totally different in his approach to his part. Rod was always just in the moment, whereas Sidney was was really a thoughtful, intelligent person when it came to what he did. He didn’t just think about his role; he diagnosed his part, over and over, in his mind. They were so different in their approach to acting. But you could immediately tell that they were both going to bring something out of the other. And it definitely brought something unique out of Sidney.”
“We’d talk every day, about his part, what scene we were shooting, what was going on — I could talk about anything with him. I’d wanted to shoot in the South; the book takes place in Georgia and we’d moved the story to Mississippi for the movie. But we had to shoot it in a town in Illinois, called Sparta, because Sidney would not go south of the Mason-Dixon line. He and Harry Belafonte had been arrested in Mississippi the year before, when they’d gone down to help register voters, and were giving money to a group associated with Stokely Carmichael. They had been arrested and attacked by guys in pickup trucks, so he refused to shoot down South. That was why we found that town in Illinois and just called it Sparta, Mississippi.”
“Later in the shoot, I wanted to shoot some exteriors in actual Southern locations, so we talked about going to Tennessee. ‘I’ll give you four days, Norman,’ Sidney told me. So we all went down to this small town with one hotel…and it was ‘whites-only.’ So all of us, the cast and crew, ended up in a Holiday Inn a little ways away, which allowed both Blacks and whites. And I’ll never forget, these pickup trucks came into the parking lot in the middle of the night, honking their horns and waking people up. I got a little nervous, so I called my crew and told them, “Get the biggest guys in the grip department and electrical department, get them over to Sidney’s room right now, we have to protect him.’ Then I called Sidney’s room and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Sidney, we will take care of everything.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried. I’ve got a gun under my pillow. So the first one of them comes through my door, I’m going to blow them away.’ Thank god nothing happened, but this naive director from Canada suddenly understood the extent of American racism. I began to really get just how vicious things were.”
“When he says ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs!’ and the slap Virgil gives that white business owner after he’s been slapped…those bits were in the script, but it wasn’t until you saw what Sidney did with those moments that you really understood the power of them. With the former, I think that Sidney was scared of Rod a little bit, because he could be so over the top. But when he saw all of this anger coming at him, the way Rod asks him, ‘Well, what did they call you up in Philadelphia?!’…it just turned something on in Sidney as an actor. The way in which he responds…I mean, it’s why he’s so brilliant. Everything is right there in the way he says it. He was perfect for the role. It was a perfect fit for him at that moment, too.”
“And that slap…it was the slap heard round the world! I just read this book by Will Smith, where he talks about interviewing Nelson Mandela. And Mandela told him that when he was in prison, they would show the prisoners movies once a month. One day, they showed them In the Heat of the Night and in the middle of the movie, there’s this glitch…this really rough edit. The South African jailers has edited out the slap. This made Mandela really curious, apparently, and he kept trying to find out what was missing. And when he found out that it was Sidney slapping the man back, he said that inspired him to keep going. It inspired him so much. You hear these things, and you realize the power of the movies. I really hope Sidney got to hear that story, because he would have loved it.”
“We made what turned out to be a revolutionary move together, and we became really close because of that experience, Sidney and I. Then after the Oscars, I went to Europe to go make Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar and Sidney was becoming a wonderful director in his own right, so we didn’t see each for a bit. But we stayed friends over the years. The last time I saw him, I had dinner with him and Joanna [Shimkus, his second wife]…We’d always remained close to both of them. He wasn’t feeling that well. But Quincy Jones came by — he’d scored In the Heat of the Night — so it turned into this sort of celebration of the movie. It was a great night.”
“What can I say? I’m heartbroken he’s gone. We lost a brilliant actor and I’ve lost a close friend. But it’s not just a sad day for the movies, or just a sad day for me…it’s a sad day for everybody. I do think that Sidney will go down as one of the greats in American cinema, however. And I hope that people really do continue to recognize him as one of the best.”