Skip to main content

Actor Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier is the leading African-American actor of his generation. He was the first, and so far, the only African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor which he did in 1963 for his performance in Lilies of the Field. His other films include, The Defiant Ones, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who Coming to Dinnger, and To Sir, With Love. His autobiography, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography is now out in paperback.


Other segments from the episode on July 13, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 13, 2001: Interview with Edward Norton; Interview with Sidney Poitier; Review of the film "Score."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Edward Norton talks about his film career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "The Score," starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon
Brando opened today. Later in the show, film critic Henry Sheehan will have
review. But first, we're going to hear an interview with Edward Norton. In
"The Score," De Niro plays a jewel thief looking to retire, who's convinced
do one last heist by his partner, played by Marlon Brando. Edward Norton
plays the young, arrogant new member of the team. Here he is, meeting a
couple of guys in the park. He's brought a bag of money to exchange for
inside information.

(Soundbite from "The Score")

Mr. EDWARD NORTON (Actor): You my guy?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: Who's this?

Unidentified Man: Cousin.

Mr. NORTON: Cousin.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: See the guy over my left shoulder, back there on the bench,
reading the paper, the big one? That's my cousin. OK? So we've all got
family here. That's nice, you think? Yeah? OK. I'll give you that. Take
look inside and make sure you're happy, all right? No, don't take that out.
Don't take that out.

Unidentified Man: Hey, man, don't give me orders. I get orders all day,

Mr. NORTON: You can't count the money in a public place. That's why you
don't set a meeting in a park, for future reference.

GROSS: Edward Norton had no trouble getting noticed when he started making
movies. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his feature film debut in
"Primal Fear," in which he played an altar boy on trial for murder. Then
Woody Allen cast him in the musical "Everyone Says I Love You." Norton
Larry Flynt's lawyer in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and received another
Academy Award nomination for his role as a skinhead in "American History X."
He co-starred with Brad Pitt in "Fight Club" and with Ben Stiller in
the Faith." I spoke with Norton last year.

Let me ask you about your first movie role, which was "Primal Fear." In
let me play a clip from it. In this you play a former altar boy named Aaron
who's from a small town in Kentucky. You're accused of brutally murdering a
cardinal. Your lawyer is played by Richard Gere. Now you claim to suffer
from amnesiac blackouts, and a psychiatrist hired by your lawyer thinks that
that's a symptom of multiple personality disorder. In this scene, after
lawyer tells you that he thinks you're really guilty, your other
Roy, comes to the surface. This is the first time your lawyer has seen
evidence of the split personality.

(Soundbite from "Primal Fear")

Mr. NORTON: You're the lawyer. You're his lawyer, ain't you?

Mr. RICHARD GERE (Actor): Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah, with your fancy suit. I heard about you. Well, my, my,
you sure (censored) this one up, counselor. It sounds to me like they're
going to shoot old Aaron so full of poison it's going to come out his eyes.

Mr. GERE: Where is Aaron?

Mr. NORTON: Aaron's crying, off in some corner somewhere. You scared him
off! You got to deal with me now, boy. I'll give you a beating on
Buggin' me. You ever come in here and pull any of that tough-guy (censored)
on Aaron again, I'll will kick your (censored) ass to Sunday. You

Mr. GERE: I understand. Aaron gets in trouble, he calls you. You're the

Mr. NORTON: Well, Aaron couldn't kick his own ass. I mean, you've seen
with the duh, duh, duh.

Mr. GERE: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: Jesus Christ, he can't handle anything. And he sure as
(censored) couldn't handle all that preacher's blood, could he? If he'd a
done like I told him, we wouldn't be in this mess. But he got scared
and--duh--ran off and got hisself caught, the stupid little (censored).

Mr. GERE: So Aaron did kill Rushman.

Mr. NORTON: Hell, no. Jesus Christ, where did they find you? Ain't you
been listening to me? Aaron don't have the guts to do nothing. It was me,
boy. It was me.

Mr. GERE: It was you.

Mr. NORTON: Yes, it was.

Mr. GERE: It was you.

GROSS: That's Edward Norton and Richard Gere in a scene from "Primal Fear."

So this is your first movie role, a big part. How did you get it? How did
you get such a good part the first time out?

Mr. NORTON: I don't know. That was weird, listening to that, for me,
because I don't think I've watched that movie since the week it came out,
which was about four years ago. And I was listening to those lines; I
even thought about them for a bunch of years. I was listening to it--like,
couldn't even remember that's what that scene was about. It was wild. I
haven't revisited that in a long time.

GROSS: You have a foul mouth, sir.

Mr. NORTON: It was--yeah. Well, yeah. That guy, he was a character, but
that was very interesting. We improvised a lot in those scenes, so a lot of
that was just stuff that kind of--you know, we kind of riffed around the
components of the scene, and Richard was really good at that, so it was fun

GROSS: Is it? How did you get the part?

Mr. NORTON: Well, it was a situation where they--obviously by its nature,
it's a role that has to do with first impressions and deceptions, and kind
acting within acting. And I think that wisely, Greg Hoblit was aware that
the--it was something that if the audience could actually be fooled in the
same way that the lawyer is being fooled, it would be very effective, as
opposed to, you know, if it was an actor that people were familiar with, and
so they were aware of the artifice on some level from the beginning, that
could kind of diminish it. And I think he was very intent on trying to find
someone who was unfamiliar to audiences, and so as a result they engaged in,
you know, in an audition search, and so it was a very unusual circumstance,
a very, very good part, where they were really looking around, and they went
all over the place.

And I was acting in New York in a theater at the time, and the casting
director for Paramount had seen me in some plays, and brought me in among
many, many others to audition for Greg, and it kind of went on from there.

GROSS: Was this audition an interview, or did you have to do lines from the

Mr. NORTON: No, no, no. It's always--if they're doing it right. I mean, I
think one of the worst things that can happen at an audition is when you
in the room and there's the director and the producer, and they start
to you, because it's just like--I mean, try to imagine going to see, you
Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," and before the movie starts a little thing
up on the screen, and Dustin Hoffman says, `Hi, I'm Dustin Hoffman. I'm
to play this role, and I hope you all enjoy the film,' and then you watched
him play that character. It's like it just punctures...

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. NORTON: It punctures the bubble, and I think--I've always said,
I've gone to classes, or, you know to places where younger actors ask
questions and things like that, one of the things I've always said is,
let them do that to you.' You know, when you go into an audition, do not
them talk to you beforehand, because it's just like cutting the legs out
under everything you're about to try to do, which is to say, fool them in
same way that's you're going to fool an audience, even if not such a
character, even when it's not a character who is pulling such a trick on
people, even if it's just a--you know, me playing, oh, I don't know, you
like any of the characters I've played in films. You don't want to walk in
and talk and be yourself, and then launch into this character, because it's
automatically going to sort of seem more like a put-on.

GROSS: What would make it even worse, I think, is that you had to do a
Southern accent for this, so...

Mr. NORTON: Yeah. Accent...

GROSS: You do your regular accent, and then they go, `Oh...'

Mr. NORTON: Especially.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: Absolutely. I have a theory about accents, which is that if
someone--I mean, I think if you walked up to any--even if you did a bad
British accent, say--if you walked up to someone and you were doing it and
that was the first time they met you, no one would question it, whereas, you
know, I could walk up to a lot of people right now and do an absolutely
flawless British accent and by virtue of the fact they know that I'm not
British, they'd be saying, `Oh, well, that kind of doesn't sound right to

I think people have a very relative--their critique of things is relative to
how aware they are that you're doing a put-on, you know, and I think when
actors have to do an accent or anything like that, if they have to go into
audition, it's the worst thing in the world is to have to talk to the people
beforehand, and then launch into this, you know--because they're going to,
their minds, they're going to go, `Ah, I don't think he's doing that that
well,' you know?

GROSS: "Fight Club" is a movie about people who find meaning in life by
joining this very secret club in which they fight each other, fight each
quite, quite hard. I'm going to play a clip from early in the movie where
we really know about your character is that he's a young guy who's just
disenchanted with the life he's found himself leading, worrying about
for the right bedspread and the right coffee and he's a numbers cruncher for
carmaker, and he's become an insomniac, so he tries to find peace of mind by
attending support groups for problems he doesn't even have. His job
him to do a lot of traveling, you know, by plane, and this is him thinking
about all the travel and all the trivialities and mind-numbing stuff that it
leads to.

(Soundbite from "Fight Club")

Mr. NORTON: You wake up at Sea Tac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O'Hare,
Dallas-Ft. Worth, BWI; Pacific, Mountain, Central, lose an hour, gain an

Unidentified Woman: Check-in for that flight doesn't begin for another two
hours, sir.

Mr. NORTON: This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. You
wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up in a different time, in
different place, did you wake up as a different person? Everywhere I
time and life, single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of
butter, the microwave cordon bleu hobby kit, shampoo-conditioner combos,
sample packets of mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each
flight, they're single-serving friends. Between takeoff and landing, we
our time together. That's all we get.

GROSS: That's kind of like the urban, neurotic, alienated, professional
version of rap. Did you do that voiceover with the music, or without it?

Mr. NORTON: No, no, without it. Without it. We spent a lot of time in
booths like this one, working--we tried every kind of mike, close to the
far from the mike. We experimented just into infinity with finding exactly
the right tone to create the feeling of that voice that's in your head, so
that it would have a quality distinct from sort of what we're used to
in voiceovers, you know, of really almost being inside the brain, that voice
you're talking to yourself with, you know. And the narration--it was such a
critical component of the novel that we felt it needed to be a part of the
film as well.

GROSS: Is narration very hard? Because it's not like you're talking to
somebody, and yet you have to make it really believable as that inner voice.

Mr. NORTON: It is. It is, and it has to be a characterization. I mean,
especially in the case of this film where the underlying reality, the
underlying truth of the film is revealed to be something very different from
what the narrator himself is presenting it as. I mean, it's a bizarre
comparison, in a way, but you know, I've always thought what's great about a
book like "The Catcher in the Rye" is that it's told in a first person
narrative, by a narrator who's not a very reliable, you know, source of
perspective on himself, and you learn things about Holden Caulfield that
not really telling you about in the dialogue in the scenes where what he's
saying to people kind of goes against what he's saying to you in his inner
monologue. And this reminds me of that, because my character in "Fight
is a totally unreliable source of information about himself. He's telling
a version of his story that, as the story goes along, you realize is a
completely deluded understanding of his own problems, and so you have to
make--that has to be--the voiceover can't just be a narration. It has to be

GROSS: Which leads me to say, without giving away too much of the story,
you've played a lot of like, double personalities and double roles in your
career, where your character undergoes some kind of transformation and is
good guy and bad guy.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah.

GROSS: Why do you think you've had so many roles like that?

Mr. NORTON: Well, I mean, I think that any character should undergo a
transformation. I mean, that, to me, is what drama is about. It's like--I
had a good acting teacher one time who said, you know, you should always be
able to look at a scene and certainly a whole piece, and say--you should be
able to look at a drama and identify the--you know, what happens that
things in it. I mean, a story should be at its fundament--you know,
happens, as a result of which, something changes. And to me, if a character
doesn't transform on some level in a story, it's not worth playing, because
think that's why people are going to movies, to plays, reading novels,
you want to read about people evolving in some way. That's what you connect
with. And I think that in "Fight Club," you know, it's very different from
"Primal Fear" in the sense that it's--I mean, "Primal Fear" is about
acting, basically. "Fight Club" is about a person actually going insane...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NORTON: ...and not knowing that he's going insane, and obviously, I
don't play both halves of his personality. I play one half. And I play the
half that is learning, a guy who has to come to grips with the fact that
crazy, and has to realize how crazy he's gone. So even though on a loose
level it's connected with "Primal Fear," it really was a very different sort
of a thing. But it is--but what I liked about it is, it's a character

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NORTON: His sense of his own desperation in the beginning leads him to
experiment with a kind of a solution that he ultimately realizes is very,
negative and very unhealthy, and from which he pulls back and finally, by
end, you know, defines himself. He finally, I think, on a certain level,
right at the end figures out who he is on his own.

GROSS: My guest is Edward Norton. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Edward Norton. He's starring
the new movie, "The Score."

Let's get to another one of your movies, "Everyone Says I Love You," which
Woody Allen's musical in which had actors who really aren't singers singing
songs for the film. You had two songs, "Just You, Just Me" and "My Baby
Cares for Me." Let's hear a little bit of "My Baby Just Cares for Me."

Mr. NORTON: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of "Everyone Says I Love You")

Mr. NORTON: (Singing) My baby don't care for rings or other expensive
things. My baby just cares for me. My baby don't go for big Rolls-Royces;
there's sometimes a doubt about her choices. My baby don't care to own some
14-carat stone. She's sensible as can be. My baby don't care who knows it,
my baby just cares for me.

GROSS: Edward Norton, what were your thoughts when you found out you had to
sing in order to be in Woody Allen's movie?

Mr. NORTON: I felt much the same way I feel right now, having played that
back in my ear. It's like I feel like putting a paper bag over my head.
officially turned this into a torture booth, now that you've played me
back to myself.

GROSS: Did you know right at the start that singing was essential for all

Mr. NORTON: No, nobody knew. I remember when I met Woody for the second
time and it seemed to be going well in terms of, you know, him wanting me to
do the part. Right toward the end, you know, he came over and he went, you
know--I read a a scene, and he went, you know, (imitating Woody Allen) `That
was--that was--that was perfect. That was great. And you know, by the way,
do--do you sing at all?' (Normal voice) You know, and I kind of went
You know, `Sure, you know, and not in a great way but--is the character a
singer?' And he went (imitating Allen) `But you know, I'm not looking for
Pavarotti. I'm just--I'm just--just something I'm--something I'm playing
with,' you know. (Normal voice) And I went--I was going, `Hm, I wonder what
that's about?'

So I got the part, and I was all excited, and about a month--you know a
months went by, and about a month before we started shooting, I got this
from Dick Hyman, who's Woody's longtime music supervisor and arranger and
of genius of orchestration and arrangement, and, you know, he said, `I'm
to have you get together with a, you know, a voice person in Los Angeles,
because we need to get your range.' And I went, you know, `What is this
And he said, `Well, we're making a musical,' you know. And I kind of like
started hyperventilating. Apparently everyone else had pretty much the same
experience, because he didn't want to give anybody any time to panic and go
out and, you know, work on it. He wanted everybody to sound--the whole idea
was people coming off the--you know, the characters, like normal people just
bursting into song with all their, you know cracking voices and everything.
He did not want a polished thing, so...

GROSS: Nevertheless, did he want you all to take some voice lessons?

Mr. NORTON: No, not at all.

GROSS: Coaching, nothing?

Mr. NORTON: In fact, he insisted that we not do it. And in fact, when I
went and laid down--we pre-recorded the songs so that we could sing back to
our--you know, lip-sync to our--or sing along with our own playback when we
filmed it. And I pre-recorded the songs, and, you know, of course, I had
worked on them, because there was no way I was going to go in cold, and I
it. And about week later, I got a call, you know, and they said, `Woody
to talk to you about what you recorded.' And I panicked, you know. I just
went, `Oh, no, I'm getting fired,' because Woody lets a lot of people go.
It's kind of--Woody's famous for, you know, firing people, and I thought,
`This is it. I'm out.'

And I went back in to see him, and he said, (imitating Allen) `You know, we
need to do it again, because you sound too good. You sound like Perry Como,
you know, and I need you to scale it back a little bit.' (Normal voice) So
actually made me come in and do it worse. I had a couple of tracks that I
really happy with, and he made me come in and kind of sing it more like a
on the street, you know.

GROSS: So what impact did this movie have on your own self-consciousness
about singing?

Mr. NORTON: I try to shut it out. And occasionally someone will do what
just did, and throw on the soundtrack, and it'll all come raging back to me
like a...

GROSS: Like a bad dream.

Mr. NORTON: No, the exper--I'm kidding. I'm kidding. It's just hard to
hear it, you know...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: ...disconnected. I love watching it in the film, because the
film--I think the film is, you know, so light and funny and actually that
song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me," is the one in Harry Winston's jewelry
store, where the whole musical number erupts in the jewelry store, and I
it's a hilarious sequence, but out of context. It's a little like looking
your high school yearbook pictures.

GROSS: Edward Norton, recorded last year. He stars with Robert De Niro and
Marlon Brando in the new film, "The Score." Later, film critic Henry
will review "The Score."

We'll end this half hour with a song composed by Jimmy McHugh. His songs
include "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "I
Can't Give You Anything but Love." Monday, we'll talk with his grandson,
McHugh III.

I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR, and here's The Mills Brothers.

(Soundbite of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," by The Mills Brothers)

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby. Dream awhile, scheme awhile,
you're sure to find happiness and I guess, well, all those things you always
pine for. Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, baby. Diamond bracelets
Woolworth doesn't sell, baby. Till that lucky day I know darn well, baby, I
can't give you anything but love.

I can't give you anything but love, baby. That's the only thing I've got
plenty of, baby. Dream awhile, scheme awhile, some day you'll find,

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Sidney Poitier talks about his acting career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Sidney Poitier has said that he always believed that his work should convey
his personal values. When he started making movies in 1949, it was hard for
African-Americans to get significant film roles. It was even difficult to
small parts that weren't stereotyped. But in the '50s and '60s, Poitier
starred in a string of films that addressed the racial tensions of the time;
films like "The Defiant Ones," "Lilies of the Field," "Guess Who's Coming to
Dinner" and "To Sir, with Love." In 1963, he became the first
African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor, and he remains the
only African-American who has won in that category.

In the '70s, Poitier directed such films as "Buck and the Preacher," "Uptown
Saturday Night," "Let's Do It Again" and "Stir Crazy." He's made new films
since the end of the '70s. His memoir, "The Measure of a Man," has just
out in paperback.

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas on Cat Island and Nassau. His family was
and he had very little education. He left for the US when he was 15 and
up in New York, where he was arrested for vagrancy and worked as a
He saw an ad for auditions for the American Negro Theater and decided to try
out. The audition was a disaster, and the director threw him out and told
to get back to being a dishwasher. Poitier was determined to prove him

What did you do to try to improve your auditioning skills before going back
prove that this guy was wrong and that you could do it?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): Well, my first job was to--because I had this
Caribbean accent, as I'm sure you're acquainted with what...

GROSS: Well, let me just stop you there and say I can hear the accent much
more in this interview than I hear it in movies.

Mr. POITIER: Oh, yeah. Well, I had it very intensely, so much so that he
made a remark about it. And I knew that from what he had said that I had to
do something about that first and foremost. So I saved up enough money to
a radio, and I thought that the best way to correct it was to listen to a
radio here in America and try to learn the sounds, the pronunciations and
stuff from people I heard on the radio. And I did that, and I listened to
radio between dish washing in terms of--in other words, when I'd be at home,
wherever I was sleeping, I would plug in this little radio and I would
until I fell asleep. And whatever was said on the radio I would repeat it,
like a parrot. And I would just listen and repeat and repeat and repeat and
repeat. And it took some months, then the heavy A in the Caribbean speech
the rhythmic sing-songy patterns began to fade and I began to develop at
the rhythm and pronunciation of how people spoke in the US.

GROSS: So you patterned yourself on radio announcers.

Mr. POITIER: Yes. As a matter of fact, there was a gentleman in those days
by the name of Norman Brokenshire, and I listened to him. He had a very
arresting voice, and I liked the way he spoke. And I listened to him an
lot. Didn't always understood what he was saying, but I listened a great
deal. And I learned pronunciation of words that I was studying. I was
to learn what the words meant.

GROSS: So you went back to the American Negro Theater Company and
a second time?

Mr. POITIER: Yeah, I certainly did. That was my aim. I went back six
months later to audition, but I was not really prepared because I didn't
a scene or a monologue from a play. I didn't know that one could buy such
things in certain bookstores. So I bought what I thought would be
for an audition. I bought a True Confessions magazine. And I memorized two
or three paragraphs of one of the stories in this thing, and I didn't know
better. So I got up on the stage and I'm reading this thing, and I was
through the first paragraph when they stopped me. Oh, my God, just thinking
about it.

GROSS: It's amazing, really, that you were able to actually get a part
all of this. Just tell me, what was the thing that you did that you think
convinced the right people at the theater company to give you a shot?

Mr. POITIER: They didn't give me a shot. They rejected me after they saw
audition. And I made some observations myself while I was there at--mind
this now--to put you in proper focus, the first place I went to when I was
giving the first audition and the guy threw me out, it was the American
Theater and it was located on 135th Street, near Lenox Avenue. They were in
the process--I had no knowledge of this, of course--they were in the process
of moving to a much larger space on 127th Street. And that's where I went
the second audition. And they had a larger stage, and they had a wonderful
auditorium, and they had many seats. I think the first place on 135th
had probably 40 seats, 45 seats, maybe 50. This new place had at least--oh,
they could hold at least 150, 200 people.

Anyway, I noticed that they did not have a janitor there, so when they
rejected me the first time, after licking my wounds for a while, I went back
few days later and I proposed to them, since they didn't have, as it
to me, a janitor, I would do the janitor work, which I perceived as being
a great deal of work because I would just maybe mop the stage from time to
time and do the sweep-up and get the garbage out, which I could do in a
half-hour or so, or maybe an hour. And I proposed that I would do the
cleaning-up stuff if they would let me come and study. And the people to
I was speaking, they were the administrators of the American Negro Theater
that time, and they were somehow impressed with my determination. And they
said, `If you want to study that badly, OK, you can come in.' So, yeah,
took me in, and I was the janitor.

GROSS: My guest is Sidney Poitier. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sidney Poitier. His memoir, "The Measure of a Man," has
just been published in paperback.

Let me advance the story a little further and take you to the early part of
your movie career; specifically to "Blackboard Jungle," which was released
1954. This was an important film for you. You had one of the leads in it.
This is the most famous high school film, I think. It opens with "Rock
the Clock." Glenn Ford plays the new teacher at a school just filled with
juvenile delinquents. And in your first scene, he catches you and some of
other guys smoking in the bathroom. You're washing your hands with your
turned toward the teacher for most of the scene. Let's hear this scene.

(Soundbite of "Blackboard Jungle")

Mr. GLENN FORD: What's your name, wise guy?

Mr. POITIER: Me? Miller. Gregory Miller. You want me to spell it out for
you so you won't forget?

Mr. FORD: No, you don't have to do that. I'll remember Miller.

Mr. POITIER: Sure, chief, you do that.

Mr. FORD: Or maybe you'd like to take a walk down to the principal's office
right now with me. Is that what you want?

Mr. POITIER: You're holding all the cards, chief. You want to take me to
see Mr. Warneke, you do just that.

Mr. FORD: Who's your home period teacher?

Mr. POITIER: You are, chief.

Mr. FORD: Well, why aren't you with the rest of the class?

Mr. POITIER: I already told you. Came in to wash up, chief.

Mr. FORD: All right, then, wash up. Just cut out that chief routine, you

Mr. POITIER: Sure, chief. That's what I've been doing all the time. OK,
for us to drift now, chief?

Mr. FORD: I don't want to catch you in here again.

Mr. POITIER: Suppose I got business here, chief.

Mr. FORD: Look, how many times do I have to tell you? Let's go, huh? Come
on, let's go.

GROSS: Sidney Poitier, how did you like your role in "Blackboard Jungle?"

Mr. POITIER: I liked it. I liked it. This young guy that I play, he was
really on the cusp of finding himself in useful ways or losing himself to
forces he couldn't quite understand by then. And so he had some
complications. He had some complexities. He had some depth to him. And I
liked playing him.

GROSS: Well, you became the African-American leading man in the '60s. What
were some of the things that you felt you weren't allowed to play or express
as an African-American leading man in the '60s in Hollywood?

Mr. POITIER: That is a very good question. And the true answer is I have
such imagery of what I was not able to express, because taking the times as
they were, the fact of my career was in itself remarkable.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. POITIER: Just the fact of it, you see.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. POITIER: It would have been a luxury I would not have spent much time
trying to determine what was missing. What was missing was not so much for
me, but what was missing for the overwhelming majority of other minority
actors at the time.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought that up. What were some of the things
heard from your fellow actors at the time about stereotyped roles that they
had to play in Hollywood when you came to Hollywood?

Mr. POITIER: Yeah. Well, you know, most of us, I think, were obliged to
what was available. I did not. I did not take advantage of that. I
couldn't. It was not what I needed to do for my life. I had elected to be
the kind of actor whose work would stand as a representation of my values.

GROSS: Let me talk with you about a scene that, I think, represents the
of values that you're talking about. This is a scene from "In the Heat of
Night." In that film, Rod Steiger plays a local police chief in a Southern
town. You're a homicide cop from Philadelphia passing through this Southern

town, but you're arrested for being suspicious because you're a black man
out of town carrying money in your wallet. The police chief doesn't really
believe that you're a cop, so he calls your boss in Philly. And your boss
suggest that you stay in this small Southern town to help them solve this
murder case that they're working on 'cause they don't have cops that are
nearly as experienced as you are.

So in this scene, you and Rod Steiger, who's still very skeptical of you, go
to question one of the leading white businessmen in town. And I'll just
explain in case it's confusing as our listeners that as you're questioning
him, the businessman slaps you and then without missing a beat, you slap him
right back. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "In the Heat of the Night")

Unidentified Man: Let me understand this. You two came here to question

(Soundbite of rooster)

Mr. POITIER: Well, your attitude, Mr. Endicott, your points of view are a
matter of record. Some people--well, let us say the people who work for Mr.
Colbert, might reasonably regard you as the person least likely to mourn his
passing. We were just trying to clarify some of the evidence. Was Mr.
Colbert ever in this greenhouse, say, last night about midnight?

(Soundbite of two slaps)

Unidentified Man: Gillespie?


Unidentified Man: You saw it.

Mr. STEIGER: I saw it.

Unidentified Man: Well, what are you going to do about it?

Mr. STEIGER: I don't know.

Unidentified Man: I'll remember that. There was a time when I could have
you shot.

GROSS: Sidney Poitier, in your new memoir, you say that's not the way the
scene was originally written. Originally, you didn't slap this businessman
right after he slapped you. What did you do in the original scene, and why
did you want to change it?

Mr. POITIER: The original scene called for the businessman to slap me and
me to absorb it and leave. I found it reprehensible that the writers
for that period would not have written it differently. And I felt that the
natural emotional response to being slapped--and I'm speaking not as Sidney
Poitier but I'm speaking as a Philadelphia detective--that the natural
response to a man slapping him, he's going to slap him right back. And I
elected as an actor to do that, because were I--the guy from Philadelphia
was slapped, I would slap the guy right back.

And I thought that that would be, since those kinds of moments were never
found in American films from the inception of films in this country, that
of a scene, which would be electrifying on the screen, was always either
avoided, not thought of. And I insisted that if they wished my
in the film, that they would have to rewrite it to exemplify that. They
were--meaning the director, Norman Jewison, who was and is an exquisite
artist, and the producer, Walter Mirisch, who is--I mean, his record is
fabulous, and we've been very good friends all these years--both of them
`Hey, that's great. Let's do it that way.'

So we did it. And it indeed did turn out to be a highlight moment in that
film. But it also spoke not just of the two characters; it spoke of our
It spoke of the time in America when, in films at least, we could step up to
certain realities.

GROSS: In that film, you use something that you've used in a lot of other
films, a very indignant stare, a stare that carries a lot of weight. Can
talk about how you perfected that look?

Mr. POITIER: I didn't perfect that look. First of all, I don't acknowledge
that I have such a look...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. POITIER: ...I mean, because I see myself differently than other people
see me, obviously.

GROSS: Right. But is that, do you think, a look that came from real life
one that you just developed for your acting roles?

Mr. POITIER: No. My acting roles are, at the core of themselves, a part of
me. So whatever that look is, I mean, it--I cannot manufacture such a look.
It comes out of those forces that are churning internally in the individual,
you know. And so I just have that look, I suppose, even when I'm thinking
things that are quite contrary to what the look might suggest. I just have
that look, and I'm sorry if I've put people off with it.

GROSS: Oh, not at all. No, I mean, it's a great look and it's certainly
one you need in the roles that you use it in. So no. Sidney Poitier, in
minute that we have remaining, I'm wondering why we don't get to see you
in movies anymore?

Mr. POITIER: Listen, my darling lady, I'm 73 years old. I have been
in films for 51 years and I've made a great number of movies. And there are
other areas of my life now that--the most important currency I own is my
and I need to spend it now with a great deal of care, you know, for obvious
reasons. And (technical difficulties) to go over ground I've covered. At
least I don't want to spend the remaining time I have in this life of mine
doing things that I've done before. And...

GROSS: Well, I certainly don't want to begrudge you that. I just miss you
the movies.

Mr. POITIER: Well, that's very kind of you, and I thank you for that.

GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. POITIER: Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Sidney Poitier recorded last year. His memoir, "The Measure of a
Man," has just been published in paperback.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) In the heat of the night, seems like a cold
sweeping 'cross my brow. Yeah. In the heat of the night, I'm feeling
motherless somehow. Stars with evil eyes stare from the skies on me that

Chorus: (Singing) In the heat of the night.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ain't a woman yet been born knows how to make
morning come.

Chorus: (Singing) Ooh.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) It's so hard to keep control when I just sell
soul for just a little light.

Chorus: (Singing) In the heat of the night.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) In the heat of the night...

GROSS: Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews the new movie "The Score." This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New film "The Score"

Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton star in the new heist film
"The Score," directed by Frank Oz. Film critic Henry Sheehan has a review.

HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:

Years ago, the idea of Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando appearing in the
movie together would have been electrifying news. Just the very
of such a project might have started lines forming in front of theaters
everywhere, from New York's Upper West Side to the shores of Santa Monica.
That, of course, was before De Niro started appearing in a different piece
commercial trivia every six months and Brando became the weird hermit of the
Hollywood Hills.

Older viewers may think of De Niro and Brando as actors who worked with
Bernardo Bertolucci, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, but
today's younger audiences, De Niro is the arson cop in "Backdraft" and
is nobody. It wouldn't be outrageous to imagine the two finally getting
together in, say, "Scary Movie 3(ph)."

The relief is that "The Score" is an OK, relatively adult movie. Making his
first non-comedy, director Frank Oz displays a solid mastery of suspense and
good eye for fresh locations. The movie's screenplay, which boasts three
writers, grade-B dialogue and cliched situations, is terrible. But by this
time, commenting on the shortcomings of Hollywood scripts is a bit like
observations on the rain in Seattle. So what else is new?

To say De Niro and Brando are co-stars overstates the case. De Niro, who
plays a veteran safe cracker based in Montreal named Nick, is really paired
with Edward Norton. His character, a punkish burglar of uncertain pedigree
named Jack, teams up with Nick to rob the Montreal Customs House. Brando
plays an aging fence who sets up the job and plans to dispose of the booty,
17th-century jeweled scepter, but otherwise stays in the background.

The De Niro-Brando relationship turns out to be enjoyably if a bit eerily
reminiscent of those between Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in a
variety of Warner Bros. thrillers from the 1940s. The comparison is doubly
triply apt because of Brando's enormous girth, whose circumference is truly
Greenstreet like in its proportions. In this scene, which could be taking
place in a "Casablanca" coffee house but which actually unfolds in a jazz
De Niro's character owns, the two argue over how to divide up the swag.

(Soundbite from "The Score")

Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (As Nick Wells): All right. I'm gonna do it.

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (As Max Baron): Good, good. Sweetheart. You're a
sweetheart. Bravo. Making sense.

Mr. DE NIRO: But because of the risk involved, weigh-in's gotta be $6

Mr. BRANDO: Operator, I got a nut down here that says you said $6 million.
No, no, send paramedics. I think--are you all right?

Mr. DE NIRO: I'm fine.

Mr. BRANDO: Six million dollars? What happened to four?

Mr. DE NIRO: I'm doing--no, no. I'm doing my back yard. I'm not gonna go
like that. I'm sorry. If you want me to do this, you gotta pay me what's
right. It's gotta be that way.

Mr. BRANDO: I always pay you what's right.

Mr. DE NIRO: You always think you pay me what's right. I always know what
you pay me--it's not always right. I need this for this.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

Mr. BRANDO: I like your style.

SHEEHAN: As entertaining as these occasional sideshows are, the main action
unfolds between De Niro and Norton, an acting matchup that promises much but
delivers little. Norton has been famous for his expertise since his debut
a city building murder suspect in "Primal Fear," where he stole all his
with Richard Gere. Unfortunately, the ease with which Norton shifts
characterizations has made him more a gifted mimic than a true translator of
human feeling. Here his character Jack masquerades as a mentally retarded
janitor so he can get an inside job at the Customs House. Jack's
impersonation is impeccable if all surface, but the same can be said of
Norton's performance as Jack. It's technically proficient, but heartless.
Norton is very much the male version of another talented but cold actor,
Gwyneth Paltrow.

Director Oz takes what he's handed and makes the very best out of it.
Montreal is a rarely used backdrop, and Oz makes full use of it, from the
streets of its picturesque Old City to the sewers underneath. But he's a
director, not a surgeon, and he can't implant a heart into an android's
It's funny to think that when De Niro and Brando finally teamed up for a
movie, that its problem would be a lack of feeling.

GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 3)

We conclude our tribute to Sondheim by listening to archival interviews with collaborators and performers, including Stephen Colbert, James Lapine, Paul Gemignani and Lin-Manuel Miranda.


'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue