DATE January 18, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sidney Poitier on his life and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for tvworthwatching.com,
sitting in for Terry Gross.
"In the Heat of the Night," the landmark movie starring Sidney Poitier as
Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who investigates a murder in
the bigoted deep South, was re-released on DVD this week in a special 40th
anniversary edition. Today on FRESH AIR, we hear from Mr. Tibbs himself,
In the 1950s 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.
Since then, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker also have won Oscars in that
Terry Gross spoke to Sidney Poitier in 2000, at the time of the publication of
his memoir, "The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography."
TERRY GROSS, host:
Let me talk with you about a scene from "In the Heat of the 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 from 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 big murder case that
they're working on because they don't have cops who 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 hear it, 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")
Mr. LARRY GATES: (As Eric Endicott) Let me understand this. You two came
here to question me?
(Soundbite of rooster crowing)
Mr. SIDNEY POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) Well, your attitudes, 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
(Soundbite of two slaps)
Mr. GATES: (As Eric Endicott) Gillespie?
Mr. ROD STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Yeah?
Mr. GATES: (As Eric Endicott) You saw it.
Mr. STEIGER: (As Gillespie) I saw it.
Mr. GATES: (As Mr. Endicott) Well, what are you going to do about it?
Mr. STEIGER: (As Gillespie) I don't know.
Mr. GATES: (As Eric Endicott) I'll remember that. There was a time when I
could have had you shot.
(End of soundbite)
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
for me to absorb it and leave. I found it reprehensible that the writers
writing for that period would not have written it differently. And I felt
that the natural emotional response to being slapped as--and I'm speaking not
as Sidney Poitier, but I'm speaking as a Philadelphia detective.
Mr. POITIER: 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 who 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 kind
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 participation
in the film, that they would have to rewrite it to exemplify that. 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 time. It spoke of the time in
America when, in films at least, we could step up to certain realities.
GROSS: 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 in 1954. This was an important film for you. You had one of the
leads in it. This is like the most famous high school film, I think. It
opens with "Rock around 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 the other guys smoking in the bathroom. You're
washing your hands with your back turned toward the teacher for most of the
scene. Let's hear this scene.
(Soundbite of "Blackboard Jungle")
Mr. GLENN FORD: (As Richard Dadier) What's your name, wise guy?
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) Me? Miller. Gregory Miller. You want me
to spell it out for you so you won't forget it?
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) No, you don't have to do that. I'll remember
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) Sure, chief, you do that.
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) 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: (As Gregory Miller) You're holding all the cards, chief. You
want to take me to see Mr. Warneke, you do just that.
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) Who's your home period teacher?
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) You are, chief.
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) Well, why aren't you with the rest of the
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) Already told you. Came in to wash up,
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) All right, then, wash up. Just cut out that
chief routine, you understand?
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) Sure, chief. That's what I've been doing
all the time. OK for us to drift now, chief?
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) I don't want to catch you in here again.
Mr. POITIER: (As Gregory Miller) Suppose I got business here, chief?
Mr. FORD: (As Richard Dadier) Look, how many times do I have to tell you?
Let's go, huh? Come on, let's go!
(End of soundbite)
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.
Mr. POITIER: 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 no
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.
Mr. POITIER: Just the fact of it, you see.
Mr. POITIER: It would have been a luxury I would not have spent much time on
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 you
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
play 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: Would you describe Cat Island, the island in the Bahamas where you
Mr. POITIER: It's difficult to describe, in that words would be hard to find
to convey the beauty of it, you know. We have the most extraordinary beaches
in the world. The water is of a color and of a luminance that is absolutely
striking. And the life was such that you walked everywhere you went, and if
you had any heavy loads to carry, you would use a mule or a horse or a donkey,
and stuff like that.
GROSS: When you were 10, your family moved to Nassau, I think because there
was--what?--a crop failure on the island.
Mr. POITIER: Well, they were tomato farmers, that's how they earned their
living, and they sold to the middle guys in Florida. And they did that for
many, many years. And when I was about nine and a half or so, the US
government in Florida, on behalf of the Florida tomato growers, placed an
embargo on tomatoes coming out of the Bahamas for reasons, I suppose,
beneficial to the local farmers in Florida. But that devastated the whole
farming of tomatoes in the Bahamas, throughout the islands in the Bahamas, and
especially on Cat Island, which affected my father. And he, having no other
means of making a living, had to move the family to Nassau, which was and
still is a tourist community and a tourist economy. And he had to find work
as best he could somewhere in that new culture.
GROSS: What kind of work did he find?
Mr. POITIER: Well, not much. He found a job, ultimately, working for
someone in a bicycle store. And he wanted to continue farming, but the soil
available was not resilient enough to be useful.
GROSS: You left for Florida, where your brother was living with his family,
when you were age 15. You planned to stay with him; you didn't stay for long.
What was it like to face Southern segregation?
Mr. POITIER: Well, it was an experience, I can tell you. There was some
semblance of it in Nassau when we moved from Cat Island from Nassau. There
was none of it--none, absolutely none of it--on Cat Island. I never developed
any sense of what color would eventually come to mean in the other parts of
the world, and was really unprepared for what I found in Florida at the age of
GROSS: Did you do things in Florida that were considered terrible mistakes
because you didn't understand what segregation meant?
Mr. POITIER: I remember once, my brother, with whom I was living, once I had
arrived there, helped me to get a job within a matter of weeks at Burdines
Department Store. And at Burdines Department Store, I was given a delivery
job because I could ride a bicycle. And I use to ride the bicycle from
downtown Miami to Miami Beach to deliver packages for the pharmaceutical
division of the store.
I went to Miami Beach once to take--as a matter of fact, on my first day--to
take a package to a home. I had the address, and I went to the address and I
rang the bell. And a lady came to the front door and she saw me standing
there, and I said, `Good evening, ma'am. I came to bring you your package.'
And she slammed the--no, first she said, `Get around to the back door.' Well,
I--listen, I'm 15 years old. I don't know the rules, and I couldn't
understand why I needed to go to the back door because there she was standing
there in the front door, and there I was smiling with a package in my hand,
and expecting her to take it. And I said, `Well, here I am, ma'am, and here's
the package.' And I handed it to her. And she screamed at me to get around to
the back door. So she slammed the door in my face at that point. And still
not understanding fully, I decided that the best thing to do was to put the
package down on the steps and I left it there, and I left.
And I went home--actually, it was two days later. I returned from my work,
got home, and it was in the evening, and the house is dark, and I wondered why
there were no lights on in my brother's house. And as I approached the front
door, the door opened suddenly and my sister-in-law grabbed me and pulled me
in and pulled me to the floor, where the rest of the family was kind of like
huddling. And she said to me, `What did you do?' I said, `I didn't do
anything. What do you mean what did I do?' She says, `What happened?' And she
explained to me that the client had come to the house looking for me. And
that was like an introduction, first of all, to the term "client." I'd never
heard it where I came from. And my curiosity was such that I wondered. I
wasn't so much concerned about the client, because I had no experience and no
frame of reference. What I was concerned about was how the effect it had on
the family, and stuff like that.
There were other incidents in Florida that were representative of the time.
You know, America was a different place in early 1943.
GROSS: Your first audition was as a result of a classified ad that you'd read
for the American Negro Theater, which was looking for performers. You say
when you got to your audition, you had trouble just reading the script. You
certainly hadn't been in an audition before--you had no training--but you
didn't have much schooling, either.
Mr. POITIER: No, I didn't.
GROSS: How much schooling did you have, and what were your reading skills
like at the time?
Mr. POITIER: Well, my schooling, I started school in Nassau at the age of
11, and I had to quit. Actually I started school at the age of 10 1/2, like
two weeks after I arrived, and I had to quit at the age of 12 1/2 because my
father was not a man of material means, and therefore every hand in the family
needed to lend itself to the family's survival. So I had to go out to get a
job, and I did, in fact, get a job at 12 1/2. I suppose that my folks
anticipated my eventually going back to school, but it never happened. So
that when I got to New York, I'm able to read but very, very, very--I can't
imagine what level, what grade level, but it wasn't terrific.
So when I went into this place--I could read, for instance, the want ad pages,
and I could recognize words like "janitor" and "dishwasher" and stuff like
that. Just across the page from the want ad page was the theatrical page, and
there was this sign that said "actors wanted." And I went to this address. I
said, `Maybe I can--I tried dishwashing and janitors and all that stuff, maybe
I'll try this.' And I went there, and there was a gentlemen there alone in
this place that looked like--well, it was an empty room with lots of empty
chairs and a small--what I've learned--is a stage. And he asked me, he said,
`Are you an actor?' And I said, `Yes, I am.' He said, `Where have you acted?'
I said, `In Florida.' And he said, `OK.' He gave me a script and sent me up on
the little stage. And he said, `Turn to page 28.' And I did. I read the
page, and then the following page, and then I said, `OK, I'm ready.' And he
said, `OK, you start.' I said, `All right.' And I started reading.
Well, of course, I had never read for anyone in my life except maybe in the
elementary area my first year in school in Nassau. So I started out. I said,
(Speaking slowly) `So, where are you going tomorrow?' So the chap, I guess his
eyes flew open and he looked up on the stage and it all came to him, you know,
that I was a fake. So he came running up onto the stage and he snatched the
script out of my hand, and he grabbed me--I was a kid, you know--and he spun
me around and he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and my belt in the back,
and he marched me to the door. And on the way he said--these were his words,
as I remember, he said, `Get out of here and stop wasting people's time.' He
said, `Why don't you go out and get yourself a job you can handle?' And as he
opened the door and as he chucked me out, his last line to me was, `Get
yourself a job as a dishwasher or something.' Well!
GROSS: Well, why'd you come back for more after that?
Mr. POITIER: Because, oh, I mean, as I'm walking down the street, heading to
the bus stop to take a bus toward the area where the employment offices were
where I would be going to get a dishwasher's job, I said to myself, `How did
he know that I was a dishwasher, that's how I made my living in New York
City?' And I remembered not having told him that I was a dishwasher. So I
concluded that he presupposed that that would be my limit, I would fall
comfortably in that frame or some such frame. My potential was characterized
by his suggestion. And I thought that, `I cannot let that happen.' I would be
less than I would like to be if he had turned out to have been prophetic when
he made that comment. So I decided, as I headed for the bus station, that I
was going to become an actor, I was so offended by what he said. And I was
going to go back and show him that he was wrong in his assessment of me.
That's precisely how it happened.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. POITIER: Thank you for inviting me.
BIANCULLI: Sidney Poitier speaking to Terry Gross in 2000.
"In the Heat of the Night," in which he starred as Detective Virgil Tibbs, has
just been re-released as a special 40th anniversary DVD.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: TV critic David Bianculli on AMC's "Breaking Bad"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for TVworthwatching.com,
sitting in for Terry Gross.
Last year the American Movie Classics network set out to expand its horizons
and begin producing and presenting original quality television shows. In
2007, AMC presented Robert Duvall in "Broken Trail," the best Western
miniseries since "Lonesome Dove." AMC also presented "Mad Men," an ad agency
drama set in 1960 that ended up on many TV critics' end of year top 10 lists,
including mine. And now, this Sunday, comes another boldly,
against-the-grain, attention-getting offer. This one is called "Breaking
Bad." It's either a very black comedy or a very twisted, funny drama. After
watching three episodes, I'm still not sure which.
What I am sure about, though, is that "Breaking Bad" is a new series well
worth sampling. It stars Bryan Cranston, the exasperated husband from
"Malcolm in the Middle," as Walter White. He's a high school chemistry
teacher who lives in New Mexico and doesn't exactly have it easy. He
moonlights after school at a car wash to help pay the bills and his wife
re-sells flea market junk on eBay, but that's not enough. They have a teenage
son, a good natured kid with cerebral palsy, and a baby on the way. Walter's
wife marks his 50th birthday by presenting him with a special breakfast: a
plate of scrambled eggs with the numbers 5-0 spelled out with strips of veggie
Walter might be ripe for a midlife crisis, but he soon learns, as do we, that
midlife has long since passed him by. He's diagnosed as having inoperable
lung cancer and given two years to live, tops. But even before he gets that
bad news, he confronts death on a regular basis, in the classroom during his
(Soundbite of "Breaking Bad")
Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Chemistry! It is the study of what?
Unidentified Actor: (As Ben) Chemicals.
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Chemicals! No! Chemistry is--well,
technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the
study of change. Now just--just think about this. Electrons, they change
their energy levels. Molecules, molecules change their bonds. Huh?
Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that's--that's all of
life. Right? I mean, it's just the constant. It's the cycle. It's
solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay,
then transformation. It is fascinating, really.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: When Walter does learn about his cancer, he doesn't tell his wife
or anyone else. Instead, he has what might be considered a chemical reaction
and begins seething from within. Eventually he has an inspiration and decides
to team up with a local drug dealer and use his scientific expertise to become
the biggest crystal meth manufacturer in Albuquerque.
When I first heard about "Breaking Bad," that was where I grew skeptical. It
sounded too much like "Weeds," the Showtime comedy starring Mary-Louise Parker
as a suburban pot dealer. Also, a crystal meth cooker held little interest
for me as a dramatic protagonist. But Vince Gilligan, the writer, director
and creator of "Breaking Bad," will surprise you if you let him. He did the
same thing for years as a writer-producer on "The X-Files," including one
episode from 1999 which featured Bryan Cranston as the guest star. When
Gilligan began writing "Breaking Bad," he was sure Cranston could fill the
bill both comically and dramatically, and he does.
The two deserve equal credit for pulling off his very improbably trick of a TV
series. Cranston gets credit for making Walter sympathetic, even when you
know you should be rooting against him. And Gilligan gets credit for
confounding expectations at every turn. You know how bad things were for
Walter before he decided to provide for his family by cooking up batches of
crystal meth? Well, things get so much worse for Walter and so quickly that
you don't know how or if he's going to escape from the corner he's been
Sunday's premiere episode of "Breaking Bad" got my attention, and the next two
episodes sent for preview won me over, as subplots and supporting characters
rose to the surface. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since it's a comedy
drama about crystal meth, but "Breaking Bad" already has me hooked.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film critic David Edelstein on "Cloverfield"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The new film "Cloverfield" is about a giant monster running amok in New York
City. It has a relatively low budget, a cast of unknowns, and is directed by
Matt Reeves, co-creator of the TV series "Felicity." Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: It has been a decade since the release of "The Blair
Witch Project," which was shot with one video camera from the point of view of
the character holding it. The movie proved that when you eliminate the
omniscient perspective, when you show the audience only what a single
character sees and no more, you introduce a note of irrational terror that
millions of dollars of computer generated effects can't touch. "Blair Witch"
was a ghost story, though, a genre in which less is always more.
What if you used the same vantage for a giant monster picture, a spectacle,
"Godzilla" through the eyes--or lens--of a person way down below trying not to
get stomped? That was the hook of a script by Drew Goddard, which producer
J.J. Abrams snapped up and turned into "Cloverfield." Why the name
"Cloverfield"? It's suppose to be the Army code word for the monster, but
it's really an in-joke. As with "Blair Witch," the buzz was generated by a
so-called viral Internet marketing campaign. And the fans' incessant prying
led the filmmakers to refer to their project by the name of a street outside
Abrams' West Hollywood office. The non-title seemed somehow appropriate and
So finally we come to the film, which centers on a bunch of attractive
20-somethings at a part in a Lower Manhattan loft for Rob, who's taking a job
in Japan and leaving behind Beth, the old friend he can't bring himself to
tell he adores. To document the festivities, Rob's brother Jason and
girlfriend Lily thrust a digital video camera into the hands of Hud, a
loveable loser with a crush on a dark-eyed beauty named Marlena, who couldn't
find him more boring.
Hud walks around for a long time sticking his camera in people's faces, and we
wait, semi-bored but with a tingling sense of anticipation. We listen beyond
the party chatter for sounds of oncoming catastrophe. And when it comes,
boom, the party-goers gather in front of the TV set.
(Soundbite of "Cloverfield")
(Soundbite of screaming)
Unidentified Actor #1: Beth! Beth!
Unidentified Actor #2: Did you feel that? It's like an earthquake.
Unidentified Actor #3: You guys...
Actor #1: Beth, where are you?
Actor #3: ...what was that?
Unidentified Actor #4: Who is that?
Actor #1: Hey, are you all right?
Actor #4: Yeah. It was really scary.
Actor #1: I know...(unintelligible).
Actor #4: Yes.
Unidentified Actor #5: Hey, Marlena. Marlena, are you OK?
Actor #2: Guys, we got...
Unidentified Actor #6: Turn on the TV.
Unidentified Actor #7: OK.
Actor #6 All right, here we go. Here we go. Here we go.
Unidentified Actor #8: Oh, wait.
Actor #6: Everybody quiet down. Here we go.
Unidentified Actor #9: You all right?
Unidentified Actor #10: But now...(unintelligible)...
Unidentified Actor #11: Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.
Actor 6: Guys, come on.
Unidentified Actor #12: Sh.
Actor #10: ...approximately 15 minutes, after word of a possible earthquake
in lower Manhattan, nearby in New York Harbor, we're getting word of an oil
tanker capsizing in the middle of the harbor...
Unidentified Actor #13: Oh my God.
Actor #10: ...near the Statute of Liberty. Once again...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Weaving soap opera problems in and out of apocalyptic carnage
is always a challenge, as the...(unintelligible)...director Roland Emmerich
proved in his "Godzilla" remake and "The Day after Tomorrow." But
"Cloverfield" mostly gets by because the personal can't not be in the
foreground. Rob is determined to get to midtown to rescue Beth. Marlena and
Lily and Jason tag along, and all of them are captured on video by Hud, who
takes seriously his responsibility to document the crisis and whose shooting
is bracingly un-Hollywood-like.
The actors are appealing, although at a certain point I wish Beth gave us more
of a reason to want to see her rescued than a pair of great legs. Still, if
Rob and the others fled Manhattan at the outset, this wouldn't be much of a
As they make their way toward midtown, the head of the Statue of Liberty flies
into the street, tanks roll by, the sky is lit by yellowish smoke, buildings
collapse in huge clouds of dust. We see the great reptilian beast for only
brief instance, via a swerving camera, which means our imagination fills in
the rest. No scientist explains where it has come from. A government
experiment? An underwater chamber? To make matters worse, it didn't come
alone. It shakes off spider-like parasites that rip people up and infect
survivors with something deeply icky.
Of course, the notion of Hud picking up his camera after a bloody parasite
attack on the group is more improbable than a giant monster flattening
Manhattan. And the kid in you might crave a more objective view of the
creature, not to mention the catharsis that comes from watching science and
the military collaborate on bringing the monster down. That said, we have
seen that monster movie again and again, and we haven't seen anything with
"Cloverfield"'s subjective sting.
The devastation of Manhattan inevitably invokes 9/11, the limited vantage an
easy way for the filmmakers to exploit our newly stoked imaginations of
disaster without bothering about context. So "Cloverfield" is a shallow
exercise, but you'd have to be tougher than I am not to be blown sideways by
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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