Sidney Poitier talks with Studs Terkel about his most recent film "The Defiant Ones"
BROADCAST: Oct. 1, 1959 | DURATION: 00:35:16
Bahamian actor Sidney Poitier talks with Studs Terkel about his most recent film "The Defiant Ones" and how racial type-casting for typically white roles works in Hollywood films. Besides being an actor, he is also a film director, author, and diplomat.
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Studs Terkel Sitting across the microphone is perhaps the most exciting actor of the year. This sounds like a cliche to say this, but after having seen the movie - by this time a good number of WFMT listeners have seen the movie "The Defiant Ones." You may recall we interviewed the producer/director Stanley Kramer a few weeks ago, and I'm sure you're thinking -- because it's hard to forget the performance of the actor Sidney Poitier, one of the two men who escaped from the chain gang. As you think of Sidney Poitier a number of you think of the movie that preceded this that affected so many of us so profoundly, "Edge of the City." Can I call you Sidney?
Studs Terkel Certainly.
Studs Terkel Well, Sid, the questions we'll ask -- let's make this a free rambling sort of interview. Your feelings in being in a movie like "The Defiant Ones." It's a challenge to you as an actor. I suppose we have to break this down first as an actor and then as a Negro. We can't separate the two. And as a human being. When you first came across this script that was handed to you. What was your feeling about the script itself?
Sidney Poitier Well, I had feelings in each of the areas you mentioned, you know. Primarily I had feelings, emotional reactions as a Negro. As an actor, naturally, there were certain technical things that I look for. I looked into the structure of the material and found it to be much, much, much, much, much better than average. I looked into the elements that would - that I liked to term the human elements, and I found it to be, potentially, an exciting script. Some additional minor changes were necessary, I thought, and I conveyed these feelings to the producer, Stanley Kramer. But generally I thought that, properly handled, it could be one of the most exciting pictures ever made.
Studs Terkel Well, it's turned out to be that, and I think no small part is due to the performances involved. Now, I'm thinking of something now -- we touched upon this as you came into the studio. There was a movie that dealt with you up north [unintelligible] the waterfront -- a movie shot in New York. Again the relationship of two men. Two men, one happen to be white, one Negro -- just as in "The Defiant Ones," one is white and one Negro. The difference in relationship, I suppose, was due to the geographical differences too. Now, in "Edge of the City" you played this, a foreman of the waterfront. And John
Sidney Poitier Right.
Sidney Poitier Well, I think that, in essence, each picture runs toward the same kind of conclusion. Each picture is different only because of the difference in the milieu and the difference in certain social patterns, but human beings no matter where they are, north or south, they are 3-dimensional, and the relationship between the two men in "The Defiant Ones" and the relationship between the two guys in "Edge of the City" is the same kind of basic human relationship wherein man must depend on man. Where they have - where man must, whether he likes it or not, develop a give and take. And the old cliche about your brother's keeper bit, I think it's not so much a cliche, you know. And each picture has something to say about this.
Studs Terkel It's funny. I imagine -- I'm trying to think which is a greater challenge to a member of the audience to listen to, whether it be a member living in the north or south. Which is a greater challenge: "Edge of the City" or "The Defiant Ones"? In "Edge of the City" perhaps there is more -- rather in "Defiant Ones" [sic] more tension between the two because there is a prejudice that is the lack of knowledge on the part of both guys.
Sidney Poitier Mhmm.
Sidney Poitier Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's that's, see, that's the wonderful thing about this movie that - and it's not a preachment, you know. It would happen if it was not a motion picture. It would happen if it was a hunk of life sliced out of any section of these United States. You find a black man and a white man who have nothing particular in common except that they are human beings. If you put if you put them in a certain, in a set of circumstances that are as lifelike as some we have here in our country, and they have to function for a mutual end, you'll find that each will in time unconsciously expose areas of himself to the other that the other will grow to respect, you know. And out of this mutual respect will come the natural deterrent to -- deterrent, which is the way we pronounce it in the West Indies.
Studs Terkel Mhmm.
Sidney Poitier Deterrent here, yeah. Natural deterrent to to emotional outbursts and uncontrolled, violent reactions to one another. "Edge of the City," again on the other hand, is a picture that says pretty much the same thing, but this picture, "Edge of the City," started where these two men began, from the beginning, to expose areas of themselves, one to the other, and you watch this relationship grow until these men had develop a love for one another. And it's interesting to know that we don't usually we don't usually believe that a love can develop between two men, you know. We we're squeamish people in this regard, you know.
Studs Terkel Unfortunately.
Sidney Poitier Unfortunately. Just like the bigger the guy and the more strapping he is it seems that the more he tries to hide his feelings, his honest feelings, of love for anything other than a woman, you know, or his children.
Studs Terkel I think this is one of the sadness, in a sense, in an Anglo-Saxon society. There are many good features, but one is this inhibition -- this fear of expressing a very genuine and basic emotion. We're afraid we're not being viral--
Sidney Poitier Yes.
Sidney Poitier Yes.
Studs Terkel And of course, that's what makes the - that, of course, makes the man all the more viral, as it, as you and Cassavetes both were - "Edge of the City," and certainly as you and Tony Curtis are in "The Defiant Ones." They're both, you might say, love stories, in a sense.
Sidney Poitier They are indeed, you know, they are. They're truly love stories. They they, any guy who can grow to care for another man to the point that he will devote even his life to to the well-being and the peace and the growth of the other guy, it's love. It's it's a self- selfless kind of love. You find this a great deal in the Orient, in Oriental philosophy. You find that one of the most important parts of it -- most important principles of Oriental philosophy -- is love, you know. Unselfish love, and this is for all of God's creatures.
Studs Terkel And yet in a sense, if I may, I'm not disagreeing with you. The film, sort of, enlightened selfishness to you both needed each other. There was this, to me I was so taken with the concept of the link, the chain that bound both your wrists together even that was broken, and each of you could have gotten away. First, he could have with the girl in the car and left you in the swamp. Then you could have on the train.
Sidney Poitier Right.
Sidney Poitier Yes, yes. But it's expressed in this movie on the level of the acceptance of the audience. In other words, it's it's it's expressed as it would be expressed in life, on the level of our development socially to a point where we can express love of this kind. We don't say maudlinly, "I dig you. I think you're a nice guy, and I'm sorry if I've hurt you and yackity yackity yak." But it's each guy simply says, "You know, you're all right, you're a pretty okay guy." You know, we express it in our way.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Sidney Poitier Mhmm. Yeah I was I was reared in the Caribbean. My parents are West Indians, and I was born in Miami Florida through accident. My mother was pregnant during a visit to Florida in nineteen-hundred and twenty seven and the authorities - the immigration authorities - wouldn't let her travel when she was ready to go home because she was close so close to giving birth, and she had to stay over till I was born. Then we went back to the Caribbean where I spent 15 years of my my youth. And it's been home. It's still home kind of sentimentally in a certain quarter my heart.
Studs Terkel What about the West Indian [myth?]. I ask this, I'm going to ask about you, an actor, in a moment, but I thought of this. I always wondered about this. Is the West Indian considered a man a part from other the Negroes, by Negroes. This, perhaps, may be irrelevant here. I don't know.
Studs Terkel No.
Sidney Poitier But there is an understanding that they are products of different cultures, you see. And each culture has produced a black man with certain cultural character characteristics that are distinct unto the particular areas of their origin. The West Indian speaks differently from most American Negroes and he his education is that which would be gathered from any British colonial possession. His attitudes sometimes, historically, his attitudes socially, his attitudes in relation to contemporary politics and international politics, local politics would differ, I would imagine, from the Negro in America only because there are certain sets of rules. One guy is predominantly an English subject and the other guy is an American.
Sidney Poitier Yes.
Sidney Poitier Well, I think there is that about acting that affords me an expression that I couldn't find anywhere else. I'm I sometimes like to think of myself as not very, I'm not I'm a pretty emotionally stirred up dude, you know.
Studs Terkel Mhmm.
Sidney Poitier And I need a great many releases I need a great many releases, and as Western Civilization becomes more mechanized I need additional outlets too. And acting at the time -- when I was 17, 18 years old -- acting offered me an area where I could be an exhibitionist, where I could give vent to some of my frustrations, where I could be where I could pour out some of my confusion and other ills into a fictitious character.
Sidney Poitier Thank you. And I, so I used the theater, I used acting and acting classes as a therapy. I would go there after working in the garment district, or any of the 14, 18 places I did work. I would go to class at night, and I would sit and study and do scenes and read. And I had I felt, you know, that this is something that gives me a badge of distinction. I can be many things here, and the areas of life socially and otherwise that are that were then restricted to me, I had ways of retaliating in this kind of illusion, you know.
Studs Terkel [It? You?] can be many things you said. Which leads to, I think, to a to a point here. Obviously, but "The Defiant Ones" is an adult film. You've been to two remarkably adult films. The treatment here of the Negro not as the old fashioned stereotype, not the porter, not always the bootblack, or the or the kowtower, but as a as a human being. And this leads to a question. Have you thought of the idea - I know this has occurred, the late Canada Lee played Caliban in "The Tempest," we hear the we hear we read of the tremendous Negro actor of a century or more ago, Ira Aldridge, who played Shakespeare - has the thought of playing a role, a person who is not necessarily Negro just an actor, he is neither a Negro nor white just a certain character, has this thought occurred to you or come into your ken?
Sidney Poitier Oh, of course, it has. I play now, I play Negro parts because this is the period in history when I must play Negro parts. I think that in 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 20 years there will come a time when there will be more stress on merit and on creative ability than on the, than is paid now. Now we give credence to casting according to type, you see. We do this primarily, I think, because we don't have a standard -- a real standard in the American theater. Had we a standard in the American theater as, for instance, they have somewhat of a standard in England and other European countries, the actor regardless of his origin once he is developed to a point where he can where he can compete on a certain professional level then his talent is employed, not his, not what he represents socially or what what he looks like or the place he may have in the society. His talent is employed and if that talent is found in in an Egyptian or if it is found him in an American Indian, I see no reason why an American Indian cannot play Shakespeare, if he happens to be a tremendous Shakespearean actor, you follow?
Sidney Poitier Mhmm.
Sidney Poitier Yes, he was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors that ever lived. He was one of the most decorated actors that ever lived. And he was - he worked in New York with Edmund Kean, not as an actor. Kean recognized his talent, but was unable to do much about it. He worked around as a janitor and a porter in a Greenwich Village Shakespearean theaters. And not being able to get a job, nor was he allowed to go anywhere to any schools to study the craft of acting. He went to Europe and worked and studied Shakespeare in Europe and became, to this day, the greatest Negro actor that ever lived. And in Europe he was not referred to as a Negro actor because his talent had superseded the social distinction, you see.
Studs Terkel What about, is there a -- this is in the future, you you've been talking about a biography of Ira Aldridge that is about to be published, which you're interested. I imagine you'd like to tackle. That would be a challenge to you, wouldn't it?
Sidney Poitier Yes, I'd like to buy it, if I can afford it. And I'd like to fashion it, if it's, if all things considered, The the economics of it. If it's all right, I'd like to fashion it into a screen story. If this is not possible, I'd like to fashion it into a play. But I think that it would make exciting theater. The life of a man who became one of the world's greatest actors - who died in Europe by the way, he never returned - and who, you know, he was only a few years removed from slavery.
Sidney Poitier Yeah.
Studs Terkel You mentioned something -- now [we're in?] Another era - you mentioned in passing a while ago you'd like to find as many -- you found acting a good means of expressing your, an outlet for your feelings in a growing mechanization of our Western culture. You want to touch that? It's a sore spot with me? You mentioned something, what do you mean? You mean we're becoming the machine in a sense? The growth of--.
Sidney Poitier Well, no. I mean that the more mechanized a civilization becomes, the more complex life becomes for the people in it. And we have reached a point now where the acceleration of gigantic changes in the social behavior patterns brought on as a result by the introduction of additional machines and new types ways of doing things mechanically has brought us to a point of bewilderment, I think. We are bewildered by the constant change of things. We are on the threshold of a nuclear age, and we don't quite know what to do with it. We don't know how to treat it. Some guys say, "Ban it," some guys say, "Destroy it," some guys say, "Let's harness it," but there is no agreement really. This is not the major problem. The fact that they cannot agree only serves to show that possibly man has not developed himself to be able to control the natural flow of science as he was in the days when science was a baby. When you develop the gun, the gunpowder you could kill one guy at a time, and 10 years later you could kill 14 guys with a shot. And it took them 30 or 40 years before they could come to a point where they could kill 1600 guys, but now they can knock off 2 million guys at a shot. And when they do harness this power for good it means that it's going to open up all kinds of new vistas for man, but will man be ready emotionally. Has man been able to make the same kind of gigantic strides in studying man and his limits -- his limitations, his capacities, and his adaptability more than anything else. You know, I don't know how we're going to adapt to traveling around in space. I don't know how were going to adapt to to the to all the wonder drugs that will be in existence 25 years from now. I don't know how we're going to adapt to going to California in 45 minutes and probably to the moon over the weekend. I don't know if man has the wherewithal to make the kind of adjustment that would maintain for him his sanity, you know. But then again that's probably one of my kooky kicks.
Studs Terkel You know, in a sense this is connected with your job as an actor too. You feel then when human life, to some extent, becomes so cheap it's kind of rough for an actor to express a human aspiration too, in a way, and reach an audience.
Sidney Poitier Yeah. Well, with me, you see, I try to to develop, in work, a kind of schizophrenic personality in that I want to see man as he is and must be able to understand him as he is and in order to be able to recreate him with all of his complexities, you follow? But at the same time I am also a human being and I am I am like I am I too am like the man that I am portraying. I don't know which way is out, you know. I don't have the answers, but I'm aware that answers are necessary quickly.
Studs Terkel But you as an actor -- someone made a comment that you as an actor, at least at least two roles, "Edge of the City and "Defiant Ones" [sic] have been able to express the nobility of man. A human being not idealized. You're not a saint in either of them. You're a human being. But you were able to express the strengths of a guy under circumstances that are trying -- that will try a guy. And this to me is a compliment to your craft as an actor, plus your intelligence as a human.
Sidney Poitier Well, you're very kind; however, I think that that is a compliment that, though well intended, does little for me in this regard. On a selfish level I would probably revel in people saying such nice things about me, but then on another level you'll find that you have to be concerned about mankind. I am about humanity to the point where you say that my contribution must never, or I would rather my contribution never be thought of in terms of my own selfish accomplishments, my own selfish achievements, my own selfish goals. I would like them thought of in terms of my contribution to the betterment of man.
Sidney Poitier Yeah. Yeah, you know you'll -- but it sometimes after the thrills and after the kicks you go home and you prepare for bed and you're alone and you think. And you think of the emptiness of the victories, you know. I think sometimes of the emptiness of, for instance, certain victories of certain nations over the last century. I think in terms of the hundreds of thousands of lives that were that were just wasted and many scuffles like this, and nobody learned not -- well, I wouldn't say nobody, but nations didn't learn. They didn't stop it. They appalled it momentarily, and they propagandized to the point where they say it was necessary. And, but they keep jabbing at each other and you know.
Studs Terkel You know, Sidney, this may sound like imagination on my part. Perhaps it is, and yet I have a doubt that it's a good hunch. I think your thought as a human being is an asset to you as an actor. This not always the case. I know sometimes there are unthinking guys who happen to be good craftsman. They're good actors. We know that. There's a guy, lets say this guy's a jerk, and he can be a good actor, it's possible, a master of his craft.
Sidney Poitier Mhmm.
Studs Terkel But I think the perfor- your performances are so multidimensional that somehow the audience senses there's a great deal of thought behind this and a tremendous amount of feeling that isn't at that moment simulated. It's there. This plus your technique I think accounts for the performances.
Sidney Poitier Well, in "The Defiant Ones" I try to work on a certain level. I think I achieved some of the things I went after, and as I told you before, my complexed mind mind - the little I know, but whatever makes me complex naturally has to show up in my work for good or bad.
Sidney Poitier Yes, there was a kind of a research. I am I am an American Negro. I'm an American Negro now. Ten years ago, 8 years ago I was a West Indian. I still, the West Indian culture still influenced my thought greatly. Today my thoughts are influenced, I would imagine, more by the American scene - the American Negro community than is by the West Indian. So it wasn't difficult for me to begin to work. I know where to look for material when I did my research on the kind of character I played in "The Defiant Ones." And I liked the man. I liked him. I liked the character, and I wanted to make him as full and as 3-dimensional as I could in order that other people watching it would get his message, you know. He was a good human being. And he was a good human being who was caught in unpleasant and in many sets of unpleasant circumstances. And he reacted as any normal human being would, but his goodness was always there, and it was never compromised. It was never -- it was always there.
Studs Terkel I'd say [there's? he's?] A man -- I think what makes it project right across the screen to the audience is was a combination of many things -- a man of fears too -- just [unintelligible] of fears.
Sidney Poitier Of Course, he was a man of fears. That's right. you know, in all my work -- I'm very glad you mentioned that -- there is a pocket of fear in everybody. The man who has escaped fear from man still has fear of something else, and this fear fear is not destructive as long as you recognize if this fear makes you humble in the face of things and elements that are infinitely more powerful than you, you know. But when you begin, when fear the fear of the piddling things grab a hold of a guy, you know, it can immobilize him. That's the dangerous kind. But if you fear God, if you fear the unknown in terms of the metaphysical, if you fear if you fear your man's inability probably to grasp the meaning of things, the scheme of things, these are natural fears, and it helps him to to tame his his--
Studs Terkel And there's -- oh, I suppose this is asked often, the difference. How is the actor affected working in this more mechanical medium? The film as against the theater, is there the same kick?
Sidney Poitier Yeah. There is the same satisfaction of a job well done anywhere you do it, be it on television, pictures, or on stage, but on the stage the satisfaction is instantaneous, and the competition is a different kind of competition. The competition in the theater and your ability to compete rests primarily with you. The director helps considerably in that he guides your talent. On a motion picture screen it differs somewhat because there are so many other contributions necessary to the whole. You have a cutter -- a guy who, you can play a beautiful scene in many sections, and it can be badly assembled and it would destroy the effect of the scene. You have that technical element, which must be right in terms of what the piece needs. You have the director, you have the other actors, you have music, you know. Many many a guy has to make a contribution to a motion picture be it good bad or indifferent. Many many contributions are made. On the stage you get up there with the other actors, they build a set, and you go, you know. And--
Studs Terkel I was thinking, I think I should remind some of the WFMT listeners, those who may not have seen "The Defiant Ones" or "Edge of the City," that you were in the movie the Alan Paton novel, were you not?
Sidney Poitier Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Sidney Poitier Well, I had 16 terribly disturbing weeks in South Africa. South Africa is not a pleasant place for the overwhelming majority of its citizens. And my being a Negro, being a guy, a black man I came in for pretty much the same kind of deal that the majority of the native Africans had to withstand. But I had, but I worked 16 weeks there. I think that it didn't affect my work too much. It just ruined me socially for a couple of years.
Studs Terkel And again I suppose all this, every aspect of your life, whether it be West Indies or America or South Africa, all this contributes to you, Sidney Poitier, the artist. One more question before you wind up with again asking -- not asking just suggesting that viewers see "Defiant Ones" [sic] for their own good feeling, well feeling. The music involved the blues. You sang a blues here. Did you -- you never sang -- did you sing before?
Sidney Poitier Well, I sang that well because I didn't have to sing it, you see. There was a mood necessary. And this man, this man did not sing for others enjoyment. He sang for his own ease, his own release, his own feeling of loneliness. He sang for himself, and to him it didn't matter, and it never will matter whether he's on key, off key, or what. It's what the words mean to him, you see. So the song fits the movie because it fits the man's mood the way it's sung. As a result, I must honestly say I more acted the song than sang it.
Studs Terkel You might say this movie is sort of a poem, in a sense, sort of a blues. It opens with your voice singing "Long Gone" as the credits superimpose and the movie begins, and it closes as the two men discover each other.
Sidney Poitier Mhmm.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel And as you sing it I could think of no better way to wind up this interview, unless you yourself feel like saying something as sort of a coda here to this, just your own feelings about being an actor and being in this film, go right ahead because I'm thinking of "Long Gone."
Sidney Poitier I'd like to say only that I have been very lucky in the picture business. I've been working with a degree of consistency compared to a lot of other actors, I never stopped. However, I would like to remind the public that if you like this picture, please tell your friends and your neighbors to go and see it. We would like all the support we can get for this kind of movie because we need -- and I think that there is a huge audience in the United States for -- the kind of picture that has a constructive, humanitarian point of view in these trying, kooky, insane days the world is going through.
Studs Terkel Amen to that, Sidney Poitier. You might just add that, perhaps, if a film like this is supported, and I'm sure WF- - this is not a sermon or anything, just from the standpoint of entertainment. Not that films can be better than ever. That films could be more adult than ever. This is an adult film that the audience need not be underestimated, the film audience. And with that in view, "Defiant Ones" [sic] is the film and Sidney Poitier's the actor we have to thank for this, to me, a very moving and stimulating conversation. Thank you very much, Sidney Poitier.