Today the great Sidney Poitier hits a milestone birthday, as the legendary star turns 90 years old. The actor helped pave the way for black actors in getting roles more worthy of their talent, instead of being cast in subservient roles as had been done too often prior to his screen debut in 1950’s No Way Out. While he started out in supporting roles, Poitier soon started being cast in lead roles, including 1958’s The Defiant Ones, which was one of his first substantial roles.
A prison truck transporting convicts in the South is suddenly run off the road and crashes. Following the accident, two convicts escape; a white man named John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and a black man named Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier). The two men loathe one another, mostly due to the fact that Joker is an ignorant racist. But because they are chained together they’re forced to cooperate in order to survive and elude capture from the authorities.
Director Stanley Kramer very much wanted Sidney Poitier to play Noah Cullen, so much so that he delayed production for The Defiant Ones until the actor was available to film the movie. While Poitier was Kramer’s original choice, Tony Curtis was not, as his character was initially supposed to be played by Marlon Brando. When a previous contractual obligation prevented Poitier from doing the film right away, Brando had to then decline the lead role because the filming delay caused shooting to overlap with another obligation, leading to Curtis being cast instead when Poitier was ready to make the movie.
Unlike the characters they played, the two actors got along well during the film’s production. Curtis even requested that Poitier’s name appear with his name above the title, which was the first time Poitier received that type of billing in his career. But despite the camaraderie among the cast and crew, making The Defiant Ones was a grueling experience, especially for Poitier and Curtis. As their characters were on the run and chained together throughout much of the film’s duration, filming their scenes was physically draining for the two actors. Both Poitier and Curtis ended up doing most of the film’s stunt work, which included running through fields and swamps and fighting one another, all while chained together.
The work Poitier and Curtis did on The Defiant Ones didn’t go unrecognized, as both received critical acclaim and accolades for their performances. Both received nominations for Best Actor at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, and the Academy Awards. Poitier actually won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his powerhouse performance in the film, becoming the first black actor to receive that particular award. The Golden Globe and Oscar nominations the two actors received for the film was a first for both of them. Though his performance in The Defiant Ones ended up being Curtis’s sole Oscar nomination, Poitier did go on to receive one more five years later for 1963’s Lilies of the Field and went on to become the first black actor to receive the movie industry’s highest honor.
The Defiant Ones was a real turning point in Sidney Poitier’s career. Following his work in the film, he was cast in more and more lead roles, including films like Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. It also marked his first collaboration with Stanley Kramer, and the two famously worked together again in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And the year 1967 alone was a big one for Poitier, as he headlined three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race and racism, with the other two being To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night (which was crowned the year’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards). In his illustrious film career, Poitier helped bring more awareness to racial issues, and many of his films like The Defiant Ones are still relevant today, showing how dangerous ignorance can be.
I wrote this entry as a part of the 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the trailblazing actor in honor of his birthday. Click the banner below to read more posts on the living legend!