Sidney Poitier’s ‘In The Heat of the Night’ Co-Stars Reflect on Late Star

by Suzanne Halliburton

If you’re a movie fan, you probably can recite the line Sidney Poitier made famous for In the Heat of the Night.

Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Philadelphia who was on assignment in Mississippi. This was the south during the1960s, so Poitier’s Tibbs faced immense racism. Rod Steiger, as Chief Bill Gillespie, mocks Tibbs and uses a racial slur when he asked what folks up north call him. Sidney Poitier set him straight.

“They call me Mr. Tibbs,” a defiant Poitier declared.

Poitier died this past week. The actor, known for his talent and grace, was 94. He won an Oscar in 1964, becoming the first Black man to earn an Academy Award for Best Actor. He secured the Oscar with his role playing a handyman helping out German nuns in Lilies of the Field.

Here is a famous scene from the movie in which Sidney Poitier gives the nuns an English lesson while singing Amen.

Sidney Poitier Had a Famous Line and Slap in Movie

But let’s circle back to that Sidney Poitier line and the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night. It inspired a sequel called They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and a TV show starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.

Besides the famous line, there also was a memorable scene. Poitier’s Tibbs goes to interview Mr. Endicott, who owns a plantation. Endicott, portrayed by Larry Gates, doesn’t like the questioning. So he slaps Tibbs in the face. Tibbs slaps him back.

Two of the main people involved with the movie still are alive to talk about Sidney Poitier and his impact on the world.

(Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

Poitier Didn’t Want to Film Movie in South

Norman Jewison directed the movie. He told People that he initially planned to film the movie on location in Mississippi. But Sidney Poitier asked him to reconsider. Poitier said he was on a trip to Mississippi with singer Harry Belafonte to register voters in the state. And Poitier said he didn’t receive a warm reception from the state’s residents. Poitier said the racism he experienced was “unsettling.”

“I found this little town in Southern Illinois near the Mississippi River and it was called Sparta,” Jewison told People. “And I thought ‘I’ll just make it Sparta [Miss.] I won’t have to change any of the signs on the water tower or anything.'” Jewison said Poitier did film a scene at a plantation in Tennessee, which was the only southern spot in the movie.

“I’ll never forget, there was one hotel in town and it had a sign on its door saying, ‘Whites only.’ So we ended up at the Holiday Inn, which accepted all of us, the crew and Sidney and all the actors,” Jewison said.

The director also said the first night there, several white men in pickup trucks came to the hotel parking lot. They were all shouting. So Jewison said he made calls to members of the crew, asking that the biggest guys on the movie set keep the men off of Poitier’s floor.

And about that slap. Jewison told Sidney Poitier: “Got to do it fast because it’s a total reaction. If you were back in Philadelphia, you wouldn’t accept it.” Poitier told Jewison “don’t worry, the scene will work, and it will be powerful.”

Lee Grant, like Jewison, is in her 90s. She portrayed Mrs. Colbert in the movie. She said of Sidney Poitier:

“He had a sense of morality that went through all of his films. And if you see the fellow Black actors who honored him, it was for being the first, for being the first to break the white bar.”

She added: “Sidney just was a hero. The first Black hero. The first. He was the first Black hero in the film world.”