The dignity of Sidney Poitier

Academy Award-winning actor-director Sidney Poitier. CBS News

(CBS News) The word "Legend" seems custom-made for actor Sidney Poitier, who has been making his presence felt on and off the screen for more than 60 years now. And he'll be telling Lesley Stahl this morning . . . his work is far from done:


Sidney Poitier's life has been a series of "firsts." In 1958, he was the first black actor nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor for his role as an escaped convict chained to Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones."

He was the first black man to kiss a white woman in a movie, 1965's "A Patch of Blue."

And when he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1964, he was not only the first black actor to do so, he remained the only one until 2002.

After starring in more than 50 movies, Poitier says his career choices were less about being "first" and more about the image of his characters.

He would not, he told Lesley Stahl, play someone who was immoral or cruel. "If you go through my career, you'll find that I didn't. I didn't ever."

His typical character was dignified, proud, and ethical.

Take Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who reluctantly helps a small town police chief in Mississippi, played by Rod Steiger, solve a murder, in "In the Heat of the Night."

But before signing on to play the role, Poitier asked the movie studio for a major script change to one scene in which his character is slapped:

"I said, 'If he slaps me, I'm going to slap him back. You will put on paper that the studio agrees that the film will be shown nowhere in the world, with me standing there taking the slap from the man.' "

"God, you had this written into the contract?" Stahl said.

"That's right, written into the contract," he replied.

"And of course it is one of those great, great moments in all of film, when you slap him back."

"Yes, I knew that I would have been insulting every black person in the world [if I hadn't]," Poitier said.

One critic noted that the slap represented "the repressed wrath of the black man for his American bondage."

Sidney Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs takes no insult lightly from Larry Gates, in the 1967 mystery "In the Heat of the Night."
United Artists

"I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else's vision of me," Poitier said. He said he would not take any part "that reflects negatively on my father, my mother and my values.

"My father was a tomato farmer. There is the phrase that says he or she worked their fingers to the bone, well, that's my dad. And he was a very good man."

The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born three months premature while his Bahamian parents were in Miami to sell tomatoes.

Uncertain whether he would survive, his dad purchased a tiny casket, while his mother consulted a palm reader . . .

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