Sidney Poitier and Gregg Champion on the set of The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
Sidney Poitier and Gregg Champion on the set of The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
A Trimark advertisement for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn.
Sidney Poitier, who died on January 6, at age 94, was without question one of the most acclaimed and influential movie stars of his generation. Not surprisingly, the outpouring of tributes upon his passing focused largely on his film work — including early successes like The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun and Lilies of the Field (for which he became the first Black performer to win an Oscar for Best Actor); the extraordinary year of 1967, when he starred in To Sir, with Love, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night; and dozens of others in a career that spanned half a century.
But in the 1990s Poitier began appearing more frequently on television — and promptly distinguished himself there as well. Highlights included Emmy-nominated performances as two iconic historical figures: Thurgood Marshall in the Showtime limited series Separate but Equal and Nelson Mandela in the ABC telefilm Mandela and de Klerk.
Poitier's characters in two CBS productions that marked the final projects of his career were fictional, not famous. But both possessed traits associated with the man himself: dignity, decency and mastery of their chosen crafts.
In 1999's The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, he played a small-town carpentry whiz faced with the loss of his large rural property when developers attempt to seize it to build a shopping center.
In The Last Brickmaker in America, which premiered in 2001, he was another small-town artisan confronted by modernization — this time a producer of handmade bricks who commits to delivering 22,000 bricks for a construction project in just eight weeks to avoid defaulting on a contract.
Gregg Champion, who directed both films, grew up among show business legends as the son of Marge and Gower Champion — dancers, choreographers, directors and mainstays of Broadway, film and television musicals for several decades. Even so, the opportunity to work with a star of Poitier's stature was as daunting as it was thrilling.
"I was terrified at the prospect," he recalls with a laugh.
But from the first day on Noah Dearborn, any concerns were allayed by Poitier's kindness and collaborative spirit.
Here, Champion shares memories of working with Poitier — a larger-than-life figure who was actually as down-to-earth as they come.
How did you meet Sidney?
I had mainly cut my teeth in feature films, working with different directors, and I did six or seven movies with John Badham. I became the second-unit director of the action sequences in the movies. When I finally went out on my own, I did a couple of features and ended up meeting my wife when I was in New York shooting a movie called The Cowboy Way, with Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland. Then I went to Europe to do a movie when my son was four months old, and I realized I couldn't go away for a year anymore.
So, I got into television for a couple of years and, ironically, I was the lead director on a series called The Magnificent Seven, which was executive produced by Walter Mirisch, who was one of Sidney's best friends. While I was working on that, I was developing different things, and I developed a script with a young writer named Sterling Anderson. It was this wonderful kind of fable called The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, and I thought it would be perfect for Sidney.
I knew Sidney's agent, Marty Baum, but I had never met Sidney. I was terrified at the prospect. I sent Marty the script, and he called me and said, "I think Sidney would like this. Send me something I can show him of your work." I thought, "Okay, I'll send the biggest thing I've done." At the time, that was The Cowboy Way.
A little later, Marty called back and said, "Sidney doesn't want to see anything you've done in the movies." This really speaks to Sidney's character and his knowledge, because Marty said, "He only wants to see what you've done for television, because in television there's no budget and no time." I told him the the only television I'd done was a western, The Magnificent Seven, which was nothing like the movie we were doing. He said, "It doesn't matter, just send it." So, I sent an episode, and when he called me back, he said, "Sidney said he'll do it."
What happened next?
Originally, it was going to be done as an indie movie for a company called Trimark, and we had a very small budget. But once Sidney agreed to do it, a couple of other companies were interested. Then CBS called — this was in February — and they said, "If you can get this on the air May 9th, we'll double your budget and make it a special for television. So, I immediately went to Atlanta, where we were going to shoot, to scout locations.
We had a three-week prep and a 20-day shoot. When we began prepping, I hadn't met Sidney yet. He was putting on his wardrobe in L.A., and I was getting pictures sent to me in Atlanta of what he was trying on. I could see from what he was wearing that he had a totally different idea of what his character looked like than I did. Noah Dearborn drove a tractor, and Sidney had a lot of Carhartt stuff and a baseball cap. It was very heavy-looking, which was not how I saw the character in the opening of the film. I didn't know how to approach him about it. I thought, "Am I going to call him up and say, 'I don't like the wardrobe you're picking'"?
Two days before we started shooting, Sidney came to rehearsal and met the cast. That's a story in itself, because he was the most gracious person in the world. I had Dianne Wiest and Mary-Louise Parker and some really experienced actors, and when Sidney walked into the rehearsal room, it was dead silent. (Laughs) Nobody could speak.
We did a read-through of the script, and everything went fine. Then I said to Sidney, "I'd like to talk to you about the character." He said, "Okay, let's have dinner tonight." At dinner, I said, "I'm getting the sense that we see the character a little differently." He listened, and he said, "Let me ask you this: Do you have time to shoot it two different ways?" I said, "Of course." Which we really didn't! (Laughs)
So, on the first day of shooting, we did a scene two different ways, in different clothes. Then I had other things to shoot that day not involving him. He came back to the set the next day with a DVD, handed it to me, and said, "We'll do it your way."
That gave me so much confidence because Sidney had directed and produced and done everything in the business. When he came to the set, he would walk over, and we'd all stand back. (Laughs) He'd look through the camera and say, "What are your shots?" I'd tell him, and he'd look through the camera again, and he'd say, "Oh, that's very smart."
It was a Zen experience working with him — I'm cribbing that from him because he called it a Zen experience.
You weren't a novice filmmaker, but it sounds like you were learning from him.
Definitely. He was different than anybody I'd ever worked with. He memorized not only all of his lines, but all of everybody else's lines, so you weren't allowed to change. I'd worked with actors where you sat in a rehearsal and they would mumble the lines, or they would go, "I wouldn't say this." Actually, one of the actors did say that at one point to Sidney. Sidney said, "My dear, it's not you that's saying it, it's your character."
How did The Last Brickmaker in America come about?
That began at CBS. After Noah Dearborn ended up being one of the highest rated shows of the year, I got a call from my talented young executive, Arturo Interian, asking, "Can we do another movie like Noah Dearborn?" Somebody had an idea that appealed to Sidney, so it was developed with him in mind. I think they were trying to recapture Noah Dearborn. It still did well — eight million viewers is a lot — but we aired it the weekend after 9/11.
You had already worked with Sidney, so you were not new to one another. How was the experience on the second movie?
It was wonderful, the same kind of Zen-like experience. But we had some severe weather. We were shooting in North Carolina because that's where the red brick was. We had a good experience but got rained out a few times.
Did you and he ever consider working together again?
We had another project; it was a feature we were going to do with Lion's Gate, which unfortunately never got done. It had to do with the Holocaust, and we worked closely together on it. We could never get the script right, and he was very discerning about that. But he was still open to doing things. I was surprised he didn't do another because he did have a lot of offers.
Also, he looked amazing — and he had no makeup or hair person! He would come to the set, and before shooting, his assistant would give him a little mirror. He'd look in the mirror, maybe make a small adjustment, and he'd say, "Ready." Literally, that was it. No makeup, no hair, no nothing.
Did you stay in touch with him after working with him on the two TV movies?
Just the occasional lunch, usually at Spago. That was his favorite. I was also friends with Larry Mirisch, Walter Mirisch's son, and Sidney and Walter were always together. If it wasn't Spago, he and Sidney we were having lunch at the Hillcrest Tennis Club, and so I'd see them both there.
One time I was in New York, and he invited me to dinner. Sidney was a dapper guy, so I thought I'd better wear something nice because I didn't know where we would be going. It turned out he was going to cook me dinner. He opened a can of tuna fish, put oil in the pan, mixed it with collard greens and it was absolutely delicious. (Laughs)
I was looking at your parents' credits and saw that your father directed a special with Harry Belafonte and Julie Andrews in the late 1960s. Sidney wasn't part of that, but I know he and Harry Belafonte were very good friends.
Yes, they were. When we were at dinner one night, Sidney told me he had had a conversation with Harry about my folks. My mom became a big civil rights advocate after a show that my parents did with Harry called Three for Tonight, and Sidney was aware of that. Harry told Sidney, "They're quality. Your parents were quality people." That's the way he spoke.
For those of us who only know him through movies and television, how would you describe him?
For me, the word that comes to mind is inspirational. He engendered inspiration just being in his presence — and especially because he instilled a lot of confidence in me. He respected my thought about his character, he'd look in the eyepiece and give encouraging words, and I felt I was really inspired every day to do my best work.
And for him, it was all about the work. If an actor had a problem with a line or something he would say, "Let's run the line." And then he would change something in his. I remember there was a time in Noah Dearborn where he and Mary-Louise Parker had a conversation about something that she was uncomfortable with, and we went off to the side and ran the lines. He asked her to read with him, and he made an adjustment. It was so subtle I don't even know what it was. But it made her feel completely at ease, and she said, "Oh, that worked." Then we went and got the scene. He had a way of making other people comfortable; it wasn't all about him. He really listened to other people's concerns.
After his passing, there were so many tributes and assessments not just of his career, but of his life. He faced the challenges of prejudice, but he also felt a lot of responsibility as a successful Black actor in the Civil Rights era of the '50s and '60s.
He put himself in the position of standing up for what he believed in when he may have been the only one in his community who had such an exalted status. Yet, he was willing to remain true to himself. The courage that must have taken was incredible, facing the possibility that what other people might think could put your career at risk.
What do you think his legacy is?
He has so many. There's his film legacy, but his decency as a human being was, I think, his greatest legacy, and that's the one I think he cared about the most. If you ever read his memoir, Measure of a Man, he was constantly interested in improving himself.
I remember one story he told me when we were shooting Noah Dearborn. Sidney loved great restaurants and great hotels, and we were talking about the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I said, "Sidney, do you gamble?" And he said, "I used to gamble." I said, "Really? What did you play?" He said, "Blackjack was my game. I enjoyed it, but then I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. I just don't think gambling is a very attractive quality in a man."
I asked him how he stopped, and he said, "I had to go to Las Vegas for something, and I went to the cashier, and I asked for $3,000 worth of chips. I put them in my pocket, and I walked around all weekend. At the end of the trip, I cashed them in, and I never gambled again."
He was very disciplined. He was always evaluating, wanting to be a better, more evolved person.
Are there any other memories that stand out?
There was one day on Noah Dearborn when I wish I'd turned on the camera. We had a lot of driving shots with Sidney and Mary-Louise Parker, and one day we were towing them in an old Model A car and chasing the sun. A camera was mounted on the back, and I had my headphones on.
We weren't running the camera, but I could hear Sidney talking to Mary-Louise. At one point we pulled over, and I asked Mary-Louise, "Do you need to use the bathroom or get out of the car?" Because it was hard to open the door, and it had all these rigs on it. She looked at me and said, "No way." (Laughs) She was hermetically sealed with Sidney and didn't want to get out. I was listening to them talk, sort eavesdropping, and they were talking about the endangered great white whale, and about Apartheid, and about everything in the world he was so interested in. I wish I had flipped that camera on and recorded the conversation.
He was just the most engaged person, and he asked questions of everybody. He wasn't just nice to everybody, he literally would ask where you were from, how you got where you were, what your interests were. He was just engaged as a human. That's probably how I'll remember him most — as a person whose sublime talent was only exceeded by his decency as a human being.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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