My lasting memory of Sidney Poitier as the news came of his death t the age of 94, is of him making an entrance at a birthday party in Malibu for the producer Jerry Weintraub.
This was a party overflowing with famous people. Johnny Carson, Neil Diamond, Jacqueline Bissett, James Caan, the guest list went on and on. Never before had I rubbed shoulders in one place with so many Hollywood celebrities getting drunk.
Yet even in that glitzy crowd, Sidney Poitier stood out. Taller than just about anyone else present, powerfully handsome, movie star charisma on full display as he moved gracefully through the crowd with his wife, the actress Joanna Shimkus.
Years before, I had spent time with him and Harry Belafonte as they promoted Buck and the Preacher, a western they had done together. After the first director, Joseph Sergeant, was dispatched, Poitier had taken over to make his directing debut.
Poitier and Belafonte had known each other since they were young men together at New York’s American Negro Theater. In fact, Poitier’s first break as an actor came after Belafonte failed to show up for a rehearsal and Poitier replaced him. A producer happened to see the rehearsal and that led to Poitier’s Broadway debut and subsequent movie career.
Discussing their first film together, the two stars displayed an easy rapport, although Belafonte was the more loquacious, Poitier much more reticent and guarded. It was the heyday of the so-called blaxploitation films and he did not like any idea that Buck and the Preacher might be lumped into that category.
The movie didn’t do well with either audiences or critics, but it ushered in a series of curious directing assignments (a trio of Bill Cosby comedies) and starring roles in forgettable dramas (A Warm December, The Wilby Conspiracy).
When he attended that Jerry Weintraub birthday party, he had not been on the screen for over a decade. The trifecta of groundbreaking hits that made him Hollywood’s first black superstar—In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, with Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—were far behind him.
Yet it didn’t matter. That night in a sea of stars, Sidney Poitier shone.