Sidney Poitier and me – in Milwaukee and New York

By Richard G. Carter
As a Milwaukee-born black journalist and vintage film enthusiast who kept the notes of all my important interviews, my first exposure to black film actors was, as an inexperienced youth, the sassy 1943 “Stormy Weather.” It featured wonderful singers and dancers in non-threatening roles. I didn’t see 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” — starring Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel — until one of its reissues years later.

So among the highlights of my long career was my welcome discovery of the great and serious Sidney Poitier – who has just passed away at 94. It happened in his sensitive but strong role as a young South African minister in 1952’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country. And I remember it like it was yesterday.

I told Sidney – years ago – that I had been even more impressed by his work as an idealistic doctor in 1950s “No Way Out”. -black girls sneering white racist mobster, Richard Widmark, who taunted him and called him a “nigger”.

“How did you feel about that? I asked Sidney, during our close and personal interview with the 1963 Milwaukee Star, after he appeared at the Strand Theater on W. Wisconsin Ave., in the local premiere of his Oscar-winning role in “Lillies of the Field”.

“Widmark was a great actor and a really nice guy, and he wasn’t racist,” he told me. “In fact, Widmark apologized to me during a break in filming. I told him to forget, we were just playing. I then said that while I loved his work in ‘Lilies’, I much preferred him in more challenging roles – eliciting a smile.

As for my mother, Juanita Carter, I added, she loved you as Walter Lee Younger and, in particular, Claudia McNeil as your mother, in 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Mrs. Carter has always said she saw herself in Claudia, whose work she really admired.

“Oh, yeah, I can relate to that,” Sidney said. “Claudia was remarkable. She embodied the strong matriarch of the Black family and helped me and the rest of the cast – Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett – be so much better.

In 1988 – during our New York Daily News hotel interview – I said my favorite role for him was in the tense 1965 Cold War drama, “The Bedford Incident.” In it, he played a noted magazine writer, co-starring again with Widmark.

His answer: “Why do you like it so much? Most people who interview me say they prefer “The Defiant Ones”.

“Of course you were great in that one,” I said, “and so was Tony Curtis. “You’re right,” Sidney said, commenting on the 1958 breakthrough Black-White buddy film. “Tony was a very underrated actor.”

“But as a black reporter who struggled to make it,” I said, “I think I identified with your role as a reporter in ‘The Bedford Incident’ and, in particular, the way which you pressed Widmark – the pro-war captain of a nuclear navy ship. You really took him for him.

“Thanks, man,” he said. “And by the way, I remember you in Milwaukee in 1963. I have a long memory.”

Before closing, I mentioned that I recently ran into her boyfriend and frequent co-star, Harry Belafonte, walking along Madison Ave. “He looked great, and so do you.”

In conclusion, I said, “By the way, I still wonder why, at 28, you played a teenage high school student in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1955.”

“Me too,” he laughed.

Rest in peace Sydney. You were the best.

Richard G. Carter, native of Milwaukee, is a freelance columnist

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