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Sidney Poitier: The Goldwyn/Kramer Plan

Independent producers were fond of protesting many of the egregious tactics used by the studios in an effort to control actors. In contrast to the freedom and profit-participations open to modern Hollywood stars, in old Hollywood even the most powerful performers were limited by the studio contracts that permitted studios to trade stars to other producers often against their will (not unlike a sports team trading a ball player to another franchise). In this interesting excerpt from the autobiography of the great actor Sidney Poitier, he describes how two members of SIMPP, Sam Goldwyn and Stanley Kramer seemed to enter into a pact that was almost conspiratorial in nature. Their intent, claims Poitier, was to coerce talent into performing in movies against their will, in a maneuver that resembled the sinister workings characteristic of the studios.

Excerpt from This Life by Sidney Poitier


Sam Goldwyn wanted me for Porgy and Bess. Further, there was a definite offer of $75,000. A lot of money.

Stanley Kramer and Sidney Poitier in 1995.

In my judgment, Porgy and Bess was not material complimentary to black people; and for the most part, black people responded negatively to that American opera, although they stood ready to acknowledge and applaud the genius in the music. Taking a boat to St. Thomas and a telephone, I told my agent I was not interested in playing Porgy and Bess. With appropriate emphasis I repeated my position "I have no interest at all, so please pass that on to Sam Goldwyn" then took the boat back to Guana Island.

While I was finishing the picture, some other people were busying themselves with my life. My agent worked in association with another agent in California, a lady who had been involved in some of my other pictures. She knew Sam Goldwyn. Mr. Goldwyn, one of the most powerful men in the history of Hollywood, had said to her, "I want that boy to play Porgy in Porgy and Bess." Now she was in the agency business, and that business was subject to the pressures of powerful Hollywood producers. It is my impression that she said to him, "Sam, if you want him, I'll get him for you." I'm sure she sold me to him not knowing that I had a considerable aversion to Porgy and Bess because of its inherent racial attitudes.

When I got back to New York, I found to my surprise that I had been for the previous two weeks the center of a brewing storm. I had said to Martin Baum that I wouldn't do Porgy and Bess and so the California lady agent had been forced to say to Sam Goldwyn, "I'm trying, Sam, but I can't get him to change his mind." The press got wind of the situation. There was a columnist in New York named Leonard Lyons ( now dead) whom I liked very much. He said in his column that Ralph Bunche and many other important black people were prevailing upon Sidney Poitier to change his mind and play Porgy and Bess, a classic, for Sam Goldwyn. Following that, and the resulting barrage of press hoopla, the issue flared into the open, placing Goldwyn and myself in very difficult positions. He being the big man in Hollywood, how could he absorb this little actor saying he didn't want to work for him? On the other hand, I was suddenly under pressure from all the power he could muster, with the assistance of Leonard Lyons, who was a friend of his, and Ralph Bunche, who was a friend of Leonard Lyons, and all kinds of other people who began calling me and saying, "What is this about Sam Goldwyn? Why won't you do Porgy and Bess? We think it's one of the best operas ever written and it's won this kind of award and that kind of award." I was being nudged hard because Sam Goldwyn's nose was publicly out of joint.

My agent in New York said to me, "I have a feeling we've been put in a bind. Goldwyn wants us to come out to see him." I said, "I don't want to go see him. I don't want to do Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess is an insult to black people and I ain't going to play it and that's all there is to it." But Martin Baum was troubled. He pondered for several moments, circling the impasse, before a heavy sigh revealed how deeply frustrated he was at our being caught in this dangerous, sticky, no-win situation. Finally he cleared his throat and spoke again in a voice noticeably flattened by the absence of its usual buoyancy. "Do me a favor Goldwyn says that Lillian, our agent out there, said to him that you will play the part. Now the fact he was told that someone misrepresented themselves to him. Goldwyn says he wants you to come out and have a little talk with him, and after, if you don't want to do the part, he can walk away from it and you can walk away from it, and then it's over. But he feels that since you've been misrepresented to him, he thinks you should come out and explain your position."

I smelled a trap. I gave it a lot of thought. My alternative was to say, "Screw Sam Goldwyn." Then he would be told, "Sidney Poitier doesn't even want to come and see you," and in a town like Hollywood that was not good politics. I decided to go and explain my reasons to him; however difficult they might be for him to buy, they were my reasons. I was sorry the agent had presold me she made a mistake and stepped out of line, but that's the way it was. Martin Baum and I went to California. When we were met at the airport by the lady agent, I tried unsuccessfully to hide how really upset with her I was. Then she didn't even know where Goldwyn lived. After we checked into a hotel, she took us to a house that belonged to the big wheel at Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. His wife, Joan, responding to the ringing of the bell, leaned out of a second-floor window and said, "Yes?" The lady agent looked up and said, "Oh, my God, Joan we're supposed to be at Sam Goldwyn's house." So at last, with instructions from Mrs. Cohn, we drove to Mr. Goldwyn's residence. It was, as I expected, a fantastically beautiful house with a croquet court on the grounds, a swimming pool, and all the rest of an American dream as fully realized as you could ever ever hope to find.

The butler who lets us in says, "Mr. Goldwyn will be down soon," and within a few minutes a very solicitous, absolutely charming Sam Goldwyn appears. After an unhurried moment of handshakes, smiles, "hellos," and "how do you dos," we all sit down. Now I am smart I am aware that one must be quick, charming, and ingratiating while doing everything one can to neutralize the other guy. I am smart enough to know that this is the way one does business in circumstances like these, so I'm determined to keep my eye on whatever lies behind the pleasantries. Sweetness and charm be damned I'm not going to be distracted! Besides, two can play the game of sugar and spice, and if push comes to shove, I will bury him in the stuff before I allow myself to be moved one fraction of an inch from my position. Martin Baum simultaneously sets the stage and eases into the role of referee by briefly recapping the step-by-step events that have led to our stand-off. Sam Goldwyn, whose steady eyes have locked in on me throughout Marty's narration, thanks him for refreshing our memories, thanks the lady agent for helping to arrange the face-to-face meeting that he hopes will resolve the problem to everyone's satisfaction, and then hits me hard with a flurry of compliments about my work in those pictures he's seen me in, ending with elaborate predictions about the wonderful impact I'm on the threshold of making, not just on the film industry but on America at large, to the benefit of myself and all the people I represent. I thank him, but he's scored no points with that, since such an opening was not unexpected. Handing me the floor, Martin Baum asks me to: "Tell Mr. Goldwyn what your feelings are about the Porgy and Bess project. As I told him on the phone, and as our presence here substantiates, we all agree that he is entitled to hear your objections to this project directly from you because of the mixup, Mr. Goldwyn feels that he is entitled to a personal explanation."

I open with a few sizable compliments of my own that mayor may not have found their mark, and then gently but firmly state my case. At the end of which I stroke him once more with a well-deserved compliment for having produced the post-World War II classic The Best Years of Our Lives. Then I pass him the floor.

Sam Goldwyn thanks me for the last compliment and I can tell he knows it was genuinely meant. That unnerves me because I see in a split second that Sam Goldwyn is razor sharp. In that brief instant he lets me know he's quite able to separate the bullsh*t from the real. He bears close watching, this fellow, so stay on your toes, I think to myself.

After a few editorial remarks concerning The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Goldwyn levels those steady eyes on me and says, "I understand how you feel, Mr. Poitier, but I disagree with you this is one of the greatest things that has ever happened for the black race." He wins his first point right there with such an outrageous bullsh*t statement. I look in his eyes for a twinkle, on the chance he's kidding. There's nothing, not a twinkle. He believes every word he's saying. Or is he even smarter than I thought, and is just playing with my head? Testing?

The statement hangs there in the silence of a pause long enough for him to smile like a poker player sitting on a straight flush. I answer his smile with a smile of my own that can very easily be mistaken for a frown, knotted brow and all. He gets my message, and like a good poker player chooses not to invite a further challenge. Instead, he allows the smiles to cancel each other out. Score one for me. He presses on with the genius of Gershwin, the worldwide popularity of the opera itself, the critical acclaim it's reaped for itself, and the many artists who have performed it over the years. I tell him that this is all probably quite true from his point of view, but I can only look at the material from my point of view, and from my point of view it simply isn't what I want to do. We go round and round for ten minutes with no advantage gained on either side. Then, suddenly, Mr. Goldwyn shifts gears and introduces a new strategy that takes me by surprise. He says, "Well, the bottom line is I can't force you to do anything don't want to do. If I did, you wouldn't be of much value to production. So I wish you would give it more thought. Don't make your mind at this very minute when you leave my house I want to feel that you will at least give it some more honest thought. Man to man, that isn't asking too much, Mr. Poitier, is it?" I jump suspicious immediately. That man knows something I can feel it. The tactical switch is too smooth. Can there have been some understanding between my California agent and Goldwyn? Can it be he really is sitting on a royal flush? Something is up, because he sure is acting as if he's got me in the bag yet I haven't given him any indication that I'm open to any negotiation on playing the role. "Mr. Poitier, leave with that attitude just relax-give it some thought. Maybe when you get back to New York your agent can call me and tell me that you've well, just think about it. You're a great actor and you could be fantastic in the part of Porgy ." I give him the frown-smile, thank him for the audience, and we go.

Back at the hotel Martin Baum said to me, "While we're here we're going to see a man named Stanley Kramer." Immediately the name jumped to my mind as the producer responsible for the film Home of the Brave, and for the black actor James Edwards getting his start in films. So on a sunny afternoon we drove to Stanley Kramer's studio, tucked away almost unnoticed on a side street, a mere block and a half away from the mighty complex that was Paramount Pictures Studios. Kramer was a lively, outgoing man, just itching to address head-on those issues other producers were inclined to dance around. I liked him right away, from the very first moment we met. He had handsome boyish looks, a sturdy frame of medium height, and a tart sense of humor that all too frequently radared in on painful truths. "I've got a couple of writers who've turned out a script I want you to read. I think it's powerful, but I don't want to talk about it anymore until you've read it. Then we'll sit down. I believe you'll find it interesting and refreshing." I thanked him very much, adding not only how pleased I was to meet him but also what I and a lot of other blacks thought about Home of the Brave. It pleased him no end to hear he was well thought of where I came from. "Read it and we'll talk again." That was it. The meeting was over.

Back at the hotel I read the script immediately. It was an explosive piece of work that left me in a state of sweaty-palmed excitement. It was called The Defiant Ones. Eagerly I phoned Marty Baum's room. "This I gotta do. This is a picture!" Suddenly the buoyancy was back in Marty Baum's voice. "Marvelous I'll call Kramer immediately and set up an appointment. Leave it to me."

Stanley Kramer invited the two screenwriters to sit in on our next meeting, and we talked about ideas for changing things here and there to strengthen the overall piece. The two writers, both white, wanted to know how I felt about the relationship between the two men from different racial backgrounds who were the principal characters in the script. After about an hour Kramer said to me, "Listen, kid, I want you to play this part. Do you want to play it?" "I would love to play it." He said, "Okay, it's a deal. Now I hear you've got a problem with Sam Goldwyn." Oh, sh*t, here it comes, I thought. "No, I don't really think I have a problem with Sam Goldwyn."

Stanley Kramer hesitated as if an exact choice of words was necessary at that delicate point. Taking his time, he strolled over to his desk and stood behind it, lightly tapping his knuckles on its surface as the silence swelled. Planting the palms of his hands on the top of his desk, leaning in for emphasis, he looked directly at me and said, "Well, let me put it to you this way it would be very difficult for me if Goldwyn assumes, and I believe he does, that he has a deal with you. That might preclude my being able to use you in this picture. What I mean is, it would be difficult for me in terms of union regulations and business protocol if there is indeed some kind of deal. You must understand I don't care what your problem is with Goldwyn it's none of my business and I'm neither pro- nor anti- Porgy and Bess, I have no interest in the material but I genuinely have to be concerned if Goldwyn brings any action against you. Otherwise I can find myself stuck and unable to proceed with my picture until such time as an action against you is clarified. In other words, if you can get from Goldwyn an absolute release from the promise he says he's been given, then we've got a deal." "Great. Then we don't have a problem as far as I can see," I said, rising from my chair. "The ball is in your court," said Kramer, escorting us to the door. "You'll hear from us, Stanley. We'll get right on it," chimed in Marty Baum.

Walking to our car, I said to the California lady agent, "Call Mr. Goldwyn now and tell him I have thought about it again and I'm not going to do Porgy and Bess." Now whether she called him or not I don't know, but word got back to me in the afternoon that Sam Goldwyn was going to hold us to the promise made to him by her, and fully expected her agency to deliver me for his picture. Suddenly, with his Mr. Nice Guy facade no longer tactically advantageous, Sam Goldwyn freezes firm and the screws begin to turn.

Okay, I've got a part I'm crazy about and I'm in a box. But I've been in boxes before, right? Fair enough. Good. But a hot question surfaces in a corner of my mind is this a box that the white people have been designing for me for weeks? Or, if all of it wasn't, how much of it is? To this day, I lean to the theory that some of it was predetermined, because I refuse to believe that Goldwyn didn't know about the Kramer project and know that I would flip for it. I'm also sure that my agents knew I would flip for it. In other words, I think I was manipulated. As smart as I thought I was, that time the white folks were smarter.

As phase two of the Goldwyn plan bore down, my agents, playing as agents do, said, "Well, we want to do what you want to do. If you want to say a final 'no' to Mr. Goldwyn and take your chances, we'll go along with you. We just want you to understand what his power is like in this town. He is one of the biggest, most powerful studio heads in the business and if he chooses to, he can blackball you so you'll never work in a studio again or as long as he's a power in the Hollywood community." I was stunned for several moments, simply unable to envision anything beyond the blackballing of the little black boy.

Just like that, a crisis not of my own making had loomed, threatening me with this awful choice, with my whole career in cold jeopardy facing the alternative: survival in the film business or death in the film business. I can't walk away from this situation without a commitment to one or the other of two hard, hard choices. If I refuse to do Porgy and Bess, the town is going to know that I messed over Goldwyn, in which case, as I've been amply warned, the unwritten laws governing behavior in these situations will unquestionably wipe me out. But the other side of the coin, how can I do Porgy and Bess when I don't like it, don't want to do it, and have declared publicly that I have no intention of doing it? I'm stuck I'm boxed I've been outfoxed but I'm still smart, and I know that I'm not about to allow myself and my career to be snuffed out at this point. I've come too far-I've begun to accomplish too much.

As I saw it, in my career there was a real beginning for a breakthrough not only for me, but for other blacks in films. Suddenly decisions of a very political nature were on my doorstep. Was it important to carry on? Was it important for me to carry on? Naturally I felt I had certain things to offer, since I had begun to work with some regularity and had generated what I thought to be good vibrations spreading around the industry. The Defiant Ones, speaking directly to the point of how black people want to see themselves on the screen, would be a hell of a shot for us. And the role of Cullin would represent for me and other black actors a step up in the quality of parts available to us, and at the same time afford the black community in general a rare look at a movie character exemplifying the dignity of our people something that Hollywood had systematically ignored in its shameless capitulation to racism. A thorough scrutiny of the politics behind this issue led me through some sober, serious thinking and forced me to face an unflattering, unpleasant, and unavoidable fact: I was not smart enough in this situation to have what I wanted when I wanted it; therefore I was doomed to get scorched. There was just no way for me not to get burned a little if I wanted to come out on the other side; like it or not, I was due to give up some blood. Well, I thought, so be it. But first things first.

We went to Kramer and made a good deal pending the satisfactory resolution of the Goldwyn mess before going on to see Goldwyn. Flanked on one side by Marty Baum and on the other by the lady agent, I marched into Sam Goldwyn's palatial office, where he was triumphantly awaiting our arrival for the signing of the surrender. As he stood there playing the good host and gesturing us to be seated, I noticed that the smile had returned to the victor's face. But still, no 1 twinkle in his eye. I chose to stand, and comfort was out of the question in the light of what I was about to say. "I know that I'm caught in a bind I want to do Kramer's picture. I know you know about the Kramer deal. I understand that you're not going to let me off the hook from the promise my agent gave you. If that is correct, then I'll do Porgy and Bess." He said, "I don't want you to do Porgy and Bess unless you're going to do it the best way you know how. It's no good to me spending all this money if you're not going to come in with team spirit and a feeling of participation." I replied to the victor, "I am a professional actor, Mr. Goldwyn, and I will do the part to the best of my ability under the circumstances." Then in a conciliatory tone he said, "Well, Mr. Poitier, welcome aboard. This is going to be a great, great moment. I think we should sit down and prepare a joint statement for the press. But don't you worry about it your agents and my press people will work something up and show it to you before it goes out." I wasn't savvy enough then to know how those things were done. The press release in its final form was not to my advantage in the slightest it was all to Goldwyn's advantage. I got screwed again and there were reverberations in the black community.

I wasn't too worried about that except from one quarter. By then I had become extremely good friends with Harry Belafonte. I had developed a relationship with him that I felt was worth protecting and respecting, and I found it most difficult to explain to him why I had elected to do Porgy and Bess after all. He was as fair as he could have been under the circumstances, but I didn't convince him that I had to do Porgy and Bess so that I could do the other picture. He didn't buy it-he would have preferred me to just walk away from the whole thing. But he was, as he has always been, fair enough to say that he honestly didn't know what his responses would have been if he were in the same position. He just wished I hadn't done it, and could only hope that he would have had the strength not to do it. That bothered me for a long time, but it didn't damage our relationship, which was an enormous revelation to me. Harry is a hard friend when he's a friend he's vast and tight and there. We've had our ups and downs, as you'll find out, but there isn't in the whole world better material for a friend than that man.

I went back to New York for a while trying to adjust to how I was going to playa part I didn't want to play, then after a couple of months returned to California to start the Kramer picture. I went through wardrobe fittings and other preliminary activities for Porgy and Bess, but primarily I was there to begin shooting The Defiant Ones. . . .



Poitier, Sidney. This Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 205-213.

See Bibliography.


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