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.
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
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
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
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.