BLACK VOICES

Why Sidney Poitier's 'In The Heat Of The Night' Almost Never Existed

Fifty years later, the crew of the movie reflects on its groundbreaking legacy.

The TCM Classic Film Fest opened Thursday with a 50th anniversary screening of “In the Heat of the Night,” the classic film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier and the late Rod Steiger that follows a homicide in a Mississippi town and the violent racism it unearths. 

Before the screening, TCM personality Ben Mankiewicz hosted a discussion with “Heat” director Norman Jewison, producer Walter Mirisch and actor Lee Grant. Poitier was in attendance, but remained in the audience. 

Lee Grant, Walter Mirisch, Norman Jewison and host Ben Mankiewicz speak onstage during the 50th anniversary screening of "In
Lee Grant, Walter Mirisch, Norman Jewison and host Ben Mankiewicz speak onstage during the 50th anniversary screening of "In the Heat of the Night."

Mirisch revealed that because of the famous scene in which Poitier’s character “returns” a slap in the face to a white plantation owner (which does not appear in the 1965 novel), Hollywood producers strongly considered not making “Heat” altogether. But Mirisch emphasized that they “never gave up on it” and recognized the scene had to stay because it was the heart of the picture. 

Determined to make the film, Mirisch even proposed a hypothetical to a Hollywood producer who feared the movie would be “responsible for starting riots”: Suppose it never screened below the Mason-Dixon line? Mirisch knew that plenty of people in cities in the Northern region would want to view the film and he didn’t need to wholly rely on a Southern audience to boost its financial (and critical) success.

The reluctant producer ran some figures after Mirisch’s proposal and ultimately offered a $2 million budget, so long as Mirisch promised to give him “his best.”

Of course, the movie did in fact prove to be one of Mirisch’s best films and went on to earn five Academy Awards, including 1968’s Best Picture. Beyond that, it remains a cultural legacy, touching upon still-relevant subjects like abortion, racism and economic hardships in the Deep South. 

Oh, and it introduced us to one of the most iconic film quotes ever.

Famously, Poitier was not nominated for Best Actor for “Heat.” Steiger, who played the bigoted Southern police chief opposite Poitier, was nominated in that category and won the award. 

The TCM Classic Film Fest runs through April 9 in Los Angeles with various screenings and discussions. 

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