Oprah: But the character did nothing?
Sidney: Nothing. And I could not imagine playing that part. So I said to myself, "That's not the kind of work I want." And I told my agent that I couldn't play the role. He said, "Why can't you play it? There's nothing derogatory about it in racial terms," and I said, "I can't do it." He never understood.
Oprah: Was this Marty?
Sidney: Yes. Marty Baum, my agent. I didn't want to have to explain it. It was stupid! My daughter Pam was about to be born, and Beth Israel Hospital had told my wife and me that it would be $75 to cover the birth. I didn't have the money. So when I left Marty's office, I went to a place called Household Finance on Broadway near 57th Street, and I borrowed against our furniture.
Oprah: You turned down $750 a week and then borrowed against your furniture?
Oprah: What did your wife say?
Sidney: She was a very supportive person. She was a different kind of person than I was, but she knew it meant a lot to me to be the way I was.
Oprah: Were you thinking, "I'm a man defined by character, and this is something I won't do"? And is that how you made all your film choices?
Sidney: Every one. I had two roles for which I compromised.
Oprah: What were they?
Sidney: One was Porgy and Bess, the other was The Long Ships.
Oprah: Why do you feel that Porgy and Bess was a compromise?
Sidney: I was in the Caribbean making a picture with John Cassavetes. There was no telephone on the island, so I would take a four-hour trip to St. Thomas and go to a hotel to call home, then my agent. On one such trip, Marty said, "We've got a problem." His West Coast co-agent had gotten a call from [film producer] Sam Goldwyn, who had said, "I want Sidney Poitier to play Porgy. Can you get him for me?" and the co-agent said, "I'll get him for you." That went public quickly, and mind you, I'm away, so I don't know anything about this. After Marty told me, I said, "Just call Mr. Goldwyn and tell him that I'm not going to play the part."
Oprah: Because you didn't like what it represented?
Sidney: Yes. And Goldwyn said to Marty, "Why don't you have Sidney come out and talk with me, and if he tells me that he doesn't want to do it, then I'll know that he means it." So when I finished my movie, I went to California to see Sam. And I told him as respectfully as I could that I couldn't play the part. He said, "Do me a favor: Go back to New York and think about it for two weeks." And I said, "But I know now!" And he said, "Just think about it." When I went back to my hotel, there was a script waiting for me called The Defiant Ones. I read the script in one sitting and said to Marty, "This is something I'd like to do. Tell Mr. Goldwyn that I'd like to meet with Stanley Kramer"—the guy who wants me to do this movie. So I went to see Stanley, and he said, "I would love to have you play in it, but you have a problem—Sam Goldwyn." Sam was one of the most powerful men in the entire industry. And having having gone public with the news that I may play the Porgy role, he had put himself on the line.
We Hear You!