Note: This originally ran in "Tales from the Morgue" Feb. 19, 2009.
Sidney Poitier was the first African American actor to win the Academy Award for best actor, which he won April 13, 1964, for his work in "Lillies of the Field."
Sidney Poitier was 35 years old when he was in Tucson filming “Lilies of the Field.” That was in 1962. February 20, is his 82nd birthday.
Poitier, who had very little schooling, described his first embarrassing attempt at acting and of the resolve it gave him to not only educate himself, but also to perfect his speech and to lose his Bahamian accent.
He told a reporter “I had to undo these things . . . I had to prove that I was a very special material.” The Academy Award for Best Actor, which he received for his performance in “Lilies of the Field,” probably proved that.
Using Sabino Canyon as the location, the movie was filmed in two weeks in late 1962. Two local actresses, Francesca Jarvis and Isa Crino were cast to play nuns in the movie which starred, along with Poitier, Viennese actress Lilia Skala.
Poitier would return to Tucson at least two more times, both times to direct. In April 1980, Poitier was directing Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the wacky comedy about two jailbirds who participate in the prison rodeo.
He also ended up entertaining and directing over 1,000 people who showed up at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds to be extras. The crowd had hoped to catch glimpses of the movie’s stars, but they were not on the set that day. In between directing the rodeo scenes, Poitier worked at firing up the crowd.
The next year, Poitier and Wilder returned to film the movie “Hanky Panky.” It also starred Gilda Radner.