‘Friend. Mentor. Confidant. Example. Father figure. Gentleman. Boyfriend.’
Denzel Washington struggled with the popular sentiment that he was “the next Sidney Poitier”. In a way, the insinuation that black actors could only be compared to other black actors was inherently biased. Again, that’s a damn flattering comparison.
There was no uncertainty, however, when it came to the actual relationship between Washington and Poitier, the A raisin in the sun (1961) and In the heat of the Night (1967) acting legend who died last week aged 94.
Washington commemorated Poitier on Tuesday in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment promoting Washington’s new film, Macbeth’s Tragedy.
“Friend. Mentor. Confidant. Example. You know, father figure. Gentleman. Buddy. All of the above,” Washington said when describing the roles Poitier played in his life. and me.”
In reaction to a Variety published essay calling Poitier “the most important American actor in history” for such seminal roles as Homie Smith in lilies in the field (1963) and Virgil Tibbs in In the heat of the Night, Washington said it would take time for him to understand the breadth of Poitiers’ career. For now, Washington is content to reminisce about the quiet times he spent with Poitier away from show business.
“I think about him more now than I knew him,” he said. “[I would stop by] the guy’s house and we’d sit down. Just seeing him in his pajamas and stuff, you know, I got to know him like that, like in his house clothes and walking around. And to hear him swear, I thought, ‘Oh, Mr. Tibbs!’ [laughs] You know, it sounds stupid, but those are the things you remember. … It’s like, ‘Man, I’m in Sidney Poitier’s living room!’ »
Washington and Poitiers’ most famous public moment came during the 2002 Oscars. After Poitier was honored with a lifetime achievement statuette, Washington won Best Actor for training day, becoming the second African-American actor to win the category and the first since Poitier’s 1964 triumph for Lilies. (That same night, Halle Berry also became the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, for The Monster Ball.)
“I’m going after you, Sidney. I will always follow in your footsteps,” Washington told Poitier from the stage. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.” Poitier rose from his seat above the crowd and raised his statue to Washington, who matched his salute in an instantly classic Oscars moment.
“I didn’t think of [that night]”, Washington told us. I could see it. That’s what I see when you talk about it. And I think about it, I could see it in the [box seats]. And he stood up and we just looked at each other. As I said, this night was shared with the world. But I shared many days, just him and me, that I cherish just as much.
Washington could be back at the Dolby Theater in March for another Academy Awards. He’s an early favorite to land on the ballot for his moving portrayal of Macbeth in Joel Coen’s dreamlike adaptation of Shakespeare (and he earned a SAG Award nomination for the role on Wednesday morning), which would mark Washington’s ninth acting Oscar nomination. He won his first of two Oscars, Best Supporting Actor for the acclaimed Civil War drama Glory, in 1990.
Macbeth’s Tragedy is playing now in select theaters and will have its world premiere on Apple TV+ on January 14.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Steve Michel
Watch the trailer: