“I was born to 2 tomato farmers” were the first words of a tale that would captivate me for the next 6 hours and change the course of my life when Sidney Poitier sat down to tell his life story.
In 2011 we produced Oprah’s Master Class, the flagship documentary series, which launched the network OWN. It was an autobiographical series in which people who Oprah considered “masters of their lives” recalled critical turning points in their lives and relayed their life lessons. This was an important show for Oprah, and she pulled out all the stops to book her favorite people for this inaugural season. Among the most important were Maya Angelou and Sidney Poitier, whom she considered family.
Both were solidly in their 80s and had lived transformative lives, so I felt the overwhelming responsibility of producing what could possibly be their last interviews.
Each episode was based on a two hour “master” interview, which we enhanced with archival material, recreations, and some verite elements. We rented a studio in Los Angeles for Mr Poitier and were all set up when Oprah accompanied him into the room. He walked rather slowly, and I remember worrying that the wooden stool might be uncomfortable for him. Having been a director himself, he wanted to understand how he was being lit and what each camera would be covering. He was very skeptical of the B camera. “Look here. What is that young man doing?” he said pointing to Davi Russo who was operating the camera. Oprah had to explain to him that it was meant to be a tight shot to capture hand gestures and other close ups.
Finally satisfied, we began, and Mr Poitier came alive. Gone was any hint of frailty or uncertainty. This was the story of his life, and he began at the beginning – all the way back to his premature birth in the Bahamas. And it was riveting. We booked the interview for two hours, and once he was on a roll, he continued straight through for six! In fact, he talked for so long that the lighting stands started to fail and needed to be tightened. In the end we had enough material for a two part story.
My buddy Josh Pearson (Summer of Soul; What Happened, Miss Simone) and I edited the two part episodes back in New York. My favorite of the two episodes is the first one about his life’s journey before he became a movie star. From his early childhood growing up on an island, to his first devastating experiences with racism in Florida to his adventures in New York City, it’s as dramatic an arc as any fictional character he played.
Once we had a rough cut, we went to Harpo Studio in Chicago to film Oprah for the wrap arounds – these are the intros to each act as the show comes back from commercial. Oprah had to read a brief script straight to camera, but before she began, she wanted to understand the tone of the content that came before, so we’d play back about a minute for her to see. She had not yet seen the cold open to the Sidney Poitier episode, which Josh and I had decided to make a little more abstract and cinematic than the cold opens of other episodes. We were definitely taking a chance, but I thought it would be worth it. Still, I was a little nervous to be present when she watched it for the first time.
Maybe it was the fact that we were at the iconic Harpo Studio, maybe because it was my birthday, maybe because I knew how good the work was, maybe because it had taken so damn long to get to this stage of my career, but when Oprah started yelling and punching the air in excitement, I found myself unexpectedly overcome with emotion. Our network executive Jon Sinclair spotted me wiping away a few tears. I think he could tell that I was embarrassed and leaned down and said, “Don’t worry. I work for Oprah…I’ve seen tears before.”
Of all of the participants, Mr Poitier’s contract allowed him to give notes on a paper cut. He read the transcript and was very upset. He said that he didn’t like his performance and he wanted to pull the plug on the whole thing. But Oprah had seen the rough cut and loved it, so she talked him off the ledge and asked us to overnight him a DVD to review for himself. I spent 24 hours trying not to freak out. What if Sidney Poitier kills his episodes? Then the email from Jon Sinclair came. It was a note forwarded from Mr Poitier himself. “Tell the crew I give it an A+. Thank you.”
Thank you for changing the face of American cinema, Mr Poitier. It was my great honor to tell your story.