Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon

By Aram Goudsouzian | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
LONG JOURNEYS
(1963–1964)

In April 1963, Poitier went to Yugoslavia to film The Long Ships, a historical epic based on a Swedish novel. Neither Poitier nor co-star Richard Widmark were particularly enthused by the project. The actionadventure clash had a terrible script, and it lacked the political cache of Poitier’s better films. Poitier took the role while his career seemed stuck in a rut. In Belgrade, the mood was glum, the locals seemed hostile, and the weather was freezing. “I have been spending hours on the set dreaming about tropical climates and little shacks on pink beaches,” Poitier told the Los Angeles Times.1

He won a two-week reprieve in late May. He flew to Glen Canyon National Forest in Utah to play Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Producer-director George Stevens, legendary for his perfectionist gusto, had been planning a motion picture version of the Fulton Oursler biblical epic since 1959. He vowed to avoid another biblical “spectacular,” but by 1960, he had announced a $10 million budget, hired Pulitzer Prize–winner Carl Sandburg, and already secured Poitier and John Wayne for cameos.2

More than $2 million deep, Twentieth Century-Fox shelved production in September 1961. Stevens forged on, independently producing it with a United Artists release. By the end of filming, he created 117 speaking parts, hired 30 Oscar winners, built 47 major sets, and imported a bevy of animals, including four white donkeys. Equipment complications, housing shortages, and bitter cold created more delays, but by the end of Poitier’s stint in early June, expectations ran high that The Greatest Story Ever Told would live up to its name.3

Meanwhile, as Poitier journeyed from Yugoslavia to Utah and back to Yugoslavia, America’s moral conscience awakened. That spring Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led nonviolent mass demonstrations against segregated businesses and

-208-

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