Poitier went right to the source when studying Marshall 'SEPARATE BUT EQUAL'

April 07, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall has declined t talk at length about "Separate But Equal."

But Sidney Poitier, who plays Marshall in the TV movie airing tonight and tomorrow night, spent time with the jurist to prepare for the role, and said he glimpsed the tenacity that helped Baltimore-born Marshall succeed as an NAACP attorney trying to desegregate America's schools in 1954.

"I went to his office in Washington," Poitier said, "and he wanted to take me out to lunch. It was quite an experience, because he is not as spry as he used to be and he moves with great difficulty -- great difficulty."

The 67-year-old actor said he tried to help the 82-year-old Marshall several times on the walk to the car. "But every time I tried to help him, he would thank me, but he liked to move under his own steam, however slowly."

Poitier said that as he watched Marshall take 20 minutes to struggle up a flight of stairs at the restaurant, he thought, "It was an example of the kind of innate courage that is part of his personality. Here is a guy who, I think, is assured of a remarkable place in history. Well-earned. But he is going to take out of life every last moment and he is going to make it as interesting and productive as he can. So it took him the 20 minutes to get up the stairwell."

Poitier said Marshall did not offer any advice on how to play him during that Washington lunch, and initially he found personal details were hard to come by.

"I was watching him quite closely," said the Oscar-winning actor. "I wanted to see what he did with his hands and what kind of speech pattern he had in terms of rhythm. I watched to see what he did when he was in a contemplative mood.

"But when I would zero in with a question in regard to one or another point that I'd made note of, he would get off it right quickly because he wasn't interested in that stuff."

Poitier said his lunch companion wanted to talk about other things.

"I personally find in life that the larger the curiosity and the more resilient the curiosity as you travel across the years, the more interesting life is," he said. "And I saw the epitome of that in this man. He wanted to know where I'd been and the people I'd met and the things I believed in, all that kind of stuff."

RTC Marshall had good reason to be curious. Poitier, best known for his work during the 1960s in such films as "Lilies of the Field," "In the Heat of the Night," "To Sir With Love" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", has been absent from the screen for 10 years.

"I select my roles very carefully," he said. "I cannot work unless there is an affinity with the material. I just have to feel something about it."

A native of Miami who was raised in the Bahamas, he added that "there's more to life than movie making. And at this age of my life, I don't want to repeat myself. Time is so precious. I simply don't want to do what I have been doing."

As for future endeavors, "I am going to leave it to life to surprise me. If the work in this area is interesting and it challenges me to stretch a little more than I've ever stretched, I certainly would welcome that."

Despite Marshall's guarded privacy, Poitier welcomed the brief time they spent together and what he could learn from him. For instance, Marshall was not allowed into University of Maryland law school because he was black. He graduated from Howard University's law school. That and other incidents from Marshall's early years are part of tonight's film.

"I learned from him about a time when I was some years younger than he and a goodly number of things socially/politically were going on in the society. . . . I asked him about people like Paul Robeson," Poitier said.

"I would read about people like that in the black newspapers of the time, but he lived in their time and he knew them, had relationships with a goodly number of them.

"So I had a chance through him to really get a feel of the texture of that time. We talked about the American society and politics, race and stuff like that."

Overall, it was a "wonderful, wonderful lunch," he said. "I think he liked me, because he [finally] let me into certain areas of his private life that I didn't expect. And I grew to respect him even more. Remarkable fellow."

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