How Sidney Poitier became comedy's secret weapon
Harry and Skip (Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder), two hapless pals framed for a bank robbery, attempt, badly, to act like streetwise toughs as they enter jail, announcing with ridiculously put-on swagger: "That's right! That's right! We bad!" 1980's Stir Crazy was comedy nirvana: Slightly raunchy, definitely un-PC and very, very funny. The man behind the mirth? Sidney Poitier, who died Friday at age 94.
The same elegant gentleman known for dramatic turns in The Defiant Ones; To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Lilies of the Field, which made him the first Black recipient of a Best Actor Oscar, was at the helm on Stir Crazy. It became the first R-rated comedy by a Black director to crack the $100 million mark, a distinction held until Keenen Ivory Wayans' 2000 spoof Scary Movie.
The director's chair revealed Poitier's gift for old-school physical gags. (Pryor and Wilder's arrest stems from mistaken identity due to giant chicken costumes.) Stir Crazy followed a trio of Blaxploitation comedies that Poitier directed and starred in: Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977). "A more assured job," Roger Ebert wrote of the second. "He's more concerned with getting on with the slapstick."
If Poitier's earlier persona was white America's ideal Black role model (see: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), Poitier the director had other ambitions, telling PEOPLE when Stir Crazy hit big, "Blacks are going to have to keep making our own films, not rely on whites to champion our dreams."
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