Denzel Washington struggled with the popular sentiment that he was “the next Sidney Poitier.” In one way, the insinuation that Black actors could only be compared to other Black actors was inherently biased. Then again, it’s a pretty damn flattering comparison.
There was no uncertainty, however, when it came 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 at the age of 94.
Washington memorialized Poitier Tuesday in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment promoting Washington’s new film, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
“Friend. Mentor. Confidant. Example. You know, father figure. Gentleman. Buddy. All of the above,” Washington said in describing the roles Poitier played in his life. “We talked about everything, just he and I.”
In reaction to a Variety essay published calling Poitier “the most important actor in American in history” for such trailblazing roles as Homie Smith in Lilies in the Field (1963) and Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, Washington said it will take time for him to process the magnitude of Poitier’s career. For now, Washington is content reminiscing about the quiet moments he spent with Poitier away from show business.
“I think of him more now just as I knew him,” he said. “[I would stop by] the guy’s house and we'd sit around. Just to see him in pajamas and stuff, you know, I got to know him like that, like in his house clothes and walking around. And to hear him curse, I was like, ‘Oh, Mr. Tibbs!’ [laughs] You know, that sounds you silly, but those was the things you remember. … It’s like, ‘Man, I'm in Sidney Poitier’s living room!’”
Washington and Poitier’s most famous public moment together came during the 2002 Academy Awards. After Poitier was recognized with a lifetime achievement statuette, Washington won Best Actor for Training Day, becoming only the second African American actor ever to win the category and first since Poitier triumphed in 1964 for Lilies. (That same night, Halle Berry also became the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar, for Monster’s Ball.)
“I’ll be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” Washington told Poitier from the stage. “There is nothing I would rather do.” Poitier stood from his box seat above the crowd and raised his statue to Washington, who matched his salute in an instantly classic Oscars moment.
“I haven't thought about [that night],” Washington told us. I could see him. That's what I see when you mention it. And I think about it, I could see him up in the [box seats]. And he stood up and we just looked at each other. Like I said, that night was shared with the world. But I've shared many days, just he and I, that I cherish just as much.”
Washington could be back at the Dolby Theater in March for yet another Oscars ceremony. He’s an early favorite to land on the ballot for his stirring portrayal of Macbeth in Joel Coen’s dream-like Shakespeare adaptation (and he earned a SAG Award nomination for the part Wednesday morning), which would mark Washington’s ninth acting Oscar nom. He won his first of two Oscars, Best Supporting Actor for the acclaimed Civil War drama Glory, in 1990.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing in select theaters and will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Steve Michel
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