They called it the "Slap Heard 'Round the World." It happened partway through "In the Heat of the Night" -- a movie released at the height of racial tensions during the Civil Rights Era exactly 45 years ago (on August 2, 1967) -- in a scene where a bigoted Southern cotton plantation owner slaps Sidney Poitier (and Poitier slaps back just as hard). Years of deferential behavior, both from Poitier in saintly role-model performances, and from every black actor ever to perform in a Hollywood movie, halted with a mighty thwack.

It's one of the most memorable moments in film history and helped earn "In the Heat of the Night" the Best Picture Oscar that year. Even today, the scene remains brutally effective, a reminder of how much has changed in 45 years, and how much has not. The film -- in which a racist Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger) and a haughty black police detective from the Northeast (Poitier) develop a grudging mutual respect as they cooperate to solve a murder in a sultry Mississippi town -- still works on two levels: as a civil rights parable and as a grimy crime drama. That explains the movie's durable popularity and many sequels and spinoffs.

Still, as familiar as "In the Heat of the Night" is, there's a lot that's not commonly known about the landmark film, from who else almost starred in it, to the staggering amount of chewing gum Steiger consumed for the role, to the extreme measures Poitier took to protect himself during his justifiably nervous stay in the South during the shoot, to the twist ending added in a Soviet version of the tale. Here's the story you didn't know behind "In the Heat of the Night."

1. To get United Artists to greenlight the film in 1965, producer Walter Mirisch had to crunch numbers to show that a film in which Sidney Poitier outsmarted an entire town of Southern whites could make money, even if it never played a single theater below the Mason-Dixon line.

2. Poitier was the only choice to play Virgil Tibbs. Not only was he a recent Oscar-winner and a box-office draw, but he was also the only black leading man in Hollywood at the time. George C. Scott was the filmmakers' first choice to play Chief Bill Gillespie, but he was already committed to another Southern-themed film, the comedy "The Flim-Flam Man," so the role went to Steiger.

3. In the novel by John Ball, Tibbs was a polite, amiable Californian. Director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant transformed him into a chilly Philadelphian who brooks no disrespect.

4. Similarly, Gillespie was a minor character in the novel, slim and good-looking. Jewison and Silliphant elevated him to a lead character and made him corpulent and haphazard about his job.

5. Finally, the filmmakers changed the murder victim from a concert promoter to a factory owner whose dreams of industrialization might have lifted the struggling town's economy into the modern age.

6. Poitier claimed in his memoir that he agreed to the film only on the condition that Tibbs be allowed to slap back in the soon-to-be-famous scene. He claimed that, in the initial screenplay, Tibbs was supposed to react to being slapped by seething silently, without retaliating. However, according to Mark Harris' book "Pictures at a Revolution" (an account of the making of all five of 1967's Best Picture Oscar nominees), as well as other sources, Tibbs got to slap back in Silliphant's initial draft.

7. Poitier was worried about shooting on location in Mississippi; during a 1964 visit to Greenville, to deliver $70,000 in donations to civil rights workers, Poitier and Harry Belafonte had been tailed by Klansmen and nearly run off the road. Jewison promised Poitier that they wouldn't actually shoot in the South -- a promise he ended up not keeping.

8. Jewison did shoot most of the film outside the South, in Sparta, Illinois, and in surrounding towns.

9. For their roles, Poitier was paid $200,000 and Steiger $100,000, but otherwise, the movie was shot on the cheap, for only about $2 million. (At least Jewison was able to shoot on location, instead of on a Hollywood backlot, as originally planned.) On the set in Illiinois, townsfolk lining up to be extras were paid just $1.50 per day, and the only star perks Poitier and Steiger enjoyed were space heaters in their rooms.

10. Another cost-cutting measure: the name of the fictional town was changed from Wells to Sparta so that the filmmakers wouldn't have to repaint the local water tower.

11. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler made the town and its residents look sweaty and gritty enough to live up to the film's title. In reality, the weather in Sparta was so cold that the actors had to suck on ice chips to keep their breath from becoming visible.

12. To indicate Gillespie's slackness on the job, Steiger had the character constantly chomping on a wad of gum. During the shoot, the actor chewed 263 packs of gum.

13. Jewison and Wexler tried sunglasses in five or six different colors of tinted shades before settling on the amber lenses that Gillespie would wear, having decided that that was the most menacing pair of glasses.

14. A longtime proponent of Method acting, Steiger refused to break character even during downtime. "On weekends when we ventured out to a movie or dinner, he would remain completely immersed in the character of the Southern sheriff," Poitier recalled. "He spoke with the same accent and walked with the same gait, on and off camera. I was astonished at the intensity of his involvement with the character."

15. Once the shoot was underway, Poitier reluctantly agreed to shoot a key sequence, including the slap scene, in the South, since that sequence needed to be filmed at an actual cotton plantation. The filmmakers prepared to shoot for three days in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow at the Dyersburg Holiday Inn.

16. Jewison has said that the mansion in Dyersburg to be used as plantation owner Endicott's home didn't look old-South aristocratic enough, so the filmmakers brought in furniture and a black lawn jockey. The film crew also added a greenhouse to the home and filled it with $15,000 worth of orchids.

17. To choreograph the slap scene, Jewison rehearsed by standing in for Poitier and having Larry Gates (Endicott) slap the director several times until Jewison was satisfied he could do it hard enough. For Poitier's reaction, Jewison simply told him to slap hard and not hold back.

18. Poitier's fears turned out to be justified. The Dyersburg shoot was cut short by local thugs looking for trouble and raising a menacing ruckus in the parking lot of the motel. The production quickly fled back to Illinois.

19. Often, Jewison shot and edited conversations to the rhythm of songs that hadn't been composed yet. He knew what he wanted to hear in the music, whether in Quincy Jones' score or Ray Charles' theme song, that was to be added later.

20. The film was a solid hit, earning nearly $11 million in North America. By the end of 1967, Poitier was the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood. That same year, he'd also chastely romanced Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's daughter in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and had even become something of a teen heartthrob as the cool high-school teacher in "To Sir, With Love."

21. The movie earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Director for Jewison and Best Sound Effects for James Richard. It won five prizes, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), Best Adapted Screenplay (Silliphant), Best Editing and Best Sound.

22. Oscar-wining editor Hal Ashby became a top director in his own right, making such '70s classics as "Harold and Maude," "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home," and "Being There."

23. In 1969, the movie was adapted into a play in the Soviet Union. A scene was added to the ending at the railroad station; in this version, Tibbs earns Gillespie's respect, only to be forced to sit in a segregated car in the back of the train. Thus did the playwright make the propagandistic point that, under capitalism, racism would always prevail.

24. Poitier reprised the role of Virgil Tibbs twice, solving big-city crimes in 1970's "They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!" (the title taken from Poitier's famous retort to Steiger in the original film) and 1971's "The Organization." Both presaged the blaxploitation genre of crime thrillers with black heroes that was about to come into vogue with the release of "Shaft" (also 1971). Neither of the Tibbs sequels earned the same kind of critical or popular response that greeted "In the Heat of the Night."

25. More than two decades after the Poitier-Steiger film, "In the Heat of the Night" resurfaced as a weekly TV crime drama series, with Howard Rollins as Tibbs and Carroll O'Connor as Gillespie. Despite the casting of the actor best known for playing Archie Bunker, the TV Gillespie isn't a bigot; in fact, he runs a police department so sensitive about its perceived racial backwardness that it persuades Tibbs to stay in Sparta and join the force. Starting in 1988, the series would run for eight seasons, across two networks, for a total of 150 episodes. It even produced a Christmas charity CD, featuring the cast members and various country and bluegrass legends. The sound of faces being indignantly slapped was nowhere to be heard.
categories Movies