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After Sidney Poitier began collaborating with Kramer and the screenwriters on the script, the next step was finding the right actor to play Joker. Kramer wanted Marlon Brando, but for whatever reason, that didn't work out. Tony Curtis knew he wasn't the first choice for the role (Kirk Douglas was considered for the part), but he wanted the part badly. He saw it as a chance to escape the pretty-boy adventure epics that had made him a box office favorite. In fact, he believed in the movie so much, he helped raise the $1 million budget through Curtleigh, the production company he had formed with his wife Janet Leigh. With both roles cast and funding secured, The Defiant Ones was was ready to begin production.
Sidney Poitier came to the set of The Defiant Ones with a great deal of respect and admiration for Stanley Kramer. "Stanley was always a forerunner of terribly good things; He was the type of man who found it essential to put on the line the things that were important to him," the actor told Donald Spoto, author of the biography Stanley Kramer: Film Maker (Samuel French, 1990). "People have short memories: in the days he started making films about important social issues, there were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself, 'What the hell', either I do it or I can't live with myself.' For that attitude, we're all in Stanley Kramer's debt. He's an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker."
Tony Curtis also strongly believed in Kramer and the project, even though he often felt that the director showed favoritism to Poitier. "Because of the racial climate of the time, he went out of his way to be more agreeable to Sidney," the actor said in his book Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (Morrow, 1993). "I noticed that in his direction and his behavior. He never treated me with the same reverence he did Sidney. I wasn't mad about it. That's just the way it was. Sidney was a hell of a talent, no matter what color he was, and this was a time when Hollywood was just starting to realize maybe it could do something positive for civil rights."
Curtis, in fact, performed a very generous deed on Poitier's behalf. Because he was a much bigger star, Curtis was to be given full star billing, while Poitier's contract called for him to be listed with the other supporting players. Curtis went to Kramer and insisted that Poitier's name be given equal prominence with his. It was Poitier's first top billing in movies.
Both actors also had tremendous praise for the supporting cast. Curtis was particularly excited to be appearing with Carl Switzer, who had been a child star as Alfalfa in the "Our Gang" comedies that Curtis watched as a child. Curtis later said he loved listening to Switzer (an incessant poker-player) talk about being a kid actor in early Hollywood and how he had been swindled out of the money he made from that popular shorts series.
Despite the mutual admiration and camaraderie among the cast and crew, The Defiant Ones wasn't necessarily a breeze to shoot. It was physically exhausting for Curtis and Poitier, who had to run through fields, swamps, and woods and fight each other barefisted, all while being chained together. There was also the famous climactic run for the train. Most grueling of all were the scenes where the two chained men are swept down the rapids of a river and their desperate attempt to climb out of a deep clay pit during a rainstorm. Curtis said there were no doubles for the clay pit scene, which he deemed the hardest sequence in the film. He also said he had a stunt double for some of the water scenes while Poitier had a dummy as a stand-in for at least one shot - look for it, it's pretty obvious. However, most of the grueling stunt work was done by the two stars themselves.
by Rob Nixon
The Defiant Ones (1958)
The second feature in a quartet of racial prejudice-themed films by director Stanley Kramer (The other titles include Home Of The Brave (1949), Pressure Point (1962) and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967), The Defiant Ones (1958) is an unlikely buddy film. Sidney Poitier stars as Noah Cullen, an educated black convict in a chain gang whose "other half" is John "Joker" Johnson, a white, Southern bigot played by Tony Curtis. The two men, shackled together with chains, decide to escape when their prison truck crashes on the highway, providing them with a chance for freedom. As they take to the back roads, their hostility and distrust of one another eventually gives way to mutual respect as they dodge sheriffs, hunting dogs, lynch mobs, and gun-wielding youths together.
The Defiant Ones marked a significant turning point in Sidney Poitier's career. Since the mid-fifties, Poitier had become a spokesperson for black empowerment due to his intelligent and uncompromising characterizations in such films as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Edge of the City (1957). In a time of heightened racial tensions and a virtually nonexistent black presence in Hollywood, Poitier's Cullen was an inspirational figure to African-American moviegoers who rarely saw issues of skin color or racial prejudice addressed in contemporary movies. In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier recalled his involvement in The Defiant Ones: "As I saw it, in my career there was a real beginning for a break-through - not only for me but for other blacks in films. Suddenly decisions of a very political nature were on my doorstep. Was it important to carry on? Was it important for me to carry on? Naturally I felt I had certain things to offer, since I had begun to work with some regularity and had generated what I thought to be good vibrations spreading around the industry. The Defiant Ones, speaking directly to the point of how black people want to see themselves on the screen, would be a hell of a shot for us. And the role of Cullen would represent for me and other black actors a step up in the quality of parts available to us, and at the same time afford the black community in general a rare look at a movie character exemplifying the dignity of our people - something that Hollywood had systematically ignored in its shameless capitulation to racism."
Though Marlon Brando was reportedly Kramer's original choice for John "Joker" Johnson, Tony Curtis diligently proved himself the better choice in the role. In his autobiography, Curtis recalled, " At first they said I was too good-looking for the part; I didn't look enough like the a**hole "n*gger-hater" I was supposed to play. So I wore a false nose and made myself look uglier. I felt pretty strongly about wanting to do that movie....I had a double named Bobby Hoy, an excellent stunt man who looked like me and did some of the water scenes, but most of it was done by me. It was a physically exhausting picture."
When the film was completed, Curtis paid tribute to his co-star in a unique way. Poitier said, "Tony performed the most generous act I ever received from an actor in my life. My contract called for me to be listed among the supporting actors. Tony had top billing alone, but he went to Stanley Kramer and said, 'I want you to put Sidney's name up there with mine.' And that's exactly what happened. That's how I got top billing for the first time in my life. I think that speaks a lot of him."
After its premiere, The Defiant Ones became the most talked about film in Hollywood and eventually garnered eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Writing (The latter two won in their respective categories). Unfortunately, because Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier split the vote for Best Actor, David Niven walked away with the statuette for his performance in Separate Tables (1958).
Screenplay:Harold Jacob Smith (screenplay), Nedrick Young (story)
Art Direction:Fernando Carrere
Principle Cast:Tony Curtis (John Jackson), Sidney Poitier (Noah Cullen), Theodore Bikel (Sheriff Max Muller), Charles McGraw (Captain Frank Gibbons), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Sam), King Donovan (Solly), Claude Akins (Mack), Lawrence Dobkin (Editor)
by Kerryn Sherrod