There will be no pigeonholing of Norman Jewison, a director who has made a career of working in a wide variety of genres and subjects. His first feature, in 1962, was the comedy “40 Pounds of Trouble.” More comedies followed. He dabbled in drama with “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), the one-two musical punch of “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), tackled science fiction with “Rollerball” (1975) and stayed on a prolific roll right through his most recent film, the 2003 thriller “The Statement.”
In 1999, the seven-time Oscar nominee won the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
Though his biggest box-office success was the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” (1987), Jewison always found room for exploring issues of racial injustice in, for example, “A Soldier’s Story” (1984) and “The Hurricane” (1999). But it’s “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) that remains his best-known movie. It’s the story of a black police detective (Sidney Poitier) caught up in a murder mystery while passing through a Mississippi town where the police chief (Rod Steiger) is as bigoted as the racist locals. Adapted from the John Ball novel by screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, the film won Oscars for best picture, screenplay, and actor (Steiger). Jewison was nominated as director.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, “In the Heat of the Night” screens at the Brattle Theatre on July 14 and 15. Reached by phone in Toronto, Jewison, 90, was happy to reminisce about the film.
“I think making ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ helped me get ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ ” he said. “By then I had done several films for Universal. The people at the [production company] Mirisch Corporation and [studio] United Artists had seen them, and they gave me a chance on it.”
But along with the chance came some suggestions, many of them from Arthur Krim, then the head of United Artists.
“He was a very strong Democrat and an adviser to John Kennedy,” said Jewison. “I think he felt that this film should be made. Sidney Poitier had already done ‘Lilies of the Field,’ which was produced by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists. He got terrific reviews for that film, so I think they felt he could pull it off.
“Nobody else was ever discussed,” he added. “Sidney is a brilliant actor, and he played the part as quite an intellect.”
Then there was Steiger, who was not a studio choice.
“They wanted me to hire George Kennedy,” said Jewison. “But I wanted Rod Steiger because he looked more like some redneck sheriff I had seen on television at that time, so I went with him.
Poitier was known as an actor who approached his roles from the heart. Steiger was Method all the way, playing the part right in the moment.
“Sidney used to worry about Rod,” said Jewison. “There’s a scene where Rod gets out of the squad car and slams the door, and the whole car moves. Sidney looked at me and said, ‘Do you think he’s maybe a little over the top?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about Rod; I’ll handle Rod.’ And often I would whisper into Rod’s ear, ‘Take it down a notch.’ ”
Jewison encountered a different sort of problem before filming even started.
“We began the task of trying to find a location that would fit in with the demands of Sidney Poitier,” he said. “Sidney had said to me, ‘I see that you’ve set the film in Mississippi. Well, I’m not going there. I’m not going south of the Mason-Dixon Line.’ Because he and Harry Belafonte had run into problems . . . in Georgia when they had gone down to campaign for the student movement in the South. We ended up shooting in Sparta, Ill. But I didn’t want to take the time and money to paint out Sparta on the firehouse and the railway station and the big water tower, so I just called the town Sparta, Miss.”
“In the Heat of the Night” was a major box office success, budgeted at about $2 million and taking in more than $23 million, according to the Internet Movie Database. Jewison remembers a very positive response the first time he saw it with a paying audience.
“I was in Boston making ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1968) and I got a phone call from [National Amusements chairman] Sumner Redstone, saying that he booked ‘In the Heat if the Night’ all through the Northeast,” he recalled. “Sumner said, ‘You’re shooting a film up here, and I’d like to invite you to the opening screening in Boston.’ It was a mostly student audience, and it went over really well.”
Asked how he thought the film would do if it were made today, he said, “It certainly would play fantastically with the black audience, but I think maybe it wouldn’t play successfully in Trumpland.”
Two decades after “In the Heat of the Night,” talk surfaced about Jewison writing and directing a biography of Malcolm X, and he did land the job. But it was Spike Lee who eventually made the film.
“I had talked Denzel [Washington] into playing him, but when they announced that I was working on the screenplay, there were big protests [about a white director making it] that kind of started with Spike Lee,” he said. “I felt that maybe he was right, so I took a meeting with him in New York. Spike Lee and I had lunch, and I told him I was sorry that he felt that way, but be my guest and just don’t screw it up. I ended up liking the film, but I think it could have been a little tighter.”
Jewison admitted to missing his days as a director, explaining that he stopped “because I really didn’t think I could do 80 hours a week anymore. I’m 90 years old! But about a year ago I was working on a screenplay with [‘Moonstruck’ writer] John Patrick Shanley. We couldn’t get it off the ground. Everybody was saying it cost too much. But I’m still working on it.”