Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Day I Met Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were booked for the second half of the Chicago CBS noon show where I was working in 1972. They were in town to plug the movie in which they were co-starring called Buck and the Preacher and which Poitier had directed, a first in his career. 

The daily program featured the news and the weather followed with soft interviews presented by the hostess, Lee Philip. But Lee was on vacation as was my boss, the usual producer of the show. 

Substituting for the hostess that day was  Janet Langhart (the current wife of William Cohen, the former US Secretary of State). I was substituting for the producer of the show and was responsible for filling her in on the guests of that day and on the film's story.

It was standard procedure for all guests for the show to appear at the studio (a former roller rink and a block long) a half hour before the show. My regular job was to usher them to the Green Room, offer them coffee and let them know that Lee would be in shortly to meet them before the show began. Guests were instructed to arrive before noon.

On that infamous day, noon arrived without a sign of our guests' presence.  No phone call. No heads up communication. 

My mind was already on Plan B. I couldn't remember experiencing a no-show situation in the two years since I had been working at CBS. I didn't want to upset Janet. She was new to her role just like I was new to mine.

I started going through my boss's rolodex looking for ideas. It was now 12:05 and the news anchor was talking about a possible strike for the Chicago schoolteachers and getting ready to send the cameras over to the weather desk. Still no Harry and Sidney.

I'm not sure what we all decided Plan B would be, but whatever it was, I made my way toward the studio to brief the stage manager and then head to my place in the control room next to the director.

At 12:10, two tall, slim, gorgeous-looking African American gentlemen immaculately dressed in elegant suits and ties hurried into the studio. It was them! They had made it just in time. 

Of course they were enchanted with Janet Langhart. She was one of the few African American women in the broadcasting business in the early seventies. And she was as beautiful as they were handsome.

The two guests were both so engaging and entertaining and wonderful and they looked like they were totally enjoying themselves and had no notion of the panic they had given us.

In particular, I remember Sidney Poitier's response to a question that I had prepared for Janet and that she had taken literally. About the film she inquired, "what is the plot?"

Sidney Poitier rolled those great big eyes of his, smiled a wide grin, and responded "the plot?" as if to say "Really? You want to know something that basic?" Fifty years later I can still remember this moment and how horrified and embarrassed I was that I had phrased the question for Janet in such a naive way. 

Despite my faux pas, the glamour of that moment is indelible in my mind. The two men were icons and it was such a treat to see the human side of them. And, of course, I was honored to have worked with Janet as well.

Mimi Pockross is the author of Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase. Find her at www.mimipockross.com

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