Heat of the Night

In The
Heat Of
The Night

United Artists

Sidney Poitier - Virgil Tibbs
Rod Steiger - Bill Gillespie
Warren Oates - Sam Wood
Lee Grant - Mrs. Leslie Colbert
Quentin Dean - Delores Purdy
James Patterson - Purdy
Norman Jewison - Director
Walter Mirisch - Producer
Stirling Silliphant - Screenwriter
Haskell Wexler - Cinematographer
John Ball - Original Novel
Quincy Jones - Film Score

Poitier & Steiger In The Heat Of The Night is that rarest of films. Equal parts mystery, drama, and character study,it's a powerful crime thriller that succeeds on many levels. Set in Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights movement, its racially charged themes struck a chord with movie-goers, many of whom must surely have been grappling with the same issues confronted by African-American detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and small-town sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Tibbs and Gillespie begin their murder investigation in an atmosphere of hostility and mutual suspicion, but they ultimately overcome their differences and emerge with a newfound respect for one another, mirroring the social awakening of America in the sixties. The film is clearly a product of its time, yet the genesis of the hard-hitting story dates back over thirty years.

Author John Ball concieved the concept for his original novel in 1933, but felt that the timing wasn't right. "The climate was cush that I couldn't have written it then," he reflected. "In those days civil rights were unheard of, and I wasn't a good enough writer to do the idea justice." In fact, Ball had an undistinguished career as a writer of varous types of action novels when his first Virgil Tibbs book was submitted to Joan Kahn, the legendary editor at Harper & Row. She made extensive notes and had the author rewrite over and over again, forcing him to follow her meticulously thought-out plot, character, and dialogue enhancements.

The book went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Reviews of the novel were glowing, suggesting that Tibbs might be worthy of acceptance into the pantheon of Great Detectives. When the second novel was submitted, Kahn again suggested major changes and rewrites, only to have Ball refuse to do them. After all, he claimed, he'd already won an Edgar, had great reviews, and sold motion-picture rights for a ton of money, so he didn't really need her help. Needless to say, the second book, and the handful that followed, were critical and commercial failures, and Ball is remembered today only for that first book and the brilliant film made from it.

Grant & Poitier The book had caught the eye of film producer Walter Mirisch, who quickly began the process of bringing Ball's fascinating story to the screen. After Mirisch commissioned a screenplay from Stirling Silliphant, he gave it to director Norman Jewison to read on an airplane trip. "I liked it so much that I phoned from the airport to tell Walter I'd do the picture," Jewison remembered. Later, Mirisch and Jewison agreed that Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger would be ideal for the lead roles, and both actors were cast soon afterward.

Upon the film's release, it became a major hit with critics and at the box office. It also won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Steiger), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Editing. The powerful impact of its treatment of the race issue broke new ground in Hollywood filmmaking, and its themes of tolerance resonate to this day. In The Heat Of The Night is a classic in the truest sense of the word, perfectly capturing the mood of a nation in an era of great social upheaval. At the same time, however, it remains as provocative, timely and relevant today as it was in 1967.

The great success of In The Heat Of The Night spawned two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), both of which again starred Sidney Poitier as the perfect Virgil Tibbs. The former had terrible reviews but did pretty well at the box office, the latter had better reviews but sold fewer tickets. Some years later, NBC aired a two-hour remake of In The Heat Of The Night with Howard E. Rollins as Tibbs and Carroll O'Connor as Gillespie. Critics wondered why anyone thought this was needed, but it was successful enough to foster a one-hour television series that enjoyed success.

--from the MGM / UA DVD release of
In The Heat Of The Night, 1967.

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