Fifty years ago, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made history as one of the first films by a major Hollywood studio to depict an interracial romance. But Karen Sharpe — actress and wife of Stanley Kramer, who directed the 1967 Best Picture nominee — tells Yahoo Movies that there were two other love stories that played out on set in addition to the central one depicted between characters played by Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton on screen. “I would say there are three love stories here,” Sharpe remarks of her late husband’s groundbreaking feature, newly re-released in a 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition. “Watching the film has always been a sensitive and wonderful experience for me because it brings back so many memories.”
One of those other romances was between longtime lovers Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as Christina and Matt Drayton, the well-meaning but concerned parents of Houghton’s doe-eyed romantic Joey, who falls head over heels for Poitier’s noble doctor, John Prentice. Partners on screen and off for 27 years, Dinner proved to be the final film for Hepburn and Tracy: He was in poor health for much of the shoot, and died two weeks after performing his final scene. Two days after Tracy passed away, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, which finally ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. That case was close to Kramer’s heart, and a motivating factor behind making the movie.
The second romance — which viewers wouldn’t have seen or known about, as it played out behind the camera — was the one between Sharpe and Kramer, who were married in 1966, a year prior to Dinner, after a lengthy courtship. (They remained together until Kramer’s death in 2001, after a filmmaking career that included influential movies such as The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremberg.) “Many of the lines in the film were the way Stanley felt about me,” Sharpe reveals. “Like the scene where Monsignor Ryan [played by Cecil Kellaway] tells Matt, ‘If Joey came home with some fuzzy-wuzzy and said, ‘This is the man for me…’ and Tracy replies, ‘Christina would say, ‘Oh, really? How wonderful. Where will we get enough roses to fill the rose bowl?’ That was very much how I sounded as a romantic. Stanley wasn’t that kind of romantic, but he became one, because he was married to me for 35 years!”
Sharpe shared with us the origins of her and Kramer’s three-decade Hollywood love story, one that began when the Texas-born actress arrived in L.A. at age 14 with dreams of stardom. One of her earliest roles was as an extra in the Kramer-produced 1952 film The Sniper, starring Arthur Franz as a troubled delivery man who starts randomly shooting women on the streets of San Francisco. “It was way ahead of its time,” remembers Sharpe, whose role consisted of three lines of dialogue. She didn’t meet Kramer during her brief time on set, but the film did allow her admission into the Screen Actors Guild, which in turn led to regular work in films like Man with the Gun, starring Robert Mitchum, and such Golden Age TV shows as Mike Hammer and Johnny Ringo.
Their paths crossed again in 1964 when Sharpe — who had married and divorced actor Chester Marshall in the intervening 12 years — was playing Jerry Lewis’s girlfriend in the Frank Tashlin-directed comedy The Disorderly Orderly on the bustling Paramount lot. One soundstage over, the 50-year-old Kramer was in the midst of shooting Ship of Fools, a seafaring wartime drama with an all-star cast that included Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, and Sharpe’s favorite actress, Vivien Leigh. “I used to watch Stanley come into the studio commissary everyday with this fantastic crew,” she says. “One day I got up enough courage to walk onto the Fools set, because I wanted to see Vivien Leigh work so badly. I’d never done that in all of my years in the business!” While Sharpe was watching Leigh, the twice-married, twice-divorced Kramer was watching her. “He saw me, and began to pursue me. It took him a year to get a date with me!”
Kramer’s pursuit initially took the form of a phone call to Sharpe’s manager requesting a dinner date with his 30-year-old client. She demurred that time — “I don’t go out with [directors]!” she remembers telling him — and continued to do so after each of the director’s follow-up calls. Finally, her exasperated manager told her to give her rejection to Kramer directly. “Stanley called me, and I told him, ‘Mr. Kramer, I’m working, and I never go out when I’m working.’” She eventually did agree to a two-hour dinner date on her home turf in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. And, just like in the modern-day L.A. dating scene, geography almost proved to be the deal breaker. “He said, ‘Oh, you live in the Valley?’” Sharpe says, laughing. “I told him, ‘I can understand not wanting to come over the hill. I don’t need dinner that badly.’ And he replied, ‘No, I’ll be there.’”
Sharpe characterizes that initial date as “disastrous,” so much so that she assumed neither she — nor any of her acting buddies — would ever land a role in a Stanley Kramer film again. But Kramer wasn’t put off; when Sharpe wound up in the hospital for an appendectomy, the director called her room and asked to bring her dinner when she returned home. She agreed, but arranged to have a chaperone for the second date night, actor Henry Wilcoxon, best friend and frequent collaborator of legendary Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeMille. Relations were still lightly frosty between Sharpe and Kramer, but the two men hit it off famously. “They bonded like crazy, and Stanley invited Henry and I over to his house for dinner. I was kicking Henry under the table; I didn’t want to go! But I went to Stanley’s house three times with Henry, and I listened to him. The more I listened to him, the more I fell in love with him. We were married a few months later, and I never looked back.”
The 20-year age gap between the newlyweds was another bit of autobiography that Kramer wound up writing into Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — in the film, Joey and John are separated by 14 years — and Sharpe says it occasionally concerned the director in real life as well. Nevertheless, the pair were together for the long haul, and had two daughters, both of whom followed their parents into the movie business. While Kramer never considered making a feature film sequel to Dinner, Sharpe says that she believes Joey and John enjoyed an equally long and happy union. (Eight years after the film’s release, in 1975, Kramer directed a version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a TV pilot for ABC; the film was remade in 2005 as Guess Who starring Bernie Mac in the Spencer Tracy role and Ashton Kutcher in the Sidney Poitier part.)
Sharpe notes a striking bit of prescience between reel life and real life, drawing a line directly from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to former U.S. president Barack Obama. At one point in the film, Matt asks John, “Have you given any thought to the problems your children will have,” and Poitier replies, “[Joey] feels that all of our children will be President of the United States.”
“John and Joey meet in Hawaii,” Sharpe points out. “And President Obama was born in Hawaii. The film is also 50 years old, and Obama is 52. He actually could have been their son! That was so prophetic. Who knew 50 years ago that would ever happen?”
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