'In the Heat of the Night' star Lee Grant on working with Sidney Poitier and being blacklisted by Hollywood

Lee Grant and Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Lee Grant and Sidney Poitier in the classic thriller, In The Heat of the Night. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

It's the slap that still reverberates through cinematic history. Fifty-five years ago — only three years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law — millions of moviegoers watched as Black police officer Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) was struck across the face by plantation-owning Deep South tycoon Endicott (Larry Gates) in Norman Jewison's classic thriller In the Heat of the Night. But then Tibbs did something that had never been seen in a major studio movie before: He struck back.

In the immediate aftermath of being slapped, Endicott appeals to the other white man in the room, local police chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), saying, "You saw what he did. What are you going to do about it?" Gillespie — whose racially-motivated distrust of Tibbs is slowly turning into grudging respect — replies simply, "I don't know." Tibbs ultimately walks away from that encounter the victor, and the scene signaled to both Hollywood and the nation at large that something fundamental had shifted in the way that race relations could be presented onscreen.

"They rose off their chairs when he slapped him back," In the Heat of the Night co-star, Lee Grant, confirms to Yahoo Entertainment. "That was also Rod's best moment in the film: I thought he was extraordinary. You could really see him being pulled one way and the other, and he ultimately found a new way of life. I think he's forever changed by the experience." Steiger later earned a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and the movie itself took home the Best Picture prize.

Now in her nineties, Grant says that she wasn't on set to witness the slap in person. But she was present for one of the movie's other signature moments, when Tibbs delivers a verbal smackdown to Gillespie that stings as much as his physical response to Endicott. Passing through Sparta, Mississippi on his way back to Philadelphia, the homicide investigator gets roped into helping solve the murder of a Chicago industrialist who planned to build an integrated factory in the economically-distressed small town.

Gillespie is initially less than thrilled to have to work alongside a Black man, and makes a point of belittling him whenever possible, even making fun of his name. "What do they call you up there?" he asks. "They call me Mister Tibbs," Virgil responds with icy precision. (That line has since earned a spot on AFI's list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all-time.)

"I don't remember how many times they shot that scene, but I can assure you the connection between Sidney and Rod was so strong," says Grant, who plays the small, but pivotal role of Mrs. Colbert, the wife of the central murder victim. "There was a symbiosis between them as actors. Sidney didn't have to try for anything: he knew that when Virgil came to that small town, he was the brilliant one." (Both stars have since passed on: Steiger died in 2002, and Poitier passed away earlier this year.)

Grant also notes that the "They call me Mr. Tibbs" scene crystalizes Jewison's larger intentions with the film, which was to show these two very different men forging a bond that bridges the deep racial divisions of the time. "He set up a miracle of opposites," she explains. "The whole journey for a smart Philadelphia detective to be caught by accident in this backwards Southern town, where he encounters the ignorance of the police chief. They're forced to face each other and find out where they came from and how far away they are from each other's lives. It's a kind of friendship story."

Beyond its larger cultural impact, In the Heat of the Night holds a special place in Grant's heart for being her re-introduction to Hollywood after spending twelve years in career purgatory due to being placed on the film industry's notorious blacklist. A rising stage and screen star in the early 1950s, she married screenwriter Arnold Manoff who was a member of the Communist Party. Amidst the "Red Scare" enveloping the country at the time, her husband came to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and was blacklisted himself.

"I refused to take the Fifth Amendment in front of the committee," says Grant, whose eulogy for blacklisted actor, J. Edward Bromberg, also made her a HUAC target. "They insisted that I name names if I wanted to work. I was told that if I named my husband as a Communist, I could work again. So I left and didn't work for the next twelve years in film or television. I worked in theater, and I didn't give a s*** about working in television or in films — not if I had to name people. I had no desire to join a group of people who would name names."

Grant worked in the New York theater world as McCarthy's red-baiting reign of terror continued. In 1954, the Wisconsin senator was finally exposed as a fraud and censured by Congress, but it took another decade for blacklisted actors, writers and directors to start openly working in the industry again. Over the decades, conservative commentators like Ann Coulter have tried to rehabilitate McCarthy's destructive legacy, but Grant has no patience for that kind of historical distortion.

"He was a terrible man," she says emphatically. "And his assistant, Roy Cohn, was terrible, too. He turned people into HUAC. Remember when Donald Trump was president and he said, 'Where's my Roy Cohn?' To me, Donald Trump is no different that his predecessor. That's where I stand on his presidency." (Trump and Cohn were business associates prior to Cohn's death in 1986.)

Grant in one of her earliest roles in 1951's Detective Story. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Grant in one of her earliest roles in 1951's Detective Story. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

By the mid-’60s, Grant was once again starting to find work on TV shows like Peyton Place and The Fugitive, and that's when Jewison contacted her about In the Heat of the Night. "He called me and said, 'Would you like to do this part?'" she remembers now. "He knew that I had gone through that experience [of the blacklist], and because he was and is a great progressive, he wanted to do something for me."

While In the Heat of the Night is set in Mississippi, Jewison shot the bulk of the film in Sparta, Illionis out of concerns over Poitier's safety. "Sidney had to be very careful about where he played the part," Grant remembers. "He could have been killed very easily [in the South] at that time."

Grant says she was eager to work opposite Poitier, who she knew from their shared time in New York's tight-knit stage community. (Poitier had also been blacklisted, although he returned to the screen well before Grant.) "While we had been friends, this was our first meeting as actors," she says. "I think that Sidney and I had something going for us in this film that connected to my life before it. He cared about me, and that had nothing to do with acting."

Poitier's care for his co-star his evident in their first scene together, where Tibbs tries to comfort Mrs. Colbert — who is notably the first white person he touches in the movie. Grant says that they avoided speaking too much about the scene ahead of time. "Actors don't talk to each other about their work," she says, laughing. "Sidney and I were Method actors — we each came with our own secrets. Our only connection on set was within our characters; we never had dinner together or chatted together. It would not be until years later that we talked about it. I made a documentary about Sidney [One Bright Light, part of PBS's American Masters series] and I don't remember us even talking about it then."

Poitier and Steiger in In the Head of the Night (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Poitier and Steiger in a scene from In the Heat of the Night. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Poitier would go on to reprise his role as Virgil Tibbs in two follow-up movies, 1970's They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and 1971's The Organization, both of which were set in San Francisco. Meanwhile, In the Heat of the Night was later adapted into a television series that ran from 1988 until 1995 and starred All in the Family's Carroll O'Connor as Gillespie and Howard Rollins as Mister Tibbs. Grant — who went on to win an Oscar for her performance in Hal Ashby's classic 1975 comedy, Shampoo — says that she never watched the sequels or the series, but feels that the original movie is just as relevant today as it was in 1967, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The preconception of what a Black man is — especially in the South with its history of hate and killing — isn't gone," she notes, adding that she sees similar intolerance in other places around the world, including in war-torn Ukraine, where her mother's family emigrated from decades ago. "Ukraine has been on my mind a lot," she says. "It may not be the blacklist, but it's the newest fight, and it's one that I'm deeply involved with."

In the Heat of the Night is currently streaming on HBO Max