The film that pitted Sidney Poitier (plus Tracy and Hepburn) against the American South

Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? - Alamy
Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? - Alamy

In 1967, the late Sidney Poitier enjoyed something of an annus mirabilis. He appeared in three popular and successful films: To Sir With Love, In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. The first was a British film that dealt with social and racial issues in an inner-city London school, and the second was a gritty thriller about a murder investigation in Mississippi. Both were box office hits, testifying to Poitier’s newfound status as the first black actor with a significant commercial draw. But it was Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that would be the most significant of the three, with a social reach that transcended any flaws in its well-intentioned execution.

The screenwriter William Rose had built his reputation on comedies such as The Ladykillers and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but his collaboration with Kramer, Hollywood’s leading director of “issue movies”, saw him move in a more realistic direction. Kramer had worked with Poitier nearly a decade earlier on The Defiant Ones, a 1958 drama starring him and Tony Curtis as a pair of escaped convicts in the Deep South who are forced into a reluctant partnership in heightened circumstances. Both men enjoyed the collaboration and looked for a new film to work on together, but it was Kramer and Rose who came up with an idea that was as groundbreaking as it was daring: to introduce the hitherto taboo topic of interracial marriage into a mainstream Hollywood picture.

Although 1967 may be remembered as a time of peace and love, it was also a time of great racial tension in America. Malcolm X had been assassinated two years earlier, and Martin Luther King’s every movement and speech were dogged by furious gangs of racists, tacitly encouraged by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who would dearly have loved to see this troublemaker removed from public view.

Poitier had won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in 1963’s Lilies of the Field – the first African-American actor to do so – but he had shied away from overtly political films, preferring instead to play staunchly moral characters who set an example to white and black audiences alike; not for nothing did he appear in a cameo in the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Yet when Kramer approached him to play the role of a middle-class black doctor who is engaged to a white woman, Poitier recognised that it presented a unique challenge, not least because of the shock with which his character’s race was greeted by her parents. The character he would play, that of Dr John Prentice, was little less than a secular saint, an intentional decision on the part of Kramer and Rose. As the director said, “Hell, we deliberately made the situation perfect, and for only one reason. If you take away all the other motives for not getting married, then you leave only one question. Will Tracy (as Poitier's lover's father) forbid the marriage because Poitier's a Negro? That is the only issue, and we deliberately removed all other obstacles to focus on it.”

When the film began shooting at the beginning of 1967, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17, mostly Southern, states, and anti-miscegenation views were rife throughout America. Poitier agreed to take the role before he saw a script, and later said “No producer, no director could get the money, nor would theatres in America book it. But Kramer made people look at the issue for the first time. . . He treated the theme with humour, but so delicately, so humanely, so lovingly that he made everyone look at the question for the very first time in film history.”

Poitier was cast alongside the legendary real-life couple Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as well as Katharine Houghton as his onscreen fiancée. Tracy had worked with Kramer several times beforehand, and Poitier felt nervous about acting opposite him. As he said, “When I went to play a scene with Tracy and Hepburn, I couldn't remember a word. Finally, Stanley Kramer said to me, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘Stanley, send those two people home. I will play the scene against two empty chairs. I don't want them here because I can't handle that kind of company.’ He sent them home. I played the scene in close-up against two empty chairs as the dialogue coach read Mr. Tracy's and Miss Hepburn's lines from off camera.”

Although both Tracy and Hepburn were impeccably liberal figures who applauded the film’s social intent, there was still a faint sense of doubt on their parts about Poitier’s standing as an actor; as he graciously acknowledged, he was “under close observation” during his early days on the set. However, he also realised that “they had to say to themselves (and I'm sure they did), this kid has to be pretty okay, because Stanley is nuts about working with him.”

In the event, Hepburn was more concerned about Tracy’s failing health. The actor, who was suffering from heart disease, diabetes and other complications of his lifelong heavy drinking, was uninsurable, and she and Kramer deferred their salaries in case he died during production and another actor had to be hired. As Poitier said “The illness of Spencer dominated everything. I knew his health was very poor and many of the people who knew what the situation was didn't believe we'd finish the film, that is, that Tracy would be able to finish the film. Those of us who were close knew it was worse than they thought. Kate brought him to and from the set. She worked with him on his lines. She made sure with [Stanley] Kramer that his hours were right for what he could do, and what he couldn't do was different each day. There were days when he couldn't do anything. But also there were days when he was great, and I got the chance to know what it was like working with Tracy.”

Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton with Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer on set - Eyevine
Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton with Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer on set - Eyevine

In the event, Tracy managed to complete the film only 17 days before he died; a distraught Hepburn was unable to watch the picture afterwards. Yet in an instance of karma, the Supreme Court threw out existing anti-miscegenation laws two days after Tracy’s death, on 12 June 1967, ensuring that its release that December would exist simultaneously as a tribute to its late star and to its heartfelt themes of social justice.

Kramer and Rose carefully presented the film as being as much drawing-room comedy as racially charged drama, meaning that it would appeal to a wider audience than the more violent In The Heat Of The Night. Upon its release on 11 December 1967, the marketing emphasised its starry cast and famous director as much as its ground-breaking themes, which saw it become a significant box office success. On a budget of $4 million, it grossed nearly $60 million; it was even a hit in the Southern states where, a few months ago, a white woman and a black woman would have been legally unable to marry.

Amidst the acclaim for the film, which included Oscars for Hepburn and Rose’s screenplay, there was some complaining, especially amongst black audiences, that Poitier’s character’s saintliness robbed the film of some of its drama. There were even whispers that the Poitier character may as well have been white; the vaudevillian star Stepin Fetchit, himself notorious for the perception that his act played to outmoded black stereotypes, said the film “did more to stop intermarriage than to help it”.

However, its legacy has been a positive and heartfelt one. Its lasting achievement in breaking down barriers and conceptions can be summarised in a famous line of dialogue that the Poitier character delivers to his father: “Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will… But you think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.”