Friday, April 14, 2017

Scott Wilson Finds a Career In the Heat of the Night

Scott Wilson, as Dick Hickock, is on the right

The other night, in the lobby of the Chinese Theatre, I was pleased to run into one of my favorite character actors, Scott Wilson. He was there as an honored guest of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which was screening In the Heat of the Night for its gala opening. About ten years ago, while researching the great movie year 1967, I had sat down in Scott’s comfy living room for what turned out to be a three-hour chat about his career. It started with a featured role in In the Heat of the Night, followed by a star-making turn as a real-life killer in one of 1967’s most powerful crime dramas, In Cold Blood. (One of his most memorable recent roles was as a victim – not a perp – in 2003’s Monster, where he ran afoul of Charlize Theron’s deadly Aileen Wuornos.) Though the biggest box-office hit that came out of 1967 was The Graduate, and critics applauded the bravura audacity of  Bonnie and Clyde, neither of those films was named Best Picture at the 1968 Oscar ceremony. That honor went to In the Heat of the Night, a tight little whodunit that fit the mood of the country in an era when civil rights were at the top of everyone’s mind.

The Atlanta-born Scott Wilson made his film debut as In The Heat of the Night’s Harvey Oberst, a small-town Southern punk. He’s first seen by Haskell Wexler’s dramatically hand-held camera desperately running away from the town of Sparta, Mississippi. When he’s finally caught just before the state line by Sheriff Gillespie (played with Oscar-winning flair by Rod Steiger), he discovers he’s the prime suspect in a murder case. Gillespie is only too happy to pin the rap on him. But Sidney Poitier, as a Philadelphia homicide expert who finds himself stuck in this backwater Southern town, quickly assesses the situation and announces that Harvey is innocent of the charge. He may have lifted the dead man’s wallet but he didn’t kill him, because the angle of the fatal blow indicates that it was caused by a right-handed assailant. And Harvey’s a lefty. 

Scott Wilson’s character, then, becomes the first in the film to acknowledge that a black man (not to mention a Yankee) is a great deal smarter and more capable than any of the locals. Through various plot twists, he eventually becomes an ally. In fact, Harvey’s evolution from hostility to appreciation for Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs foreshadows that of Sheriff Gillespie, who gradually moves from disdain to sincere gratitude for what Tibbs has contributed to the life of his town. 

If  Harvey Oberst has reason to appreciate Virgil Tibbs, Scott Wilson has all the more reason to appreciate the helping hand given him by Sidney Poitier. During filming, Poitier even went home one night and reworked an already strong scene between the two of them for maximum effect, then made sure director Norman Jewison was giving the young Scott some good close-ups. When Scott interviewed for the role of Dick Hickok in In Cold Blood, Poitier was one of those who approached director Richard Brooks on his behalf. (Jewison and film scorer Quincy Jones spoke up for him too.) Beyond that, Poitier took it upon himself to give the fledgling actor a pep talk, praising his talent and predicting a bright future. The result: “After he left I was like Godzilla, and I walked into that meeting with Brooks feeling very confident, having no self-doubt.” Soon thereafter, the part was his. Just one more way that Sidney Poitier made a difference in Hollywood’s film industry. 

My heartfelt thanks to Scott Wilson for his talent and his gifts as a raconteur. And to his wife Heavenly for her long-ago tea and cookies. 

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