I guess a lot of people wonder why I would accept the first "heavy" role of my career for Sidney Kramer in Pressure Point, in which I play a vicious, psychopathic, German-American Bundist. Character-wise, the role is probably the most despicable since the landlord in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
There are many reasons behind my decision. One was the fact that I had long wanted to do a picture for Stanley Kramer whose pictures always have something important to say.
My manager, Steve Blauner, got the Pressure Point script and was terribly excited about it. Of the five movies I've done and the 55 scripts I've read, this was the first time I had ever been able to read through an entire script in one setting. I got twice as excited about it as Steve did.
I understand the movie makers wanted -- if you'll excuse the expression -- an all-American type for the part of the race-baiting Bundist. It was turned down by a lot of people because it was so powerful and so delicate. Once I read the script, I knew I wanted to play this role more than anything I had ever done in my life. So I met with Mr. Kramer and the movie's writer-director, Hubert Cornfield, whom I consider to be one of the most talented young directors in the business. Cornfield was a second reason for my wanting the Pressure Point role.
Once it was agreed that I should play the part, I knew that my third reason for wanting it would be realized: I considered it a rare priviledge to be teamed with a good actor like Sidney Poitier, who plays the prison psychiatrist who analyzes me in the motion picture. I had always been a fan of Sidney's and it was ironic that the script called for me to hate him with a passion in the film.
Bobby and Sidney
The movie takes place in a prison where I have been sent on charges of exciting a crowd to riot while a member of the American Bundist party. In prison, I volunteer to undergo psychiatric treatment just as a means of escaping prison boredom. Of course, I don't know that the psychiatrist I'm going to be assigned to is a Negro. When I find out it's a little disconcerting to say the least. But I go along with the idea anyway, professing to explain my philosophies to him. In time I goad, insult him, but he just overrides and ignores this, keeping his professional attitude. In the end, he actually cures me of certain neurosis, but not hate. The character that I play is a hate-monger and sadist to the last.
I know the risk I am running in playing this kind of despicable bigot. There will be many Jews and Negroes who will walk out of the theater believing that I am really that kind of character. But motion pictures like this must be made and somebody must portray the dangerous people in our society so that the public will recognize them and their causes for what they really are. This picture is certainly going to shatter a couple of falsehoods -- or at least establish them as just that.
As for myself, if I really do arrive on the screen, it won't be because I've got a great set of teeth or a nose that won't quit. I'll have to be an actor and I believe an actor has to say something. I realize of course, that an actor's first job is to entertain, but if a property that has a message is going to be presented on screen, then it should say what I believe. I could not do this if I were a fascist. I could not do this picture if the final message was against my beliefs. As for the other actors who turned down the role, I don't say that the picture doesn't say what they don't believe. I do say that they didn't have enough courage to do anything any more intrepid than, "Lets run down the road and pick up daisies, fellows!"
I can't say that I was always as concious about bigotry in this country as I am now. I was born in Harlem, which although a lot of people don't know it, isn't or wasn't an all-Negro section of New York. The neighborhood I came from was mixed with Irish, Polish and German families. Negroes and Jews lived just a few blocks away. We all played ball and did things together and got along fine. The funny thing was, whenever a member of a certain racial group wasn't around, the rest of us always referred to them by one of the nicknames given them. It was just an unconscious thing that didn't have any real meaning. We did this with negroes,> Puerto Ricians, Italians, everybody. I never thought anything about it.
Then when I was about 16 and playing mountain resorts around New York with Dick Berkhe, who is my conductor and arranger today, and Walter Rains, who has worked with Harry Belafonte, a curious thing happened. I was telling them a joke one night and I used a racial epithet just as a matter of course. They called me down about it. "Why did you say that?" they wanted to know. At first, I didn't even realize what they were talking about. Well, that touched off a disccussion that lasted all night. Even when the argument started, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. Finally, in sheer desperation, I hit them with that old line that goes: "Okay, would you let one marry your sister?" I thought that was the button. I thought I had them locked. Well, I was wrong. It was a period of enlightenment for me -- this was it. I owe those two guys all of the credit for shaping the philosophies I have on this subject today. Now, if somebody substitututes a derogitory word for "Negro" I become a Negro when I hear it. I react inside just that way.
Fortunately now, most people know how I feel about this so I don't have to start an argument or create a scene over it. I have had to straighten out a couple of clubs, nevertheless. Once when in a place I was playing in New Orleans didn't want to sit a Negro acquaintance of mine down front, I had to explain to the management that while I wasn't trying to change any rules of the club, I had a few rules of my own and one of them was that I wasn't going to to play that engagement if any friend of mine was going to be embarrassed. That took care of that.
On another occasion, I was playing a St. Louis hotel and discovered a group of Negro disk jockeys had not been invited to the opening because of their race. I reminded the hotel that the only reason I was playing there was because people were hearing my records and wanted to see me and that among the people who were playing my records for the public to hear were those same disk jockeys who weren't invited. I haven't played their hotel since.
It really isn't too hard to understand the people of the south on this issue though. They've had a guilt thing riding since 1619. And what is guilt -- guilt turns to fear and fear turns to hate. But that's no excuse for certain social conditions that exist in our society today. By dint of contributing to society, you belong. Maybe the Negro didn't contribute much 100 years ago, because he didn't have the opportunity to contribute. But that's all changed now.
I hope that Sidney Poitier and I can convey some of these changes in Pressure Point, I've yet to work with as sensitive and as well schooled an actor as Sidney. He's so aware of everything that goes on. On a picture, he understands what he's doing, super-understands what the director is doing and can help me understand what I'm trying to do.
Sidney is not trained to read between the lines so much as the letter. He's not a driving actor. To breathe is to act to Sidney. He's a deep sensitive, soulful individual. I can't think of a more mutal admiration society between two people who only had a chance to know each other through working together than the one Sidney and I formed. We'd sing and dance together and clown around before a scene, but once we went to work, we were all business. Fortunately, the kind of race-hater I play is not the loud, screaming, ranting type, although near the end he does get a little carried away. But mostly Sidney and I don't have any real bitter, physical scenes.
The way I see it, Pressure Point says, in the final analysis, "Do not fall asleep to the hazards of fascism that have occured not once, but twice in this century. Be able to recognize the individual for what he is under the guise of whatever he's preaching."
I will get hate letters from both sides of my role, or I will have failed. And if I'm any kind of a hero in this picture, then we've defeated the whole film.
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