Here’s where Sidney Poitier got to talk back. As Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective drawn into a murder case in rural Mississippi, he is addressed with contemptuous familiarity — “Tibbs,” “Virgil Boy” — until he finally tautens up in front of the local lawman, Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and hisses, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” Poitier issues the line not as an emotional explosion, but as a warning and a vital piece of information. It says, in effect: The only way you crackers are going to realize you need my expertise is to understand that I’m your equal. At the very least. The Mister Tibbs line became so famous it was used as the title of this film’s sequel in 1971.
But Heat, scripted by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Norman Jewison, had more immediate recognition: it was a substantial popular and critical hit, a true Zeitgeist movie. And it won the Best Picture Oscar, less for its quality as crackling entertainment than because the Academy members recognized it was time to give its top award to a film that showed a black man holding to his lofty principles under tremendous social pressure — under fire, if you will. The ceremony was to be held on April 4, 1968, but was delayed at the last moment. On that day, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed.
It’s easy to explain the acclaim. For a start, Heat is a canny melodrama, building its tension through character as much as incident. The audience loved Tibbs and Gillespie — not as individuals but as a battling, bantering pair, getting on each other’s nerves before they got the job done. They were like an old married couple, and even more a kind of comedy duo, with Tibbs as the impeccable straight man and the Sheriff as the explosive wise-cracker. Steiger, in the showier role, playing the one who learns (slowly) about racial equity, took the Academy Award as Best Actor. But Poitier, who didn’t get nominated, was the anchor, the abider, the controller. And he already had an Oscar, for the 1963 Lilies of the Field.