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In the 1967 drama, To Sir, with Love, Sidney Poitier stars as Mark Thackeray, an immigrant from Guyana, who takes a job as teacher at an inner city school in Britain.
The film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite and his experiences teaching at a secondary school in a poor area of post-war East London.
“He actually visited the set one day, chatting to us, and seemed like a good guy,” said actor Christian Roberts, who played one of the students in the film.
“It’s now a classic but Sidney couldn’t find anyone to back it,” said star Judy Geeson.
According to Sidney Poitier, Hollywood executives didn’t believe in the movie and said it was “too soft, too sweet, too sentimental, and most of all too special”.
To prove how much they know, the film became the sixth highest grossing picture of 1967 in the United States.
Poitier was the first actor to successfully negotiate a deal with a studio where in lieu of his usual fee, he gained a share of the film’s profits. In doing so, not only did Poitier earn significantly more money than he otherwise would have, he also ushered in a new business model for Hollywood actors.
“When you act a scene with Sidney Poitier, he listens intently to every word you say. You can feel our words hit him. He makes the scene utterly real,” said Geeson.
Nearly 30 years after the film’s initial release, Poitier returned to the role of Mark Thackeray in the sequel, To Sir, with Love II. In the film, Thackeray retires and relocates to Chicago only to find himself drawn to teaching once again.
“I think the legacy of To Sir, with Love is that one person can make a difference in the lives of others,” said Geeson. “We can all make a difference if we try.”