They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)
September 27, 2019 | by Shannon
Does the title of this film sound familiar? Probably! Sidney immortalized this famous line in 1967’s superb crime drama, In the Heat of the Night.
In the Heat of the Night was so phenomenal that two other films were made with Sidney reprising his role of homicide expert Virgil Tibbs. They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), the film I will highlight today, was the first of the two follow-up films. And while I’ll be completely honest with you and say They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is definitely inferior to In the Heat of the Night, it’s still a super fun film with an amazing 1970s vibe! (With a Quincy Jones score!) Definitely worth watching in my book!
Ok, so as I mentioned, Sidney plays policeman/homicide expert Virgil Tibbs. Awesome name, isn’t it? (Look for spoofs on it in popular culture, and I promise you will start seeing this name turn up everywhere!) The film is set in San Francisco, so They Call Me Mister Tibbs! already has 10,000 points for being set in a beautiful location.
The dashing and intelligent Mr. Tibbs is assigned a case involving the murder of a prostitute. And the prime suspect for the murder happens to be his good friend, Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau). Sharpe is a priest and a political activist, currently lobbying to get a proposition passed. So being the number one suspect in a murder is pretty damaging to his career…!
Tibbs is put in the difficult position of having to question his good friend—who’s a priest, don’t forget—about what he was doing when he was seen leaving the prostitute’s apartment just before her body was discovered. Awkward…!!! Sharpe swears that the he was merely concerned about the prostitute’s salvation. Oh…well…and they started getting it on a few months ago…but Sharpe swears he’s not the murderer. Tibbs believes his friend, and sets out to find out who the real murderer is.
Is the Murderer...
The creepy, rich, totally unattractive but somehow still gets all the hot ladies, landlord of the ritzy building where the prostitute lived. Tibbs can tell Weedon has some shady drug dealings and pimping connections. It could be him! And look at those bluish-purple lenses! WOW!! Total HOTTIE.
The sweet, but always drunk, handyman at the apartment building who discovered the body. Mealie’s fingerprints were the only ones on the small statue believed to be the murder weapon. And he has a record. Maybe it was him?
STOP. Try not to picture Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). Ohhhhhhhhh it’s just impossible not to, isn’t it? Yes, Garfield is played by the superbly talented Ed Asner! How I love this guy!!!!! Fun fact, Asner was a dramatic actor before landing the role of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Pre-MTM, Asner did not do comedy! But as the show proved, turns out Asner was a natural comedian!
Anyway, Garfield is a shady realtor who was the dead prostitute’s sugar daddy. Garfield paid for her expensive lifestyle and rent. He runs from Tibbs—and a totally awesome car chase ensues—so maybe he’s the murderer?
The gorgeous Puff, a fellow prostitute, on the surface seems to have been a true friend of the deceased woman. But it turns out Puff really wanted a certain expensive necklace that her friend owned. Would she have killed for it? A possibility Tibbs pursues.
Though Tibbs doesn’t think his life-long friend is the murderer, he must remain objective, and Sharpe remains a suspect. There doesn’t seem to be motive, but Mealie Williamson did see Sharpe leaving the prostitute’s apartment hours before the body was found. Wrong place at the wrong time, or did he do it?
Along the way to discover who the murderer is, we get some fun Tibbs family scenes to break up the drama/suspense of the murder investigation. We also get to see Tibbs’ incredible intellect at work at he dissects carpet hairs and explains glass fragment-particle science. Tibbs gives the suspects a run for their money in a few awesome car chases, and a good, old fashion chase on foot through streets of San Francisco. Perhaps best of all, we get to watch Tibbs karate chop any thugs who get in his way!
Does Tibbs prove his friend’s innocence? Who is the real killer? Will Tibbs lead his adorable daughter to victory as she learns how to stand on her head for school? (Just watch the film, it will make sense.) Watch They Call Me Mister Tibbs! to find out!!!!!
A Little Tibbs History
Sidney created the character of Virgil Tibbs onscreen in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. The film was based on the John Ball novel of the same name. And in a nutshell, Sidney made the Virgil Tibbs character AWESOME. Tibbs was revolutionary. Here, in 1967, was an African American police officer, a homicide expert no less, showing up the white officers on the force with his superior knowledge and experience. There had never been anything like it onscreen before. Sidney was perfection, playing the character in such a way that people of all races and backgrounds enjoyed and flocked to see this critically acclaimed film.
Other than the famous “They call me Mr. Tibbs!!” line that Sidney exclaims to a few prejudiced police officers, In the Heat of the Night is also well remembered for the scene in which Tibbs get slapped in the face by a white suspect in the murder case he’s working on. And rather than just accept the slap, without missing a beat, Tibbs slaps the bigot right back! It’s a fantastic scene, perfectly executed by Sidney.
The scene is all the more phenomenal because, remember, this was 1967! A black man hitting a white man, even in self-defense, was still taboo. But there it was! And audience members found themselves glad Tibbs hit the white guy back, shocked at what they saw, but in a totally good way. The scene proved to be a subconscious promoter of integration and equality for many hearts and minds that saw the film.
With an unforgettable scene like that, a catchy line, and a totally cool character played by a totally cool actor, is there any wonder why In the Heat of the Night led to two sequels? Sidney made Virgil Tibbs so awesome, some referred to the character as “the black James Bond.”
Just before Sidney made They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, he met his love and soon to be wife for the rest of his life, Joanna Shimkus. The Canadian born beauty landed the role opposite Sidney in The Lost Man (1969), and the two quickly realized there was something special between them. As Sidney shared,
“For the first time in my life, I was with a woman whose presence seemed to calm the turbulence in me rather than challenge it to battle.”
How sweet is that?!!!! Who wouldn’t want to be with someone that makes you feel at peace? To top it all off, Joanna was gorgeous, talented, smart, and down to earth. And as we all know already, Sidney was quite a catch himself! Sidney was reluctant to marry too quickly after his first marriage ended in divorce, but he and Joanna officially tied the knot in 1976, and have been married and completely committed to each other ever since.
Fickle Hollywood and the Critics
Remember in my post last week how I mentioned that in the late 1960s the Poitier image came (unjustly) under attack? A quick recap, with the rise of more militant groups like The Black Panthers and the more violent “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, Sidney was criticized for his clean cut, non-violent image. And it hurt. How lucky that Sidney had Joanna at his side while all this was going on. If there was ever a time he needed someone to calm the turbulence in his life, this was it.
To the Bahamas
The critisism of fickle Hollywood got to be too much, so Sidney went back to his roots: in 1970, he and Joanna moved to the Bahamas. In Sidney’s own words:
“I didn’t particularly relish the criticism of my work then as ‘too white.’ In fact, I hated it. I got a lot of bad vibes from my actor friends too.”
So he built his dream home in Nassau. After years in the Hollywood limelight, Sidney enjoyed a time of relative privacy and seclusion, still coming to the US to make just about one film a year. The only immediate reminder of his Hollywood life when at home in Nassau was Sammy Davis, Jr. who bought a property next door!
Back to Hollywood
By the time Sidney and his family moved back to the US in 1974, settling in Beverly Hills, the criticism had died down. And by 1976, with the vogue of the “Blaxploitation” films coming to a close, Sidney was once again appreciated for his talent and pioneering film work. Sidney was even knighted that year! Yes, his official title is “Sir Sidney Poitier!” Sidney continued directing, producing, and/or acting in films up until as recently as 2001. He’s also written a few books! I highly recommend Sidney’s autobiography, The Measure of a Man: a Spiritual Autobiography, and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to my Great-Granddaughter if you are interested in being totally inspired, and learning more about Sidney!
I’m not even going to try to hide it, I’m really sad to see September, and our time with Sidney as Star of the Month, come to a close. It is no exaggeration when I say I’ve learned so much from this man through his life and films this month. I just want September to keep going!
But October is going to be great as we usher in our new Star of the Month, the lesser known but amazingly talented Paul Muni. (The original Scarface, if you need a point of reference!) Check the TCM film schedule, and stick with me to learn more about Paul Muni!