They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)
Does the title of this film sound familiar?
Sidney Poitier immortalized this famous line in 1967’s superb crime drama, In the Heat of the Night.
Due to the success of In the Heat of the Night, Sidney reprised his role of homicide expert Virgin Tibbs in two follow up films, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) [aff. link], and The Organization (1971).
Though They Call Me Mister Tibbs! unquestionably lacks the bite and suspense of In the Heat of the Night, Sidney delivers yet another stellar performance. With its pronounced 1970s vibe–including a spectacular score by Quincy Jones–They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is certainly with watching.
Despite the success that led to They Call Me Mister Tibbs! being made in the first place, behind the scenes of the film, Sidney Poitier experienced the most difficult period of his career: with the rise of more militant groups–including the Black Panthers, and “Blaxploitation films,” Sidney found himself under attack for his intelligent, clean cut image.
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film.
They Call Me Mister Tibbs!: The Plot
The film is set in San Fransisco. Sidney Poitier is policeman/homicide expert Virgil Tibbs. 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.
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 discover who the real murderer is.
They Call Me Mister Tibbs!: Who Is the Murderer?
Here are the top suspects in Tibbs’ murder investigation:
The creepy, rich, totally unattractive but somehow still gets all the hot ladies, landlord of the ritzy building where the murdered 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 in his glasses. Total hottie.
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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.
Try not to picture Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977).
Ohhhhhhhhh it’s just impossible not to.
Yes, Garfield is played by the superbly talented Ed Asner.
Quick side note: 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, Ed 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. When confronted, 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. It’s a possibility Tibbs pursues.
Though Tibbs doesn’t think his life-long friend is the murderer, he must remain objective, so 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?
They Call Me Mister Tibbs! Highlights
Throughout Tibbs’ investigation, we get some fun Tibbs family scenes to break up the drama/suspense.
We also get to see Tibbs’ incredible intellect at work as he dissects carpet hairs and explains glass fragment-particle science, scenes only the great Sidney Poitier could make work.
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.
But best of all, we get to watch Tibbs karate chop any thugs who get in his way.
How Does They Call Me Mister Tibbs! End?
Does Tibbs prove his friend’s innocence?
Who’s the real killer?
And 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.
Mr. Tibbs: A Brief History
Sidney Poitier first created the character of Virgil Tibbs in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. In a nutshell, Sidney made his Virgil Tibbs absolutely awesome.
Tibbs was revolutionary. Here, in 1967, was a black 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 a character like Tibbs onscreen before. And Sidney Poitier was perfection, playing Tibbs in such a way that moviegoers of all races and backgrounds 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 remembered for the scene in which Tibbs get slapped in the face by a white suspect in a murder case. Rather than accept the slap, without missing a beat, Tibbs slaps the bigot right back.
It’s a fantastic scene, perfectly executed by Sidney.
Remember, this was 1967. A black man hitting a white man, even in self-defense, was still taboo. But there it was, right on screen. 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 equality for many who saw the film.
With an unforgettable scene like that, a catchy line, and a totally cool character played by a totally cool actor, is it 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.”
Sidney Poitier Meets Joanna Shimkus
Just before Sidney made They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, he met the lovely 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.”
In addition to her calming presence, 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. The two remained happily marriage until Sidney’s death in 2022.
Fickle Hollywood and the Critics
With the rise of militant groups like The Black Panthers, and the violent “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, Sidney Poitier and his films, which championed brotherhood, non-violence, and integration, were out. These more extreme segments of the black community deemed Sidney an “Uncle Tom.” And he’d be called much worse.
It hurt Sidney to find his life’s work so criticized. How lucky he had Joanna at his side: if ever there was a time that Sidney needed someone to “calm the turbulence in his life,” this was it.
To the Bahamas
The criticism of fickle Hollywood got to be too much.
So Sidney Poitier 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.”
Sidney 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.
Sidney Poitier Goes 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, when the vogue of “Blaxploitation” films had closed, Sidney found attitudes towards his film work swaying positive once more.
As Sidney wrote in his 2000 autobiography about that difficult period that drove him to the Bahamas:
“The heated tempers of that time have long since cooled, and ideological fashions have come and gone…
…As for my part in all this, all I can say is that there’s a place for people who are angry and defiant, and sometimes they serve a purpose, but that’s never been my role. And I have to say, too that I have great respect for the kinds of people who are able to recycle their anger and put it to different uses…”
Well said Sidney.
Sidney Poitier: A Class Act
Also in 1974, Sidney was knighted, making his official title “Sir Sidney Poitier.”
Sidney continued directing, producing, and/or acting in films until as recently as 2001. In his post-Hollywood years, Sidney became an accomplished author, writing inspiring autobiographies [aff. link] and an uplifting novel [aff. link].
A renaisassance man indeed.
The elegance, eloquence and sheer class of Sidney Poitier are unrivaled. With his passing, we’ve lost not just one of the great actors of the screen, but a great uniter: through his uplifting films and inspiring example, Sidney Poitier brought people together when the world needed it most.
There will never be another Hollywood star like Sidney Poitier. But his remarkable life and work will continue to inspire.