“In the Heat of the Night” had a racially charged theme. The setting for the movie was in Mississippi. But in the late sixty′s there was so much tension in the South, that the movie producers were concerned about making that type of movie there. After checking out many other possible locations, they decided to film it in our Southern Illinois town.
For us, watching them make the movie was like watching a movie every day, all day long, for weeks on end.
I had the opportunity to watch a scene being filmed without the worry of being squashed by the crowd of movie watchers. I had the best seat in the house, so to speak.
The opening scene in the movie was about the town′s deputy, Warren Oates, finding the dead body of the town′s wealthy plant owner. That scene was filmed in the alley between my home and the abandoned building next door. My bedroom was located on the third floor. We had recently converted part of the attic into my bedroom. I could walk out of the lone window of my bedroom onto the flat roof over the second story. That roof was the perfect vantage point for observing what was going on in the alley beneath me.
I could watch from above without interfering. I literally had a bird′s eye view. Because I was only about thirty feet above the filming, I wondered if I would hear the director yell “cut”, as he pointed his finger at me, and then ask me to give up my perch. I guess I was OK because I was never asked to leave. Every time I watch that scene, I still look extra hard to see if my head is in that scene.
The crew arrived around six in the evening and didn′t leave until around six the next morning.
I remember Warren Oates leaning over a man pretending to be dead. Not sure, but that dead body may have been one of our town′s finest citizens.
Sidney Poitier, who was not in the scene, was leaning against a nearby building. Sidney Poitier was one of my favorite actors. I regret not getting his autograph. I was just too shy to ask him.
Before this scene could be filmed, though, the alley had to be lit up. I watched a member of the lighting crew grab a long extension ladder and place it on the abandoned building.
Next, he grabbed a light, which was attached to a tripod, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and then headed for the ladder. Remember this is the sixties. Necessary lighting was not small. The equipment on his shoulder looked about five feet long, heavy, and bulky. The guy carrying it up the ladder was huge. He looked like a defensive linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. I remember the Oakland Raiders back then were full of big, beefy, ominous looking fellows.
That lighting technician must have made a big impression on me because forty years later I still can clearly see him in my mind. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and red high top tennis shoes. This was forty years ago. Colorful tennis shoes were not something one was accustomed to seeing in Southern Illinois. Obviously, he was one of those Hollywood people we all thought we knew so much about.
The technician was three quarters of the way up the ladder when I heard the crowd on the ground let out a rather raucous laugh. They were all clapping their hands and pointing. That guy had stopped his progress up the ladder.
One hand was on the rung above him. The other was on the tripod he was escorting to the rooftop. His two feet were firmly planted on a rung below him. His blue jeans were now on the same rung as his feet, which obviously made his upward progress rather difficult, if not impossible.
That indeed was a funny site. But I′m sure that alone is not what everyone was laughing at. This big, burly, football looking guy, was trapped on the ladder with the bulky tripod on his shoulder and his pants around his feet. Covering his mid-section, though, was a large pair of white boxer shorts adorned with little pink hearts. Little pink hearts… not exactly what one might expect to see on a guy like that.
Amid all the commotion below him, he kept his cool. He somehow managed to pull his pants back up and finish his assent up the ladder. How could he do that and not fall off? That was impressive. The ease with which he pulled up his trousers, though, made me wonder if this was not a common occurrence for him. I remember thinking he must have enjoyed the crowd′s reaction. Perhaps he thought of himself as comic relief for the film crew.
It took twelve hours to film that thirty second scene, but it provided me with a lifetime of memories.