DETROIT (WWJ) – A local actor is set to take on the role for which beloved thespian Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Detroiter Phil Elam has been performing since he was a student at Henry Ford High School on the city’s west side. When asked how he feels about taking on the iconic role of Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field,” Elam replied, “It’s kinda like, ok dad’s watching. You wanna get it right!”

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This role is a dream come true for Elam, who says he’s admired Poitier his entire life.

“With regards to Sidney Poitier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, I mean these people socially helped shape our culture as a nation, not just for the African American community, but for humanity as a whole,” Elam said. “And his contributions to society and the world is paramount and truly a milestone in our history.”

Elam won the role over several other actors, and he says, as luck would have it, he was actually late to the audition.

“Here’s a funny story. I showed up a little bit late to the audition, so I was fortunate enough to see everybody else audition for the role. The director was there; so I’m kinda sitting back like, oh okay, she wants this or she wants that — Naytarsha Berry’s the director — so by the time I auditioned, which I was absolutely last, I kinda knew what she was looking for.”

Elam certainly knows how difficult it is to have a successful career in showbiz. So, while he’s acted in several television series including “Lee Martin’s The Midnight Hour” and “Horror Hotel,” he also creates his own opportunities. Take for example his role as a slave in the short film, “Swing Low.” He not only stars in the film as Samuel, he also wrote the screenplay and served as producer.

“It’s about two slave owners trying to obtain ownership of Samuel and his extraordinary abilities, and all during that time, Samuel is fighting for his freedom,” Elam said.

The film premiered in October 2016 and went on to win six awards at a variety of national and international film festivals. His portrayal as Samuel earned him an award for Best Actor in a lead role. The film was directed by Marvin Towns, Jr.

Marvin Towns Jr., courtesy Phil Elam

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“I’d known Marvin for a few years and I sent it (script) to him and I just simply asked him, could you recommend a director who could possibly be interested in doing this; not having any idea … it wasn’t even on my radar that he would possibly want to do it, cause he’s so accomplished. So he said, well send it to me and I’ll read it. He called me back in 30 minutes and said I’m doing this.”

For his work on the film, Towns was honored with a Best Director/Gold Award.

“Marvin pulled together some of the best people in the city and for a fraction of the cost … he pulled people together and we shot the film,” Elam said.

Now, Elam is preparing for his starring role in the stage production of “Lilies of the Field.” And, when he takes to the stage on April 8th, he won’t be taking his role lightly.

“First of all, when I was asked to audition for the role, it wasn’t even on my radar,” Elam said. “Then, once I got the role, you know it’s just something that you have to take so seriously, and going back and watching the film and reading all that you can about Mr. Poitier, it’s one of those things where you just wanna make him proud.”

“Lilies of the Field” will be performed at the A.D. Hinds Performing Arts Theatre in downtown Detroit on Saturday, April 8th. There are two performances: 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. For ticket information, click here.

To hear Terri’s entire interview with Elam, click below:

Follow Terri on Twitter @TerriJLee

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Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA)
Detroit Film Critics Society (DFCS)
African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA)