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Tucson, Poitier scored with ‘Lilies of the Field’

Citizen Staff



Various John Wayne horse operas notwithstanding, the finest moment in Tucson’s filmmaking history may well have been 40 years ago with the production of “Lilies of the Field.” The man who helped sell the city as the location, and who fed and housed the cast and crew, remembers the experience fondly.

“It was a lot of work, but there were some awfully nice people involved, and it turned out be an award-winning movie,” Clarence L. “Stubby” Ashcraft said.

“Lilies” won for it star, Sidney Poitier, the Oscar for best actor in 1963. The film also won accolades at the Berlin Film Festival.

“I didn’t get to know many of the actors involved because I was too busy taking care of them, as well as the cast and crew of the pilot film for the television show, ‘The Fugitive,’ at the same time,” said Ashcraft, who at the time was manager of the old Santa Rita Hotel.

Now 85, Ashcraft retired some years ago as events and facilities coordinator at the University of Arizona.

“At the time, movie and entertainment people would only stay in a union hotel,” Ashcraft said. “That’s why they stayed at the Santa Rita. It was the only union house in town.

“Over the years, all the movie people, musicians from the big band era and other entertainers stayed there.

“The Santa Rita had really gone after the (movie) company. Nick Hall had been the manager, but he transferred to California. Harold Ashton and Jack Goodman, 50-50 partners in the hotel, offered the job to me.”

Ashcraft took the baton and won the race.

“When we were successful in getting ‘Lilies of the Field,’ I took the producer-director, Ralph Nelson, to see what he thought of this location I had found,” Ashcraft said.

“It was about a mile from where I lived, just off Sabino Canyon and Cloud Road. There was an old estate-type structure on the property, pretty well run down, and I knew the guy who was part owner. He made arrangements for Nelson to use that property as the location.”

Poitier plays a black, ex-GI handyman who stops at a dusty, desert mission to ask for water for his station-wagon’s radiator, and is recruited by a group of nuns to build a chapel – or, in the dialect of the domineering German mother superior (played by Lilia Skala), a “shapel.”

Nagged and tricked throughout the process by the mother superior, Poitier, as Homer Smith, finds within himself the strength and ability to build the chapel.

“The interesting thing about ‘Lilies’ is it was a very cheaply produced movie,” Ashcraft said. “Almost all of the artists and others involved, took a pay cut to make it.”

In fact, Poitier took no salary at all. He took a percentage, instead, and hit the jackpot.

“Lilies of the Field” makes a strong statement for faith, tolerance and dogged perseverance.

Talented Tucson actress Francesca Jarvis, who played one of the nuns in her first movie, said the director, Nelson, played the role of Harold Ashton, who, in addition to the Santa Rita Hotel holdings, owned the Ashton Construction Co.

“There had actually been a Mr. Ashton in the original script,” Jarvis said. “And when Ralph found out there really was, and is, an Ashton Construction Co., he used his equipment in the film.”

Jarvis said Nelson was “the most organized man I have ever seen. We’d do one, two or three takes and that was it. Ironically, the most takes involved Ralph, himself, as Mr. Ashton. Ralph was nervous – and I think he went up to 15 takes.”


CUTLINE: Clarence “Stubby” Ashcraft shows a copy of “The Lilies of the Field.” The 1960s movie of the same name was based on the book and was filmed in Tucson.

PHOTO CREDIT: Citizen file photo

CUTLINE: Sidney Poitier (above, at right) won an Oscar in 1963 for “Lilies of the Field.”

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