00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:00:53 ALICE WINKLER: At the 1964 Academy Awards, actress Anne Bancroft presented one of the most coveted Oscars of the night.
00:01:02 ANNE BANCROFT: The nominees for the best performance by an actor are Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Rex Harrison in Cleopatra, Paul Newman in Hud, Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field.
00:01:21 The winner is Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field.
00:01:25 ALICE WINKLER: That glamorous evening, Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win Best Actor. There have only been three others since.
00:01:36 SIDNEY POITIER: Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people. For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.
00:01:58 ALICE WINKLER: Sidney Poitier changed the face of cinema by portraying characters who were complex, dignified, self-assured, and African American. I’m Alice Winkler. This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. The issue of diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars has been the subject of much discussion over the past several months, so we thought it was an opportune time to devote this episode of What it Takes to Sidney Poitier.
00:02:34 His 2009 interview with the Academy of Achievement is full of surprising, inspiring stories about his childhood, his accidental entry into the world of theater and movies, and his choices as an actor.
00:02:50 SIDNEY POITIER: All of what I feel about life, I had to find a way in my work to be faithful to it, to be respectful of it. I couldn’t, and still can’t, play a scene — I cannot play a scene that I don’t find the texture of humanity in the material. I can’t.
00:03:17 HOMER: Stove.
00:03:18 NUNS: Stove!
00:03:21 HOMER: Stove is black.
00:03:23 NUNS: Stove is black.
00:03:27 HOMER: My skin is black.
00:03:29 NUNS: My skin is black.
00:03:32 HOMER: No. Her skin is white. My skin is black.
00:03:38 NUN: White?
00:03:39 ALICE WINKLER: Whether playing a doctor, a teacher, a streetwise student, a prison escapee, or a detective, the humanity that Sidney Poitier has always been determined to portray on screen came, he said, from growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas. It's a tiny island. In the 1920s and '30s, when Poitier was a child, it had no paved roads, no running water, no electricity.
00:04:09 To understand all that Sidney Poitier would become, all that he would mean to America, we’re going to spend a good bit of time on his earliest years. Poitier says his parents were the model of kindness and respect, who survived on what they could catch in the sea and what they could grow on the land.
00:04:30 SIDNEY POITIER: My parents were tomato farmers. They farmed tomatoes, and they sold their tomatoes in Miami, Florida. They went by sailboat. And on one such trip, my mother was pregnant by some six, seven months, but her water broke, so it was that I was born in Florida unexpectedly.
00:04:55 And my dad, he had no confidence in my surviving. He left the house the following morning, and he went for a stroll, and that stroll ended up at the local undertaker’s parlor in a discussion centered around preparations for my burial. He came back to the house with this little shoebox. It was, in fact, a shoebox.
00:05:23 My mother would not accept that, and she left the house, and she decided to stop in and visit a soothsayer. You know what they are. They are fortune-tellers, in a peculiar sort of way. And she said, "You must not worry about that child. He will survive." She told my mother that I would travel to all the corners of the earth.
00:05:57 I will walk with kings. I will be rich and famous. I don’t know about that. But she said so. Everything that she said to my mom, it’s amazing. Everything came true. I still don’t have a fix on it, but I do believe that there are forces in nature that we don’t understand, and probably never will, that have influences on our lives that defy understanding.
00:06:37 ALICE WINKLER: Sidney Poitier says he generally stands more on the side of logic and reason than on faith, but it does defy some understanding, how this weakling of an infant, born in 1927 to dirt-poor islanders, grew up to rewrite the rules of what it meant to be a black man on the screen and a black man in the United States of America.
00:07:03 As an infant, Poitier did return with his family to Cat Island once he was strong enough to survive the trip, and he lived there until he was ten, with his four brothers and two sisters, attending the one-room schoolhouse occasionally, when he wasn’t needed on the farm. But then, in one of those little twists of historical fate, the State of Florida banned the import of tomatoes from the Bahamas.
00:07:30 Sidney Poitier’s father had to abandon the only work he’d ever known to look for work in the tourist industry on the much bigger island of Nassau. That was the first time Sidney Poitier saw a car.
00:07:45 SIDNEY POITIER: And when I did see a car — when I did see a car, whoa, whoa, whoa! I was on the boat with my mother, a sailboat, going into Nassau Harbor. This is the first time I'm leaving Cat Island. I’m coming in on a boat, and I’m just wild-eyed about — I see the island coming up, and then I saw what appeared to me to be a beetle, but it was massive.
00:08:17 It was huge, and I said to my mother, I said, "What’s that?" And she said, "That’s a car," because she had seen them in Miami and in Nassau before. It was just amazing, but so were so many other things, amazing, for me, for a long time on Nassau.
00:08:36 There were paved roads. Never seen a paved road. There were windows along the streets, and there were many things in the window, and I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t know what glass was.
00:08:50 ALICE WINKLER: He also had no idea what a movie was.
00:08:54 SIDNEY POITIER: I met these new kids, and they sort of embraced me, and they said to me — they said that they were going to a matinee, would I like to come? And I didn’t want them to know I didn't know what the word “matinee” meant, so I said, "Okay, sure, all right," you know. I want to be one of the group. So they went to this theater, but I didn’t know I was going to see a movie.
00:09:24 I had no idea. So they bought a ticket for me, and we went in, and we sat, and in this place — well, the whole place was seats. The lights go down, and a curtain, a big curtain thing opened up, and there was this big, white frame, and suddenly, out of nowhere, came letters, big letters, words.
00:09:51 I can barely read, so I just kind of waited to see what’s going to happen with this lit-up screen. Then I saw people, and it shocked me. How did they get there? Then I saw cows. And I saw wagons, and I saw brown people wearing skins and feathers.
00:10:22 I had no idea. That was my first movie.
00:10:27 ALICE WINKLER: Poitier did go to school on Nassau for a year or two, but then at 12-and-a-half, he quit. His family was in desperate financial shape, and Sidney was tall enough to pass as an older teenager, so he got a job.
00:10:42 SIDNEY POITIER: First I went to work as a water boy, working on construction, so I walked up and down the line where these guys were working, and I have this bucket and this dipper, and they would take a drink. And that was my job, but it didn’t pay very much, and my folks really were in need, and the guy that I went to, he was, like, the foreman, he gave me a pick and a shovel, and I was among the big guys.
00:11:08 I stayed at that job, and then I worked in a warehouse, where I had to take a 98-pound bag of rice or sugar or flour and stack them to the ceiling. We would lay the first foundation for it. Every bag of whatever would be put here until it covers the whole floor, and then we'll use that, each bag, as a step, and then we'll do another, and then another step, so that toward the end, I would have 98 pounds on my shoulder walking up these steps to the ceiling.
00:11:52 ALICE WINKLER: The backbreaking work gave Poitier varicose veins, he said, even at the young age of 14 or 15.
00:12:00 SIDNEY POITIER: I was leaving the house one day, and he stopped me. He was sitting at the door. I looked at him, and he looked at me. He felt my arm, and he said, "You’ve not been eating regularly, have you, son?" And I said to him, "Oh, I’m okay." I said, "I’m fine." I knew the weight that brought that out of him.
00:12:27 ALICE WINKLER: So at 15, Sidney Poitier left the Bahamas on his own and went to live with his brother in Miami. He quickly found a job making deliveries for Burdines department store, where his brother worked, but this was 1943, and Sidney Poitier’s life, though it had been hard, was about to become burdened in entirely new ways.
00:12:50 SIDNEY POITIER: I hated Florida. I hated Miami. I didn't know Florida, but I did hate it. I hated it because it was an unfair place. Unfair in that — well, I’ll get to that. So, I was told to deliver a package to Miami Beach. This is from Miami itself, and you go across the causeway, which you just walk across, or you take the bicycle. They had a bicycle for the delivery boys.
00:13:21 And they gave me the address, and I went up to the door, and I either knocked or pushed the button, and a lady came to the door, a white lady, and she said, "Yes?" And I said, "Ma'am, this is your package. I come from Burdines department store," and she said — she looked at me in the most amazing way, and she said, "Get around to the back."
00:13:55 And I didn’t understand. I really didn't understand it because she's standing right there. She obviously is the mistress of the house, and I'm standing within three feet of her! And this is a bigger house, and I said to myself, "Why do I have to take it around the back? It's a small package." If it were something that was too weighty for her, I certainly would carry it a mile, if that were the case.
00:14:27 But I wasn't aware of the depth of racism. I had been experiencing it every day there, but the impact of it in such a coarse way — she slammed the door in my face, and I took the package, and I sat it right down on the step in front of the house, and I left.
00:14:57 I go back to Burdines department store, and I did whatever my duties were. When the day was done, I went to Liberty City, which is where I lived. My brother lived there. I was living with him. And I had a few pennies, and I decided to go to a movie. At the end of the movie, now I'm going home to my brother's house, and I approach the house, and there are no lights on.
00:15:25 Well, I jiggled the doorknob. There's nothing. And then the door suddenly opens, and it’s my sister-in-law, my brother's wife, and she grabs me and pulls me into the house, slams the door, and on the floor she’s lying with her children.
00:15:50 And she pulls me down, and she said, "What did you do today?" And I said, "What did I do? What do you mean?" She explained to me that the Klan had come to the house looking for me, because I had misbehaved, I guess. I wasn’t as frightened as one might assume. I went to Miami from Nassau, and I went to Nassau from Cat Island.
00:16:25 And between Cat Island and Nassau, my perception of myself had already taken hold, so I was not — I didn’t spend the first 15 years of my life cringing in the presence of white people. The overwhelming majority of people in the Bahamas were black people, so that I saw people, how they behaved with each other.
00:16:59 I saw respect for each other. I saw laughter. I saw an embrace. It was an environment that nurtured me in ways that I wasn't even aware of, semi-primitive as it, in fact, was, but they treated each other respectfully.
00:17:18 ALICE WINKLER: Sidney Poitier’s father had taught him to call his elders “sir” and “ma’am.” On another day in Miami, he recalls, he walked into the police station to ask about getting a birth certificate.
00:17:31 SIDNEY POITIER: I said "sir," and I called everybody “sir,” and he called me the N-word, the guy in the thing, and he said, "Take off that hat!" And I was wearing a cap. I looked at this guy sitting up on kind of a thing at the desk — and I said, "What'd you call me?" And mind you, I'm a kid. I'm 15 years old. I said — and I just lost it. I just said, "I am Reggie Poitier." That's my father's name. "That's my dad, and his name is Reginald, and my mother's name is so-and-so, and they named me Sidney. That’s my name."
00:18:17 Well, the cops, there were several in the place, and they looked at me as if I were insane. Oh, God! Now had I been born and raised in Florida, I would have a different approach.
00:18:34 ALICE WINKLER: Poitier knew he had to get out of Florida quickly.
00:18:38 He headed to New York, hopping freight trains, traveling by his wits, and he wound up temporarily at a summer resort in the mountains of Georgia working as a dishwasher. By the end of the summer, he’d saved 39 dollars. When Sidney Poitier told this story to journalist Gail Eichenthal in 2009, he was 82 years old, but he remembered that figure exactly. Thirty-nine dollars. He had saved every possible penny for New York.
00:19:10 But by the time he made it to the big city and got off the bus, all but the money in his pocket had been stolen. Undeterred, he headed straight up to 116th Street to see Harlem, which he’d heard so much about, wowed by the buildings and the miracle of an underground train. He soon got another job as a dishwasher and started scraping by.
00:19:34 SIDNEY POITIER: I was not looking to be an actor. I was not looking for opportunities. I was not — I had absolutely no interest at all in being an actor. I was a dishwasher. I was, at that point, content to be a dishwasher because I felt and understood and embraced the fact that I did not have the wherewithal to do much else.
00:19:59 ALICE WINKLER: But even as a dishwasher, he knew he needed additional skills to navigate the world.
00:20:04 SIDNEY POITIER: One of the preparations I decided was essential to my survival was, I had to learn to read. I really had to learn to read. I could read third grade level, fourth grade level. As I told you, I left school at the age of 12-and-a-half. I then decided that I have to learn to read well, but I went about that process. The reason was, I realized that in New York there were many streets. Some were numbered, but not all. Some were named.
00:20:37 And three syllables — I had great problems with pronouncing three syllables, and every word that had three, four syllables in it, it staggered me; I mean it just defeated me. So I decided that I had to learn to read better because all of the information necessary for my survival came to me — would come to me in words, and if I didn’t understand the words, I wouldn’t know the message.
00:21:07 And if I didn’t know the message, no one would have time for me. So that’s what I did. I tried to learn to read. But anyway, the acting came totally as an accident. I was looking for a dishwashing job, and I could find a dishwashing job in a paper. There's an African American paper called the Amsterdam News.
00:21:29 ALICE WINKLER: But on that particular day, Sidney Poitier saw no ads for dishwashers.
00:21:34 SIDNEY POITIER: I was about to fold it up and put it into the street bin — you know, the trash bin on the streets. And something caught my eye, and what caught my eye was a phrase. It said, "Actors wanted." Well, on the want-ad page it said, "Dishwashers wanted," and "This wanted," and, "Porters wanted."
00:22:02 And I figured, "Well, I can even manage some of those jobs, but what is this actor’s job? That doesn’t sound like it’s too bad.” So — “And they’re inviting me because they say ‘Actors wanted.’" So I decided — and there was an address there in the article. So I went, and I was just ten blocks away.
00:22:25 ALICE WINKLER: It turned out to be the American Negro Theatre, located in the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
00:22:33 SIDNEY POITIER: And a guy opened the door. He’s a massive, massive guy. I mean, huge guy. I went in, and he said, "Where have you acted before?" I said, "Florida," and he said, "Yeah?" He said, "You acted in Florida?" I said, "Yeah." "Okay, here is this script. Turn to page 28. Read this scene. It’s a page-and-a-half." He says, "You ready?" I said, "Yeah," and I stepped up on the little stage.
00:23:03 He said, "Okay, you — " he said, "you start," and I said, "Okay." I started the line, my line, and now I’m reading like I read when I was in school. "When. Are. You. Going. To. Be. At." Well, he came up on the stage, and he snatched that book out of my hand, and he said — he spun me around. He grabbed me here, and here, and he’s marching me to the door.
00:23:43 And he’s saying, "Get out of here and stop wasting people’s time." He said, "You can’t read. You can hardly talk." I had this accent, you know. And he says, "Why don’t you just go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher," he said. And he's marching me to the door. He’s got my collar back here, and my belt back here, and he is just — and he's really pissed. He opened the door, pushed me out, slammed the door.
00:24:13 Now I'm walking down the street. Halfway in the block, between Lennox Avenue and 7th Avenue, I stopped dead, and I said to myself, "How did he know that I was a dishwasher?” He suspected. I didn’t tell him that. I didn't say anything. And I realized then and there that what he said was his perception of my worth.
00:24:45 He perceived me to be of no value beyond something that I could do with my hands, and, while he was correct in his anger to characterize me that way, I was offended. I was offended deeply, and I said to myself, "I have to rectify that. I have to show him that he was wrong about me."
00:25:25 I decided then and there that I was — now this is a wild decision I made, of course, but I did decide then, at that moment, on that street, that I am going to be an actor, just to show him that he was wrong about me.
00:25:42 ALICE WINKLER: Well, now Sidney Poitier was really motivated to learn to read, no longer just to navigate the street signs, but to audition and memorize scripts. The first place he turned to begin his self-education was newspapers. Soon enough, he said, a relative stranger came to his aid and changed his life.
00:26:06 SIDNEY POITIER: I was a dishwasher, and he was a waiter in Queens, New York, and I used to buy the local newspapers and — sometimes the Journal American, sometimes The New York Times, Daily News. At the end of the evening, when the waiters are done and the place is just about closing, the waiters would sit at a table, and they would have tea, coffee, or a late snack, which was permissible by the owner.
00:26:42 I would sit in the dining room, next door to the kitchen, and I would sit there because everything else is done and all the dishes are done, except those that the waiters are using for their snacks, you see. So I sit there, and I’m reading one of the papers.
00:27:02 And there was a Jewish waiter sitting at the table, elderly man, and he saw me there. He got up, and he walked over, and he stood by the table that’s next to the kitchen, and he said, "Hi. What's new in the papers?" And I said to him, "I can’t tell you what’s new in the papers because I don’t read very well. I didn’t have very much of an education, so I can’t tell you what’s — "
00:27:36 He said, "Ah," he said, "Well, would you like me to read with you?" And I accepted. I said, "Sure, I’d like that." Every night after that he would come over and sit with me, and he would teach me what a comma is and why it exists, what periods are, what colons are, what dashes are.
00:28:11 He would teach me that there are syllables and how to differentiate them in a single word, and consequently, learn how to pronounce them. Every night. One of my great regrets in life is that I went on to be a very successful actor, and one day I tried to find him, but it was too late, and I regret that I never had the opportunity to really thank him.
00:28:48 ALICE WINKLER: In addition to learning how to read, Poitier knew he would need to lose his Caribbean accent if he wanted to make it as an actor in America. He started imitating the people he heard on the radio. When he felt he’d improved enough, he returned to the American Negro Theatre to audition for their school, hoping he wouldn’t be recognized from the last fiasco. Still, there was one glitch.
00:29:14 SIDNEY POITIER: I didn’t know where I would get a scene from. I didn't know that there were places you could go and buy little books of plays, and you could take a scene and study that and then show it — use it as an audition. So what I did was I bought a True Confessions magazine.
00:29:33 True Confessions magazines were for ladies, but they said all I needed was to — so I selected two paragraphs out of such a story. I memorized it best I could, and I was going to use it as a thing. The words that I didn’t quite understand, I would learn about them. I would ask certain people that I got to know.
00:30:02 So I understood what the words were. Mind you, my accent is still pretty poor. Long story short, I went in and I auditioned for them, and they said, "Thank you." They said, "We’ll let you know," and the note came that I wasn’t selected. I was crestfallen. So I couldn’t give it up, so I went back to them.
00:30:30 I walked in, and there was a lady at the — kind of, like, the desk, and I said, "I took an audition the other day, and I wasn’t accepted." I said, "However, I’m here today to ask if this is a possibility," and she said, "What?" I said, "I noticed that you don’t have a janitor. I will do the janitor work for you in exchange for you letting me study here."
00:31:02 And she looked at me in a peculiar way. She said, "You would do that?"
00:31:06 ALICE WINKLER: He would, and he did, but the classes didn’t help. He was showing little promise as an actor and was asked to leave. His classmates had grown to like him, though, and they banded together to make an appeal on his behalf. It worked. The school agreed to let him be an understudy for a part in an upcoming production.
00:31:28 What happened next is cliché, that classic story where the understudy gets his big break when the big-name guy doesn’t show. Sidney Poitier’s version is no different really. In his case, though, the guy he was understudy for was Harry Belafonte.
00:31:46 SIDNEY POITIER: I went on. I played the part. I knew all the words. I had my accent, you know, and I did the best I could. There was a guy in the audience who had directed that play before and had been invited by the lady who directed us at the theater, and she had asked him to come and take a look at it to see what she had done with it. And the guy came, but he came on a night when Harry Belafonte, the star, wasn't going to be there.
00:32:17 ALICE WINKLER: That guy invited Sidney Poitier to his office the following Monday and asked him to read for a part in an all-black version of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. This was in 1946. Poitier was 19.
00:32:34 SIDNEY POITIER: Lysistrata was my first job on Broadway. First, first job, professionally. I was petrified. I was petrified. I knew there were 1,200 people out in the audience waiting for me to walk out on that stage, and I only had a very small part. On my way to the stage, they said, "Places," which means, “Everybody, get ready. The curtain's going to go up.” But I had seen everybody in the play — not everybody, most of the guys in the play — going to a little peephole and looking out in the direction of the audience.
00:33:13 And I was so interested in what they were looking at, I went and I took a look, and I saw 1,200 people sitting, looking at the stage, which, the curtain hadn't gone up, and I got so petrified. Then the curtain went up, and the play opened with me running out on the stage and saying, "So-and-so-and-so-and-so-and-so-and-and-so — " and they asked me, "Well, wa-da-da-da — " And I say, "Blah-blah-blah-blah," and then, "Wa-wa-wa — " I got out there, and I couldn’t remember one word.
00:33:53 I got a — no, I got several splendid reviews because I got out there and I mixed up the dialogue. I was so frightened, I was so petrified that my — I started it, but instead of starting with my first line, I started with my seventh or eighth line, and the guy who was supposed to answer me, his eyes went boing! But the audience is laughing because they don’t — those who didn’t know the play thought that that was the play.
00:34:23 And they — well, I messed up the scene, but they — the other actors — because I didn’t come back on the stage anymore after I walked off — the other actors kind of righted the boat for them, and the play went on. Well, the critics said — several of them said, "Who was this kid who walked out there and opened this play? He was full of humor, and so-and-so-and-so-and-so-and-so — "
00:34:53 Truth is, I left the theater, after I came off, saying to myself, "That’s it. I tried. I am not going to be an actor. I don’t have the gift, and it’s silly for me to be this. Okay, I did it, I stuck to it, and I don’t have it." So I left, and I went walking about in New York City. And on my way home, about 11:30, 12:00 that night, I decided to pick up the newspapers, and I picked up, I guess, the Daily News, and they were — believe it or not, there were 13 major newspapers in New York City at the time.
00:35:31 Anyway, in three or four of them, I was mentioned very favorably. Well, my dear, being — well, being, being, being — I changed my mind. I wasn’t going to quit the business so quickly.
00:35:50 ALICE WINKLER: The play actually got terrible reviews overall and closed after three days. Sidney Poitier’s career as an actor was far from secure. He was getting occasional roles but was still clocking plenty of time as a dishwasher. Then he got a break, a big part in a Hollywood picture called No Way Out. It came out in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color bar, and two years after Truman had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.
00:36:23 The modern Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction, and some in Hollywood sensed an opportunity for new stories.
00:36:31 RAY BIDDLE: The doctor? Him?
00:36:34 DR. LUTHER BROOKS: Lie back and lie still. You're in my charge.
00:36:38 RAY BIDDLE: I don't want him. I want a white doctor.
00:36:40 POLICE OFFICER: We’ll turn the lights out and you won't know the difference.
00:36:42 RAY BIDDLE: Haven't I got any rights?
00:36:43 POLICE OFFICER: No!
00:36:44 ALICE WINKLER: In No Way Out, Poitier plays young Dr. Luther Brooks, who works at a county hospital where he has to treat some viciously racist white patients. When he’s accused of killing one of them through malpractice, much drama ensues, including Dr. Brooks’ self-doubts and a race riot. By the end of the 1950s, Poitier had a major or leading role in 13 pictures, including Blackboard Jungle, as a teacher in a white inner-city school, and The Defiant Ones, as an escaped convict chained to fellow prisoner Tony Curtis. It’s one of my personal favorites.
00:37:25 NOAH CULLEN: I'm a strange colored man in a white-South town. How long you think before they pick me up?
00:37:29 JOHN JOKER JACKSON: Get off my back! I ain't married to you! Now what do I care? Come on!
00:37:32 NOAH CULLEN: You’re married to me, all right, Joker, and here's the ring. But I ain't going south on no honeymoon now! We’re going north.
00:37:40 ALICE WINKLER: The '60s was an even more fertile decade for Sidney Poitier. He starred in many of Hollywood’s biggest releases and was, for a time, the number one box office draw. Still, Hollywood only seemed able to accept one black leading man, and that put tremendous pressure on Poitier, he says.
00:38:02 As the Civil Rights Movement grew, the more militant dismissed him as an Uncle Tom for being palatable to whites. Poitier couldn’t control the content of the movies being made, but he could refuse roles, which he often did, and the roles he did accept, he often altered, bringing his sense of humanity and dignity to bear.
00:38:25 During this interview with journalist Gail Eichenthal for the Academy of Achievement, Poitier described how he approached scripts that came his way. He gave an example, going back to the early '50s, when he was pretty broke, married, with a second child on the way. An agent named Marty Baum asked him to audition for a part as a janitor in a movie called Phoenix City.
00:38:50 SIDNEY POITIER: He said, "And let me know what you think about the script." I said, "Fine." I went home, I read it, and I hated it. I really hated it. It was a story in which there was a janitor. I have no, and had then, no objections to playing a janitor, but this guy in this movie worked for a gambling casino.
00:39:17 He was a janitor. As a janitor in this gambling casino, a murder takes place, and the bad guys were concerned about me, the character, because they didn't — if I had seen anything, that would be trouble for them.
00:39:42 So what they did to seal my lips — I had a child, the character had a child, a little girl — they killed the girl and threw her body on the lawn of his house, and I’m playing this guy. And I went to Marty, and I said — Marty Baum, the agent. I said, "I read the script, and I can’t play it."
00:40:12 And he said, "Why can’t you play it?" I said, "I can’t play it because this is a father, and he has a child, and these guys kill the child to intimidate him, and the script permits that intimidation. So the writers feel that that’s just, for them, a plot line. You know, it’s not important to them."
00:40:40 And I said to him, I said, "I can’t play that because I have a father, and I know that my father would never be like that." I said, "As a father, I would never be able to not attack those guys." And he says, "That’s why you don’t want to do it?" I said, "That’s why I don't want to — "
00:41:04 He says, "You need money?" And I did. My second daughter was about to be born, and I needed the money. I really needed — and the money was $750 for playing this part, which was a lot of bucks. Anyway, I couldn’t do it.
00:41:21 ALICE WINKLER: He didn’t do it, and the story speaks to who Sidney Poitier was, and still is, as a person. As Poitier said succinctly, he is his father’s son.
00:41:34 SIDNEY POITIER: I left Marty’s office, and I went to 57th Street — yes, 57th Street and Broadway. There was a loan office there called something-something-Finance that you could go in and borrow money on your furniture, on your car, or whatever. I needed $75 to pay Beth Israel Hospital for the birth of my child.
00:42:08 And I had to put up my furniture, such as it was. Okay. Some months later, Martin Baum, the agent, called me up, and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I’m working in this restaurant." He said, "What do you do?" I said, "I’m washing dishes." He said, "Could you come down and talk to me for — I want to ask you a couple of questions." I said, "Sure."
00:42:30 I went down, and he said, "I have never been able to understand why you turned down that job for $700." I don’t know whether he understood it or not, but I think before I told him, he said to me, "I have decided that anyone as crazy as you are," he said, "I want to be their agent."
00:42:56 ALICE WINKLER: Marty Baum remained Sidney Poitier’s agent until Baum died in 2010, one year after this interview was recorded. When Poitier received his Academy Award for Lilies of the Field in 1964, Marty Baum was high on the list of people he thanked. Some of the films that followed in the '60s were: A Patch of Blue; To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and, of course, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
00:43:25 But it was In The Heat of the Night that Sidney Poitier turned to, to describe how his sensibilities, formed by life in the Bahamas and his experiences in Florida, changed the movies he was in, in critical ways. In the film In the Heat of the Night, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who gets caught up in the investigation of a murder case in a racist Southern town.
00:43:53 GILLESPIE: This here's Virgil.
00:43:56 ENDICOTT: Mr. Tibbs.
00:43:57 VIRGIL TIBBS: How do you do, sir.
00:43:59 ENDICOTT: Oh, may I have Henry fetch you something? Some light refreshment?
00:44:02 GILLESPIE: No, thank you. We're all right the way we are.
00:44:03 VIRGIL TIBBS: Oh, I'll have something cold. Something soft. Anything.
00:44:08 SIDNEY POITIER: Well, the producers were all whites. I was one of the principal players in the movie. I know what my values were. My values are not disconnected from the values — some of the values of the black community, African American community. So I go in front of a camera with a responsibility to be at least respectful of certain values.
00:44:41 ALICE WINKLER: And when Sidney Poitier read the script, he saw that in one scene, the white suspect, a wealthy, well-positioned man in town, slaps Virgil Tibbs, and Tibbs takes it without responding. When Poitier was done reading the script, he went to talk to one of the producers, his friend Walter Meer.
00:45:02 SIDNEY POITIER: I said, "Walter, I can’t play this." The scene required me to stand there, this guy walks over to me, and he slaps me in the face, and I look at him fiercely and walk away. And I said to Walter, "You can’t do that." I said, "Let me tell you a little bit about America and the texture of American culture as it stands. That is dumb. It is not very bright."
00:45:36 I said, "We’re in the '60s” — this is 1968 or ‘7 — “You can’t do that. The black community will look at that and say, 'That is egregious,' because the human responses that would be natural in that circumstance, we are suppressing them to serve values of greed on the part of Hollywood, acquiescence on the part of people culturally who would accept that as the proper approach."
00:46:21 I said, "You can’t do it." I said, "You certainly won’t do it with me. If you want me to do this, not only will I not do it, but I will insist that I respond to this man precisely as a human being would ordinarily respond to this man, and he pops me, and I’ll pop him right back."
00:46:43 And I said, "If you want me to play it, you will put that in writing, and in writing you will also say that if this picture plays the South, that that scene is never, ever removed," and Walter, being the kind of guy that he was, he said, "Yeah," he said, "I promise you that, and I’ll give it to you in writing."
00:47:12 I ultimately didn’t take it in writing. I just took a handshake because he’s the kind of a guy, his handshake and his signature are one in the same, and that made the movie. Without it, the movie would not have done as well as it did.
00:47:28 VIRGIL TIBBS: Was Mr. Colbert ever in this greenhouse, say, last night about midnight?
00:47:33 MR. ENDICOTT: (SLAPS VIRGIL TIBBS)
00:47:34 VIRGIL TIBBS: (SLAPS MR. ENDICOTT)
00:47:37 MR. ENDICOTT: Gillespie?
00:47:38 OFFICER GILLESPIE: Yeah?
00:47:41 MR. ENDICOTT: You saw it.
00:47:42 OFFICER GILLESPIE: I saw it.
00:47:44 ALICE WINKLER: It was, as the film’s director, Norman Jewison, called it, the slap heard around the world. Sidney Poitier didn’t set out to make a political statement with his work or change the world, but he did both by staying true to his values as a human being. And his authenticity, whether on stage or on screen, are what made him one of the most successful and beloved actors of all time.
00:48:12 SIDNEY POITIER: Every person who goes into a theater, they enter a movie house, or they enter a theater with a stage, and they sit there with other people. It's a darkened room. Their attention is on what’s going on up there. They have five senses that are the tools they bring into the theater, so their five senses are working.
00:48:42 And they have been working pretty much since they were tots. So everything that happens on that stage, everything that happens on that screen, they can pass a judgment subconsciously as to whether we are hitting the marks or not, because there isn’t a person that sits in a movie house of any maturity who hasn’t been disappointed, who hasn’t been exhilarated, who hasn’t felt fear, who hasn’t felt joy.
00:49:19 So that when they sit in that theater, they are — that's all they bring in. That's the scoreboard they bring in, and they sit there, and they watch actors playing at fear, embarrassment, love, hate, all of the emotions in life. That’s what they bring in. So when they sit there and they're looking at actors doing that, they cotton to those actors that make that connection, make that connection with them.
00:49:53 And that’s the actor’s job. It’s not their job. All they do is they bring this panel of human emotions with them, and these emotions are in neutral. They are absolutely in neutral as they sit there, and one by one this really fine actress or actor begins to do things that somewhere in the consciousness of that audience, they’re saying, "Oh, boy. Yeah, I know about that. I've seen that. Wow.”
00:50:30 That’s where the admiration comes from because they can also tell when that actor or that actress is not reaching home. Does that make any sense?
00:50:43 ALICE WINKLER: We’ll end this episode with a resounding “Yes!” from one of Sidney Poitier’s biggest fans and greatest friends, Oprah Winfrey. The Queen of Talk introduced Poitier when he was inducted into the Academy of Achievement.
00:50:58 OPRAH WINFREY: I was ten years old in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a mother on welfare who had to work two jobs, and I was left to take care of my half-sister and brother on the night Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Lilies of the Field. And I remember sitting on the linoleum floor with my brother and sister.
00:51:27 And I was afraid to go in the kitchen because little mice were running around the kitchen. And I remember seeing Sidney Poitier, and being stunned, and calling everybody I knew, saying, "A colored man just won!" and thinking, “If this colored man named Sidney Poitier could do that, wow, I wonder what I could do.”
00:51:56 There are turning points in history when the man and the moment meet. In a time such as that, he stepped beyond what anyone could imagine. He stepped before the camera and showed the world what dignity looks like.
00:52:19 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler. If you want to learn more about Sidney Poitier, go to achievement.org. If you want to tell your friends to learn more about Sidney Poitier, tweet them about this episode, #WhatItTakesNow. Thanks for spending time with us, and thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for making What It Takes possible.
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