Iconic Hollywood actor Sydney Poitier on the beliefs that carried him through hardship as through fame
In this interview of Sydney Poitier by Oprah Winfrey, one sees the quiet calm of the man who broke the white citadel of Hollywood, more with spiritual composure, attributing much to the “unseen forces lurking outside of view” than with muscle power. The actor who played the lead role in “Guess Who is Coming for Dinner” and “To Sir with Love” has also written his autobiography, “The Measure of a Man”. The four part interview contains references from the book.
The secret of Poitier’s success lies in the strength of his conviction combined with his amazing humility. One episode from his life is illustrative enough: He was playing the role of an investigator in a film. According to the original script, he was to take a slap from a white man. When he suggested that he return the slap, he did not do so on racial grounds. He was guided more by the thought that this would be the natural reaction of any person. This small act became a powerful moment not just for Hollywood cinema but also for millions of Americans, black and white, who watched it.
Sydney Poitier was the youngest of seven children. When he was 15 years of age he came to Florida from the Bahamas and for the first time became conscious of his skin colour. He got a job as a delivery boy and was not told by the pharmacist, for whom he delivered a package, that he should not go to the front door. Blacks had to go to the back door. “If I had come to Florida when I was younger this would have affected me. But by 15 I already knew who I was...once somebody asked me who I thought I was. I answered saying I am the one I choose to be.”
“I was born two months premature and weighed less than three pounds. Things did not look good for me ...Then my mother stopped at a soothsayer who was in some kind of trance. When her eyes flew open she said a few things to my mother. She said, ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will travel to most corners of the earth. He will walk with kings. His name will be carried all over the world.’ For fifty cents my mother found the support she needed to be backing a long shot.” Continues Poitier, “Of all my father’s teaching, the most enduring was the one about the true measure of a man... The true measure was how well he provided for his children and it stuck with me as if etched in my brain. I knew failure was not an option.”
Poitier ascribes a lot of his success to luck, a kind of serendipity. He adds that it has to go with responsibility. Poitier was working as a dishwasher in New York till one day he answered an advertisement for an actor. “Acting did not sound any more difficult than parking cars or washing dishes. The man in charge let me know that I was misguided in my assumptions...I could barely read...his assessment was like a death sentence for my soul.” He threw Poitier out saying he should get back to dishwashing. “The question that turned my life was, how did this man know that I was a dishwasher. I went back and decided I would become an actor to show him. My accent was terrible...so the first thing I would have to tackle was my accent...I saved my money and bought a radio ...”
In six months he was ready for audition and his break came when Harry Belafonte could not play his role as the lead one day and Poitier had to step in at the Negro Theatre.
“I always had a sense of myself as an outsider, an observer...one who prefers to walk on the edge...whenever I feel I am treated the way which is contrary to who I think I am, I defend myself by improving myself...”