Sidney Poitier’s milestone achievements are so numerous they scarcely need repeating here. But I would like to pass along a personal reminiscence.
Meeting The Man for the first time made a deep impression on my wife and me. His physical presence was imposing but his demeanor was disarmingly casual. He was unfailingly kind over the years; I even got to introduce my daughter to him. It was after a few brief social interactions that I built up the nerve to invite him to my USC class and he agreed to come. I wanted to show my 20-something students The Defiant Ones but he suggested something less racially charged like The Bedford Incident or To Sir With Love. I chose the latter.
The dated but still likable film played well with my class, but Mr. P had little interest in spinning anecdotes about the movie. He was much more interested in addressing the young men and women in the audience. “So much is coming at you but you are not aware that so much is coming at you because you’ve just gotten here. Now you guys have to embrace so much just to try to understand the world in which you live and that encourages me. It is an example to me that generation after generation we produce youngsters with more vision, more hope, and more strength for life.
“You have to understand the world in which you live, and if you do, that is probably the only safety you’re going to be able to embrace. If you can’t find yourself in a world that you understand, it’s tough. I tell you that because I’ve been there.”
I asked if he felt he had a unique point of view because he had to educate himself. “Well, it helps me. I didn’t go out and say, ‘Well now, I’m going to educate myself.’ The circumstances of my early life were such that my parents did as well as they could, but I quit school at the age of twelve and a half. I was on my own in New York City at the age of fifteen. I came from a semi-literate community on a semi-literate island in the Bahamas. I left my whole family and I went to New York City and I could hardly read the street signs. But that helps me. I was pushed by survival requirements to have to learn how to survive in this new culture. I got out of bed in the winter never having experienced a winter in my life…78 degrees in the Caribbean was my first fifteen years. In New York City I arrive there with summer clothing in a small little bag. It was devastating to be living in 30 degree weather. I had no place to sleep. I would sleep in Pennsylvania Station; got arrested there for vagrancy. I had no one to turn to, but… you simply can’t just lie down and die, you have to do something about it. That pressure on me to survive was a godsend. I didn’t eat unless I worked as a dishwasher, so I could eat three meals a day on my job. I couldn’t read the newspaper, so I sit down and tried to make out words and their meaning. I was unable to understand the city life because I grew up on an island where there were no cars and there no streets and there was no electricity. So I had something pushing me, constantly pushing me.”
He went on to tell how he landed his first acting job, made his first friend in Harry Belafonte, got his first movie role, and chose the parts he played. “My father was a very, very good man and a very, very poor man. We lived as colonials in a British colonial possession, the Bahamas. I never knew in my life a better man. And when I started working as an actor… I made myself a promise that I would never ever on the stage, on the screen, or in life itself do anything that would not reflect positively on my father’s life.” He expressed regret over only two of the many movies on his resume, Porgy and Bess and The Long Ships.
There were more than 300 young people in the audience that night, and you could hear a pin drop as he recounted his extraordinary tale. I wish I could have asked a hundred followup questions but I let Mr. P take the lead.
When the class was over, a throng of students came forward to meet him and shake his hand. He gave each one his undivided attention and with it, a memory that I’m sure will last a lifetime.