The Life And Times Of Sidney Poitier---Told By Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier strolls out upon the Kaufman Concert Hall stage at the 92nd St. "Y" in Manhattan on May 13.
His gait is measured, slow, but steady. His hair is more salt than pepper, his tan suit is bolstered by a complementary tie. He ambles over to the podium, grasping it firmly as he stares out into the audience with a gaze that makes each audience member think he is looking directly at them.
“I know what you are thinking,” he begins. “You’re thinking, I didn’t know he was that tall,” says the bemused 6’2” star.
“Obviously, I am getting older. Bet you are thinking that,” he continues.
“But still fine!,” shouts out an audience member from somewhere within the darkened hall.
Poitier humbly bows in the direction from whence the voice came. The history of his life etched within the furrows of his brow, his lips curve and eyes twinkle revealing that humor has not escaped him.
At 86, Poitier ponders his mortality; his place within the microcosm of the greater macrocosm of the universe. A humanitarian, Sidney talked about the need to respect the planet. He wonders about the copious life forms teeming throughout our world, some invisible to the human eye.
“I’m here tonight to tell you about myself. Those things positive and negative that measure a man’s life,” remarks the star. “I’ll begin with my mother giving birth to me in Miami. My parents lived on Cat Island in the Bahamas, barely subsisting off their tomato farm, occasionally bringing their produce to Miami. I was born there, two months premature. Poverty has a way of snatching the life of newborns, so while saddened, my father and others, had little hope for my survival. My mother was the only one who did not give up on me. My father went out and returned with a shoe box which was to serve as my coffin; still hopeful, my mother visited a soothsayer who confirmed I would live, travel the world and dwell among the famous, becoming famous myself one day. And, so I did.”
He was the youngest child amongst 6 siblings.
“When I was still very small, my parents took me out upon the ocean, wherein my mother suddenly flung me as far as she could, into it. Though tiny, the surprise and shock of it consumed me. What was I supposed to do? Why had she done that? Were they getting rid of me? My mind was barraged by questions as I struggled, sinking into the ocean. My father rescued me, holding me tightly as he returned to the boat and handed me to my mother who promptly hoisted me back into the ocean. This was repeated several times. I guess you figured out by now this was my parents way of teaching me to swim,” said Poitier, recalling both the horror and understanding he gained from that lesson.
“I was arrested three times in my life. Once for cooking corn in someone’s cornfield who upon spotting what he perceived as fire, called the fire department and the cops. I was 11 years old. Again, in 1943, during the riots in Harlem after entering a store, people began to loot. Guns went off and people scattered. I hid in a closet within the store when I heard the cops coming, pretending I was dead. When I thought the coast was clear I left the store only to get shot in the leg and arrested. The third time, I was arrested for vagrancy. I had been homeless and unused to New York winters, thus slept at Penn Station. I was arrested. A cop from the station gave me 50 cents and an address to a place in Brooklyn where the nuns took me in. I stayed with the nuns for two weeks, eventually getting a dishwasher job. I never had much of an education, but a waiter noticed my quandary, and offered to teach me to read. I only wish now I had had the presence of mind to get his last name and phone number. He was just one of the many people who left his mark upon my life. Then one day, while perusing the papers, I saw a casting ad for the American Negro Theatre and decided to audition. The rest is history," explained the enduring actor.
Poitier eventually performed on stage in Lysistrata which led to the film "No Way Out" with Richard Widmark. "Blackboard Jungle" followed and then "The Defiant Ones" with Tony Curtis.
That movie garnered Sidney an academy award nomination. However, it was “Lilies of the Field” that gave him his Academy Award for Best Actor. Sidney became the first African American male to win one. In 2002, Sidney won an Honorary Oscar for his outstanding performances on screen. He appeared on Broadway in “Raisin in the Sun.”
In films: “Patch of Blue,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy “To Sir With Love,” and “Heat of the Night,” with Rod Steiger.
“I’ve worked with the best ─ Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Diana Sands, Gene Wilder, et al. All who helped me develop my craft.” I’m humbled by those who have come into my life” remarked Sidney, who married actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009. Sidney Poitier wrote his memoirs "The Measure of A Man" in 2000, and most recently his first novel entitled Montaro Caine.
Eloquently and somewhat poetically, Sidney endeavored to describe his foray into creative writing.
“As one ages, one becomes increasingly curious about their mortality and what role one is destined to play in the cosmos. I am grateful for all I have experienced and the people who have crossed my path. I feel love. As I look out into this audience, I feel that love,” he said to an affected crowd.
Charmed, the audience rose, expressing their love and respect for the artist, director, humanitarian and gentle man that is Mr. Sidney Poitier.