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Sidney Poitier
 
Sidney Poitier
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Sidney Poitier Interview

Oscar for Best Actor

February 17, 2009
Los Angeles, California

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  Sidney Poitier

You began your acting career with the American Negro Theatre in Harlem in the 1940s. How did that come about? Is it true that you answered an ad in the paper?


Sidney Poitier: I saw an ad, yeah. I was not looking to be an actor. I was not looking for opportunities. 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.


I wanted to do more. Not only did I want to do more, I was preparing myself to do more.


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 and I went about that process. That I knew was my goal. The reason was, I realized that in New York there were many streets. Some were numbered, but not all. Some were named. 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.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


I knew if I didn't understand the words, I wouldn't know the message. And if I don't know the message, no one will have time for me. So that's what I did. I tried to learn to read.


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. And I would go to the want ad pages there, and it would list porters wanted, dishwashers wanted, maids wanted, whatever. And on this particular day when I needed a job and I looked into this paper, there was nothing there concerning any dishwashing. So what I did was 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 dishwasher wanted and this wanted and dah-dah, porters wanted. And I figured well, I can even manage some of those jobs. But what is this actors job? That doesn't sound like it's too bad. And, they're inviting me because they say actors wanted.


There was an address there in the article. It was just ten blocks away. I knocked on the door, and a guy came to the door, opened it. It was the basement of a library, and this was the headquarters of the American Negro Theatre.


A guy opened the door. He's a massive, massive guy. I mean huge guy. Big. And he said, "Yes?" I said, "I came to see about actors wanted." He said, "You're an actor?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Come on in." 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." Anyway, he said, "Okay, here is this script. Turn to page 28. Read this scene. It's a page and a half. Go over it a couple of times and then let me know when you're ready and we'll read it together. I'll read the other part and you'll read John." I said, "Okay." And I looked over it. I could hardly make what the scene was. Anyway, he said, "You're ready?" I said, "Yeah." And I stepped up on a little stage, but so big. It was maybe 12 feet, 15 feet wide and 9 feet deep or something, you know.


And he said, "You ready?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Okay. Remember, you're on page 28." I said, "Yeah." He said, "Okay..." He said, "You start." I said, "Okay." I started the line, my line. And now...


Now, I'm reading like I read when I was in school. I am very slow. And I am very particular in trying to pronounce these three syllable words and four syllable words. As a result I'm saying, "When-are-you-going-to-be..." Well, he came up on the stage, and he snatched that book out of my hand. And he spun me around. He grabbed me here and here, and he's marching me to the door. And he's saying, "Get out of here and stop wasting people's time." He said, "You can't read, you can hardly talk," cause I had this accent, you know. And he says, "Why don't you just go out..." and he is marching me to the door. He's got my collar back here and my belt back here. And he's really pissed. He's marching me to the door, and he said, "Just get out of here and stop wasting people's time." He opened the door, pushed me out. Slammed the door.


Didn't he tell you to go be a dishwasher?

Sidney Poitier: Yeah. He said, "Why don't you go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher?" Now, I'm walking down the street to go get a bus down towards the end of Manhattan, where there were loads of employment agencies. I suspected I would be able to get a job because I'd gotten them before. Halfway in the block between Lennox Avenue and 7th Avenue -- and 7th Avenue is where I'll catch a bus or get the subway -- I stop dead in the middle of the street between the two.


I said to myself, "How did he know that I was a dishwasher?" He suspected. I said, "I didn't tell him that. I didn't say anything about dishwashing." That was one thing I wouldn't have told him. And I realized then and there that what he said was his perception of my worth. 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." I decided then and there that I was -- 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. And then I would give up the acting, because what do I want to be an actor for? I committed myself to that. That goes to show you that I was a rather peculiar kid. Luckily, I wasn't around psychiatrists and all that kind of stuff, because they probably would have marked me as a guy who was a little off his rocker.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier Interview Photo


You came from the Bahamas. Do you think it was just your reading that he was judging or your Caribbean accent? What did he say?


He said, "You can't talk, you can't speak, you can't read." No one ever said that to me before. And I always dreaded that someone would say that to me because I really couldn't read well and I really didn't speak terrifically. Certainly my accent was Caribbean. So his complaints were dead on. But I had to now not push that aside. I had to then look at it and say wait a minute, that's the me that he sees. Therefore, I have to assume the responsibility for either remaining that way or changing it and to change it for what purpose? I have to change it because I felt in myself that if I don't change, I would be less the person that I perceived myself to be.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


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