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If you like Sidney Poitier's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Maya Angelou,
Olivia de Havilland,
Sally Field,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
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John R. Lewis,
Audra McDonald,
Rosa Parks,
Suzan-Lori Parks,
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and Andrew Young

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Sidney Poitier
 
Sidney Poitier
Profile of Sidney Poitier Biography of Sidney Poitier Interview with Sidney Poitier Sidney Poitier Photo Gallery

Sidney Poitier Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

Do you remember when you saw your first movie?

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier: When I saw my first movie, we had moved to Nassau by then, and we left Cat Island when I was ten-and-a-half. I was like a kid coming out of the center of the United States from the smallest, tiniest farming area and suddenly put into New York City. That's the kind of impact, going into this whole new culture in Nassau. My folks were able to rent a small house, again, with no electricity and no running water and all that stuff. Anyway, this little house had to accommodate us all, and there were five boys and two girls in the family. I think the eldest of the group had already separated and were out on their own when we got to Nassau. They could start working and assuming responsibilities for themselves over and above the farm that we ran.

But anyway, I made some friends quite quickly. I met these new kids who were in this particular neighborhood, and they sort of embraced me. And they said to me -- oh, I guess some weeks after we had moved -- they said that they were going to a matinee, would I like to come? And I didn't want them to know that I didn't know what the word matinee meant. So I said, "Okay, sure." I want to be one of the group. So they went to this theater. And this place had a façade that had pictures of people, white people, on the outside, which ultimately I came to understand were advertisements letting the audience know what the movie is about.


But, I didn't know I was going to see a movie. I had no idea. So they bought a ticket for me, and we went in and we sat. And in this place there were many seats. Well, the whole place was seats. And we took a row there, and we're sitting there. And I am making sure that I don't slip up and ask the wrong question or something, because I know that I would make a fool of myself. So I just behaved as best I could as one of the guys, you see. Anyway, the lights go down, and a curtain, big curtain thing opened up. And there was this big white frame. And suddenly, out of nowhere, came letters, big letters, words, on this big, white screen. I can barely read. I am not really a reader. I read terribly. So I couldn't make out really what the words were saying, except some of them were names, and you assume that they were names. So I just kind of waited to see what's gonna happen with this lit up screen. I didn't know there was a word called screen. But 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. I had no idea. I would learn later that there were Indians and there were white people, settlers, in certain parts. That was my first movie.


Did you want to look behind the theater to see where they were coming from?

Sidney Poitier: Yeah, well that's when it's done. The movie is over. I am not about to make a fool of myself to my friends, yeah, I understand. I can't talk to them. I can't join the conversation as they're talking about what the cowboys did and what the Indians did and what the people in the town did and so many horses and cows and stuff. So I kind of kept quiet. But as we started home, hmm, I said, "Listen guys, I'm gonna peel off for a little bit, and I'll see you back at the corner." So I kind of like dallied a bit, and then I turned around and I went back. I went to the back of the theater, because I didn't understand how all those cows and the people and -- how did they get the houses in that little building where I was? How could all of that happen? I had no idea. In the back of the theater was a door, just a door. It was too tiny for all those cows to come through. I didn't understand, but I thought that something was going to come out of there. They have to. But nothing came out.

You were quite young when you started working, to help support the family.

Sidney Poitier: Twelve. A year-and-a-half from the time I arrived in Nassau from Cat Island. I went to a school there in Nassau, but I wasn't very successful at that. Then the fragility of my parents' economic situation forced me to go to work


I was 12-and-a-half. I was tall. I figured I could get a job, because it was really wearing my dad out, you know. So I quit school and went to work. First I went to work as a water boy, working on a construction thing. I would go around with a dipper and a bucket, and these guys were all working in the sun, you know. In that part of the world the sun is fierce. 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 so that was my job. But it didn't pay very much, and my folks really were in need, so I decided that I was tall enough to hike my age and maybe get a job as an adult.


I went to the assistant to the foreman. He knew of my family, and I suspect he chose to make an exception, 'cause he knew what was going on. And he moved me, he gave me a pick and a shovel.


I was among the big guys, and I was using a pick axe and shoveling dirt up out of this ditch, up onto the region up above it. And because the pay was much, much better in the aggregate -- or rather the difference was such that -- it was very helpful for food and all that stuff. I was making today's equivalent of maybe two dollars, three dollars a week. But in those days the three dollars went quite a ways.


Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
I stayed at that job, and then I worked as a delivery boy, and then I worked in a warehouse. Because I was tall, they just assumed I was eligible. I would have to take 98-pound bags of rice or sugar or flour and stack them to the ceiling of this warehouse in town. We would lay the foundation for it. Every bag of whatever would be put here until it covers the whole floor. And then we'll use 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. And because we can't go beyond the ceiling, I put this as the last up there. I stayed on the job quite awhile and I developed -- ladies develop it when they become pregnant -- varicose veins.

How did you or your family make the decision to send you to Miami?

Sidney Poitier: I hit a bad spot wherein I couldn't find another job. My father became concerned.


I had a friend, his name was Yorick Rolle. Very close, my very best friend at that time, we were like that. We used to buy raw peanuts, if we had a couple of pennies. We would buy raw peanuts and we would roast them, put them in little teeny bags and go to stand in front of the theater and sell them to people going in. But we were doing that just to make enough money for us to buy a ticket ourselves and go in to see the movies. Anyway, he was without me one day, we were that close all the time. And for what reasons, I don't know, but he -- on that day, I was not with him -- and he stole a bicycle and he was caught, and he was sent to reform school for four years.


That worried my dad, because he knew I was very close with this guy, and he knew his own life was in the process of deterioration.


He was in his 50s, I would think, and the wear and tear of all his experiences with farming had weakened his back. And finding jobs was difficult. So, he is not a young man anymore, anyway. He began to be concerned about me. I was leaving the house one day and he stopped me. He was sitting at the door of this house that we lived in. And as I stepped out of the door on my way out, I looked at him and he looked at me. And he said to 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'm fine," I said, "I'm fine." I knew the weight that brought that out of him.


My oldest brother had stowed away on a motorboat that ran between Nassau and Florida. He was the oldest of the boys. He had stowed away. He went to Florida and he got away with it. He found a job and he worked very hard. Tremendous guy, this guy was. Cyril was his name. He met a girl, fell in love with her and she with him and they got married and he went down to the police station in the center of Miami and he told them that he was a stowaway and that he has been here such and such a time and he explained to them what he did. That he works, and he has always worked, and he gave them the name of the employers and all that, and he said he wanted them to know that. And he said, "I have children." Anyway, they allowed him to stay. I don't know what the circumstances were, but they allowed him to stay, and I was sent to him.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:20 EDT