Poitier changed the way Black people were shown onscreen by playing more refined roles and his films became a genre of their own.
We lost Sidney Poitier last week, at the age of 94. He was a great actor and a pioneer. He was the first African American and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Racism was rampant in Hollywood in the late 1960s and movies presented the minuscule Black roles in a negative light. Poitier changed this by playing more refined roles and his films became a genre of their own. Some of his most notable works include movies like In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But the road to better representation was not an easy one.
Following his death, an old interview with the prolific actor resurfaced. In this 2013 CBS Sunday Morning meeting with Lesley Stahl, Poitier recalled an act of kindness that changed his life. As a young aspiring actor, Poitier joined theatre but found it difficult to keep going. He only had two years of schooling and a thick Bahamian accent, but that did not stop him from following his passion. His auditions were not going well and he was supporting himself by working as a dishwasher. It was at this job that he met a kind-hearted Jewish waiter who would extend a helping hand.
WATCH: Sidney Poitier, who passed away this weekend at age 94, chokes up as he tells Lesley Stahl about the elderly Jewish waiter who taught him to read, enabling his acting career to take off pic.twitter.com/MPkDynlFYU— Avi Mayer (@AviMayer) January 9, 2022
"One of the waiters, a Jewish guy, elderly man," Poitier told Stahl. "I had a newspaper, and he walked over to me, and he looked at me and he said, 'What's new in the paper?' And I looked up at this man and I said to him, 'I can't tell you what's in the paper, because I can't read very well.' He said, 'Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you?' I said to him, 'Yes if you like.'" Recalling the generosity of the old man, Poitier started tearing up. He went on to say, choking back tears, "Every night … every night, the place is closed, everyone's gone, and he sat there with me, week after week after week. I learned a lot. A lot."
With his help, things began to happen. He soon landed an acting apprenticeship with the same theater company that had laughed him out of his audition. In 1950, he landed his first role as a doctor facing racism in the film No Way Out. "I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else's vision of me," Poitier said about his very early decision to play upright characters. "If the screen does not make room for me in the structure of their screenplay, I'd step back. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it." You can watch the whole interview here:
He was also eager to help the civil rights movement which landed him in trouble at times. Although hesitant at first to become politically involved, he soon found himself at the frontlines, fighting for racial justice. In 1974, he was named an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Poitier has received the Kennedy Center Honor as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.