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If you like Sidney Poitier's story, you might also like:
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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: 2 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

You eventually did join the program at the American Negro Theatre. How did you overcome that initial rejection?

Sidney Poitier: I continued working as a dishwasher, and I learned that there were no other theatrical groups in Harlem at that time of the same caliber as was the American Negro Theatre. And I decided that I wanted to -- no, I learned that they had a school system where they taught acting and stuff. So I wanted to get in there. I also learned that there were some very prestigious black actors and actresses who were affiliated with this. So I set my sights there. And I learned that they had auditions every three, six months or so. So I decided that I would go there and take an audition.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I went in and asked if I could come in for an audition. I didn't see this huge, massive guy there, fearful that he would remember me and discount me. But I went there, and they told me, "Yeah, you can come and have an audition..." at such and such a time. Well I did, but I didn't know where I would get a scene from. I didn't know that there were places you can go and buy little books of plays and you can take a scene and study that and then use it as an audition. So what I did was I bought a True Confessions magazine. True Confessions magazines were for ladies. So I selected two paragraphs out of such a story. I memorized it best I could. The words that I didn't quite understand, I would learn about them. I would ask certain people that I got to know. So I understood what the words were. Mind you, my accent is still pretty poor. To make a long story short...

I went in and I auditioned for them. And they said, "Thank you." They said, "We'll let you know." And they did, indeed, let me know. And the note came that I wasn't selected. I was crestfallen. So, I couldn't give it up. So I went back to them. I walked in and there was a lady at the desk. And I said, "I took an audition the other day, and I wasn't accepted." I said, "However, I'm here today to ask if this is a possibility." And she said, "What?" I said, "I noticed that you don't have a janitor." And I said, "I will do the janitor work for you because it's not a big deal, you know, you have a fairly small place here and stuff. I will do the janitor work for you in exchange for letting me study here."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And she looked at me in a peculiar way. She said, "You would do that?" I said, "Yes, I would do that." And she said, "Well, I'll talk to them about it." I said, "I'll come back in a couple of days." I went back in three days, and I could tell that she didn't really tell them. She said, "Oh, yeah, yeah. Excuse me a minute." She goes into the back, in the office, I suppose. She stays there a while, and she comes out with a guy. And he says, "What is this you do?" He didn't know me from the other thing. He's seeing me for the first time. He said, "You would do that?" I said, "Yes, I would do that." He said, "Why would you do that?" I said, "Because I want to learn. I want to learn." And he said, "I see." He says, "Where are you from?" And I told him. "Any experience?" "No." Well, they let me in.

They let me in, and I started studying. Then they kicked me out because I didn't show much possibilities. And then, I was rescued by my fellow students in the classes that I was in because they got to like me. They thought I was a little crazy guy, but they got to like me. And when they told me -- when the authorities said to me that "You won't be coming back because you didn't show any possibilities," my friends, on their own accord -- not mine, I had nothing to do with it, but they kind of liked me. And a committee of them, like three of them, went to see the head person. And they said that "We understand that Sidney is not going to be coming back." And so-and-so said, "We just wondered. We know that you're going to be doing a student production. And we figure that since he worked so hard to try to be acceptable, we wondered if maybe you could give him a walk-on."

"Maybe he can just walk across the stage once." And the person said, "Well..." because she recognized that they had developed some kind of feeling for me. And she said, "I'll think about it." And when they went back to her, she said, "I'll tell you what, I'll make him an understudy for someone."

So, she said to me, "I'll let you understudy the guy who's gonna play the part." Now, she had no intentions of me ever, ever playing that part. So I took it. I didn't know she had no intentions. I just learned that later. The guy that she had chosen to do the part was Harry Belafonte, a very handsome, well-known, good actor. Anyway, long story short, I studied that part, and I was on top of it as best I could. The evening of the performance, Harry Belafonte unfortunately could not come because his father was the janitor at a building, and he had to help his dad take the ashes from the furnace that heated the place. There were 8, 10, 12 big, big baskets of ashes, had to be taken up for the dump trucks to take away. And he had to do it on that particular evening. So she was stuck with me, and she sent me on. I went on, I played the part, I knew all the words. I had my accent, you know, and I did the best I could.

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo

There was a guy in the audience who had directed that play before and had been invited by the lady who directed it. She had asked him to come and take a look to see what she had done with it. And the guy came on a night when Harry Belafonte, the star, wasn't going to be there. So she put me on.

And this led to your first appearance on Broadway. Was that in Lysistrata?

Sidney Poitier: Lysistrata was my first job on Broadway. Very, very first job on Broadway. That same guy who came and looked, he said to me, he said, "Would you come to my office on Monday?" And he says, "I'm doing a play called Lysistrata..." It was a Greek comedy. I went, and he had me read, and he offered me a job, my first job professionally.

We understand you had stage fright on opening night.

Sidney Poitier: I was petrified. I was petrified. I knew there were 1,200 people out in the audience waiting for me to walk out on that stage. And I only had a very small part, and that was in the very beginning of the of the evening. And on my way to the stage they said "places" which means everybody get ready, curtain's gonna go up. But I had seen everybody in this play -- not everybody, but most of the guys in the play -- going to a little peep hole and looking out in the direction of the audience. And I was so interested in what they were looking at. I went and I took a look and I saw 1,200 people sitting, looking at the stage which the curtain hasn't gone up. And I got so petrified. Then the curtain went up. And the play opened with me running out on the stage and saying, "So and so and so and so and so and so and so." And they asked me, "Well, wah-dah-dah." And I say, "Blah blah blah blah." And then "Wah wah wah." I got out there, and I couldn't remember one word!

You ended up getting a good review though, didn't you?

Sidney Poitier: I got a very good review. I got several splendid reviews, because I got out there, and I mixed up the dialogue.

I was so frightened, I was so petrified, that I started it, but instead of starting with my first line, I started with my seventh or eighth line. And the guy who was supposed to answer me, his eyes went BOING! And he said, "Uhh..." And he takes his line, goes back and pulls up the response to this line, and it got all (mixed up). But, the audience is laughing because those who didn't know the play, thought that that was the play. Well, I messed up the scene. But they -- the other actors, because I didn't come back on the stage anymore after I walked off -- the other actors kind of righted the boat for them, and the play went on. Well, the critics said, several of them said, "Who was this kid who walked out there and opened this play? He was full of humor..." and so and so and so...

I left the theater after I came off, saying to myself, "That's it, I tried, I am not gonna be an actor. I don't have the gift. And it's silly for me to be (doing) this. Okay, I did it, I've stuck to it, and I don't have it." So I left, and I went walking about in New York City. And on my way home, about 11:30, 12 o'clock at night, I'm on my way to my room where I had my residence, I decided to pick up the newspapers, and I picked up, I guess, The Daily News. And there were, believe it or not, there were 13 major newspapers in New York City at that time. Anyway, in three or four of them, I was mentioned very favorably. Well my dear, being -- well, being, being, being -- I changed my mind. I wasn't gonna quit the business so quickly!

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

The last performance -- because the show closed in three days, it didn't get good reviews for itself -- a Broadway producer who had on Broadway at that moment a show called Anna Lucasta -- he came to see the show that night, the last night. He came backstage and he said to me, he said, "Let me ask you a question." Now by the way, I'm reading my lines better. He said, "I have a show called Anna Lucasta, and I'm sending out a road company." He said, "I wonder if you'd like to work for me and be an understudy." And I said, "Yes, I would like that." And he hired me. That was my start. I played Anna Lucasta on and off for years and years and years.

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