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If you like Sidney Poitier's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Maya Angelou,
Olivia de Havilland,
Sally Field,
Athol Fugard,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Jeremy Irons,
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Coretta Scott King,
John R. Lewis,
Audra McDonald,
Rosa Parks,
Suzan-Lori Parks,
Lloyd Richards,
Bill Russell,
Hilary Swank,
Desmond Tutu,
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and Andrew Young

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Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier
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Sidney Poitier Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

Even early in your career, when you were struggling, you turned down roles you didn't believe in. You actually turned down a part that the agent, Marty Baum, recommended you for. He wanted you to take the role of a janitor in a gambling casino, but you refused.

Sidney Poitier: I did.

Was it because you wanted to portray a more heroic figure?

Sidney Poitier: No. It wasn't the heroic nature of the character. Let me set the scene for you. I'm married now, my second child is about due. I don't have any money. I'm working as a dishwasher.

But you had already played leading roles in films...

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier: Yes, yes. But I didn't go right to the top. It was a bump here and a bump there and difficult times in between. Anyway, Marty Baum didn't know me but he had heard of me, and he asked me to come to his office, the agency. He sent me next door to a hotel that his office was adjacent to. He said, "These guys are doing this movie, it's a movie about a place called Phoenix City. And it's a good part. Would you want to go?" And I said yes. And he sent me over, and there was the director and a writer and the producer. They explained it to me what the thing was, and they gave me a small scene and said, "Would you read this for us?" And I said yes, and I read it for them, and they liked it. And they said, "Okay," he said, "We'll talk to your agent." And they said, "Here, take this script with you and read it when you get home." So I go back to Marty Baum, the agent who sent me there. I told him what had happened. And he said, "Well, go on. Take it with you, and you read it. And you'll come back..." He feels that they want me to do it. He said, "And let me know what you think about the script." I said, "Fine." I went home, I read it, and I hated it. I really hated it.

It was a story in which there was a janitor. I have no -- and had then -- no objections to playing a janitor. But this guy in this movie worked for a gambling casino. He was a janitor in this gambling casino. A murder takes place, and the bad guys were concerned about me, the character. If I had seen anything, that would be trouble for them. So what they did to seal my lips -- I had a child, the character had a child, little girl. They killed the girl and threw her body on the lawn of his house. And I'm playing this guy.

I went to Marty, and I said -- Marty Baum, the agent who put me on to it. -- I said, "I read the script, and I can't play it." And he said, "Why can't you play it?" I said, "I can't play it because this is a father, and he has a child, and these guys kill his child to intimidate him. And the script permits that intimidation. So the writers feel that that's just for them a plot line. You know? It's not important to them." And I said to him, I said, "I can't play that, because I have a father. And I know that my father would never be like that. He would never under any circumstances be like that." I said, "As a father, I would never be able to not attack those guys, do something to show how I am, to articulate me as a human being." And he says, "That's why you don't want to do it?" And I said, "That's why." He says, "You need money?" And I did. My second daughter was about to be born, and I needed the money. I really needed it, and the money was $750 for playing this part, which was a lot of bucks.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Anyway, I couldn't do it. Now, that speaks of who I was. It still speaks of who I was. And it speaks of who I am. But who I am is my father's son. That's who I am. And I spent my life with him until I left him at the age of 15. And I've seen him behave with my mother and their children. And I've seen him with my mother, how he treats her. I grew up on that. I know how to be a decent human being. So I couldn't play it, and I didn't play it. I left Marty's office, and I went to 57th Street. Yes, 57th Street and Broadway. There was a loan office there called something-something finance that you could go in and borrow money on your furniture, on your car or whatever. I needed $75 to pay Beth Israel Hospital for the birth of my child. And I had to put up my furniture, such as it was. And they loaned me that money. I paid Beth Israel Hospital, and my baby was born.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Anyway, some months later...

Martin Baum, the agent, called me up and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm working in this restaurant." He said, "What do you do?" I says, "I'm washing dishes." But I had a little bit of an investment. And he said, "Could you come down and talk to me? I want to ask you a couple questions." I said, "Sure." I went down, I walked in, he's there alone, I sat down with him. And he said, "I have never been able to understand why you turned down that job for $700." Eventually I would tell him why. I don't know whether he understood it or not. But I think before I told him, he said to me, "I have decided that anyone as crazy as you are," he said, "I want to be their agent."

And how long did he remain your agent?

Sidney Poitier: 'Till now as we sit here.

Someone else who was an influence on your career was Lloyd Richards. Could you tell us about him?

Sidney Poitier: Lloyd Richards was the director of A Raisin in the Sun. And he was more than a director. He was a theater master, master of theater. African American, extremely gifted. He and a man named Paul Mann, they were teachers. They had a teaching -- a drama school, actually. And after I did the picture Blackboard Jungle, I went to see them because I knew I wasn't working at the level I should be working at.

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Even though that was a very successful film.

Sidney Poitier: It was a successful film, and I did fairly well, but the part was not fulfilled as much as I could have fulfilled it. So I went there and I asked them if I could come and take some classes, and they said yes. They invited me in. I stayed there for a very long time. And they taught me. I learned so much. I learned from them that behind words are meanings. Every word has a meaning, and its meaning might simply be used as a connection: is, as, was, then, now, last, first. There's a meaning. Now, when we put words together, if we don't express what the meaning is behind this particular bunch of words as actors, if we cannot articulate what is behind this bunch of words -- which would be maybe just one paragraph -- behind it may be one point of view or it may be a combination of points of views. The audience hearing these would expect to see them exemplified in the behavior of the actor. They taught me how to do that.

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
The Defiant Ones was a big step in your career, and you were nominated for an Oscar. You spent most of that film chained to Tony Curtis.

Sidney Poitier: It was a wonderful experience for me because it was produced and directed by a great filmmaker named Stanley Kramer. And I had a chance to work with Tony Curtis, and we got along wonderfully well. The only thing that is really outstanding is that it was a production of Stanley Kramer. He was one of Hollywood's most liberal, most courageous men in the business, particularly during a delicate time in America. Working for him was pleasure, a total pleasure.

Lilies of the Field brought you the first Oscar for Best Actor ever awarded to an African American. That was historic. Can you talk a little about that role and what it meant to you to win that Oscar?

It was pretty much how I am. And what it meant to me to receive the award for it, it meant a great deal to me. It was the first time for an African American. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed the experience, because what he was doing -- the character mind you -- what he was doing was exhibiting a vast sense of himself, and the wonders of being alive, and the wonders of being a human being, and the responsibilities of a human being. And here he is vortexing with some of the most loveable characters. And for that I got an award.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier Interview Photo

I embraced the award. It was wonderful. The man who wanted so badly to make that movie, did in fact, direct it. Ralph Nelson. I've made movies for him in my career several times, three times, as a matter of fact. Ralph Nelson was a very, very, very humane person. He hired me for three fantastic roles. I will always be indebted to Ralph Nelson because he was a real humanitarian.

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