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If you like Sidney Poitier's story, you might also like:
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Maya Angelou,
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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: 4 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
In your film In The Heat of the Night, there's a scene that is very famous. That's the scene where you are slapped by this wealthy, white businessman. At first, that scene was written differently. Why did you need that scene to change?

Sidney Poitier: Well, the producers were all whites. I was one of the principal players in the movie. I know what my values were. My values are not disconnected from the values of the black community, the African American community.

So I go in front of a camera with a responsibility to be at least respectful of certain values. This other character was a very wealthy, very well-positioned person in this community in the South.

And he's under some suspicion at this point in a murder case.

Sidney Poitier: Correct. And I am a detective out of Philadelphia. I'm on my way home after having visited my mother. The producer happens to be a very close friend of mine, Walter Mirisch. When I read the script I said, "Walter, I can't play this."

The scene required me to stand there, this guy walks over to me, and he slaps me in the face. And I look at him fiercely and walk away. And I said to Walter, I said, "You can't do that." I said, "Let me tell you a little bit about America and the texture of American culture as it stands." I said, "That is dumb. It is not very bright." I said -- we're in the '60s, this is 1968 or 7 -- "You can't do that." I said, "The black community will look at that and say that is egregious. You can't do that, because the human responses that would be natural in that circumstance, we are suppressing them to serve values of greed on the part of Hollywood, acquiescence on the part of people culturally who would accept that as the proper approach." I said, "You can't do it." I said, "You certainly won't do it with me."

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I talked to him about it. I say, "Therefore, if you want me to do this, not only will I not do it, but I will insist that I respond to this man precisely as a human being would ordinarily respond to this man. And he pops me, and I'll pop him right back." And I said, "If you want me to play it, you will put that in writing. And in writing you will also say that if this picture plays the South, that that scene is never, ever removed." And Walter being the kind of guy that he was, he said, "Yeah," he said, "I promise you that, and I'll give it to you in writing." I ultimately didn't take it in writing. I just took a handshake because he's the kind of guy, his handshake and his signature is one and the same. And that made the movie. Without it, the movie would not have done as well as it did.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

We'd like to go back to the very beginning now. You've written about the unusual circumstance of your birth. You were not expected to survive. Can you tell us about that?

Sidney Poitier: My birth was quite unusual in that I was premature. I wasn't expected to live. I was delivered by a midwife in Miami, Florida, in the African American section of that city. And there were no available hospitals for people of African descent. So certainly my mother didn't know of one.

So I was born in a small house that was not ours. It was a house that my parents would live in because my parents were not Americans. My parents were Bahamians, which is a group of islands off the coast of Florida. Many, many, many islands. They run into the hundreds. Some of them are just that big (tiny), but many of them were large enough for populations to gather.

My parents were tomato farmers. They farmed tomatoes and they sold their tomatoes in Miami, Florida. They went two, sometimes three times per year. They would harvest, and they had to harvest at a given time, because there were no motorboats that would take their stuff across. So they had to go by sailboat. So they reaped the harvest prematurely. They had to, in order for it to ripen on the way so that when they got to Florida the fruit would be ready for sale. And on one such trip, my mother was pregnant by some six, seven months. They had no expectations that I would be born in Florida. But her water broke, that's a phrase, I guess, that you would understand. The water broke, meaning that, of course, something happened in her internal structure that the baby was gonna come whether it was nine months or not. So it was that I was born in Florida unexpectedly.

They had to keep me there for some three months, because I was so underprepared for birth that it took three months for me to hit a point at which they could take me on a sailboat, which would take several days back to the Bahamas and their tomato field.

During the period when I was really, really close to not being here, everyone gave up on me. The midwife gave up on me. My father also gave up on me because they had had many children. I was the last of the lot. And my dad felt that having experienced births before in his family, he had no confidence in my surviving, because what had appeared to him was that this child was too fragile to survive. And my mother had a different point of view. My mother would not accept that. She did not accept it. As a matter of fact, the evening I was born, the very next morning, everyone present -- but meaning the local people who were friendly with my parents, and the people who were not, they saw the child. Me. And they said, "No chance." My mother had a different point of view.

Didn't your father actually find a little coffin for you?

Sidney Poitier: He did.

He left the house the following morning, and he went for a stroll. And that stroll ended up at the local undertaker's parlor, in a discussion centered around preparations for my burial. And he came back to the house with this little shoe box. It was, in fact, a shoe box. And he came into the house with it. And my mother, who was naturally prone in bed, she was so outraged that she got up and she dressed herself -- against everyone gathered there -- and she left the house. She went out into the world, I suppose, figuratively speaking.

Anyway, long story short, she went out, and she spent the whole day, I suppose, going to local churches. Wherever she could find help, she would go. But the day ended, and there was nothing. So she's on her way home.

She decided to stop in and visit a soothsayer. You know what they are. They are fortune tellers in a peculiar sort of way. And she stopped in and she said to this lady who was there, she said that "I just gave birth to a son." And she explained what the circumstances were and stuff like that. And she said, "I want you to tell me about my son." And they sat down, and this lady began. First she went into -- I hate to say it, but this was the way I get the story, she went into a kind -- she closed her eyes. The soothsayer closed her eyes, and she began to talk in a strange language. No language at all, I guess. It was gibberish to anyone listening, but my mother was hearing her. And then suddenly the soothsayer's eyes flew open, and she looked at my mother and she said, "Don't worry about your son. He will survive, and he will not be a sickly child. You must not worry about that child." My mother came back to the house. It cost her 50 cents. In those days that was a lot of bucks. She went back to the house, and she told my dad to remove the shoe box from the house. "There'll be no need for it," she said.

Didn't the soothsayer also predict that you would walk with kings?

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier: Yes, she did. She told my mother that I would travel to all the corners of the earth, I will walk with kings, I will be rich and famous. I don't know about that, but she said so. Everything that she said to my mom, it's amazing, everything came true. I have not to this day figured it out. I'm 82-years-old, come this Friday, but I could really never figure it out. I have a sense of practicality. I believe in logic and reason, two tools that I can apply, and somehow figure it out using those two elements. It's not that I am stubborn. I am in some areas of my life, but it wasn't that I was stubborn. I just felt there was something about that circumstance, that if I look at it logically and then put into it all kinds of other elements like my mother's faith, for instance, that I could at least accept it as a part of the unfolding of this life of mine. So I've spent my life trying to understand it -- not in terms of its component elements, but the whole occurrence -- in terms of those forces in nature that have influences on our lives. Many people perceive it as strange, unusual, miraculous, all kinds of ways. I still don't have a fix on it, but I do believe that there are forces in nature that we don't understand, and probably never will, that have an influence on our lives that defies understanding.

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