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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: 8 / 8)

Oscar for Best Actor

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  Sidney Poitier

You are largely a self-taught person, and yet you're probably one of the most erudite, intellectual people in your field. Reading your books is a fascinating and rich experience. How did you come to be so learned without a lot of school?

Sidney Poitier: I don't know that I'm that learned.

I did learn early that everything I want to do in life requires that I accumulate understanding, knowledge, know-how. What is the quickest, most dimensional way to make that kind of accumulation? You have to read. You have to read. I've always felt that I didn't know so much, and yet everything pretty much that I didn't know is available somewhere. The first place I went to was to newspapers.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I had an experience with a Jewish waiter. I was a dishwasher, and he was a waiter in Queens, New York. I used to buy the local newspapers. Sometimes the Journal American, sometimes The New York Times, Daily News. At the end of the evening, when the waiters are done and the place is closed, just about closing, the waiters would sit at a table, and they would have tea, coffee, or a late snack which was permissible by the owner.

I would sit in the dining room next door to the kitchen. And I would sit there because everything else is done, all the dishes were done except those that the waiters are using for their snacks, you see. So I sit there. And I'm reading one of the papers. And there was a Jewish waiter sitting at the table, elderly man, and he saw me there. He got up, and he walked over, and he stood by the table that's next to the kitchen, and he said, "Hi." And I looked up, and I said, "Hi." He said, "What's new in the papers?" And I said to him, "I can't tell you what's new in the papers because I don't read very well. I didn't have very much of an education. So I can't tell you what's..." He said, "Ah," he said, "Well, would you like me to read with you?" And I accepted. I said, "Sure. I'd like that." Every night after that, he would come over and sit with me, and he would teach me about what a comma is and why it exists, what periods are, what colons are, what dashes are. He would teach me that there are syllables, and how to differentiate them in a single word, and consequently learn how to pronounce them. Every night.

What a great gift.

Sidney Poitier: Oh yeah. I went on to be a very successful actor, and one day I tried to find him, but it was too late. One of my great regrets in life is that I never had the opportunity to really thank him.

You describe in your autobiography a sense of coming alive that you felt, as an actor, fairly early on, that the art of acting kind of electrified you. Can you talk about that?

Sidney Poitier: There is something that takes place in me, but it didn't always. It wasn't there in the beginning. What was there at the beginning, in my first experience in front of a camera, my first experiences on stage, was a totally dimensional awareness of life.

I hit the age of 15 not being afraid. I was on my own in New York City at the age of 15. I was respectful to people. As my father explained to me, to elders you say "sir" if it is a man. To elders you say "ma'am" if it is a woman. You respect older people. I learned from him a certain way of behavior. But what I learned was not in terms of something I got out of a book. What I learned was an internal connectedness to life, in the family, in the small community where we lived, how people treated each other, particularly how my father treated his friends and my mother, you see. So I came at 15 to Miami, Florida with a sense of that humanity. That is why I am sitting in this chair now. All of what I feel about life, I had to find a way in my work to be faithful to it, to be respectful of it. I couldn't and still can't play a scene, I cannot play a scene that I don't find the texture of humanity in the material. I can't.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

You also connected with humanity very deeply, which is part of what made you a fine actor and director.

Sidney Poitier: I don't know how fine an actor or director I am or have been. But every person who goes into a theater -- and anyone who watches this video who is interested in theater or the creative arts -- anyone interested in theater arts, they enter a movie house, or they enter a theater with a stage, they sit there with other people, it's a darkened room. Their attention is on what's going on up there. They have five senses that are the tools they bring into the theater. They know, feel, touch. They know what they see objectively. They know what they hear. So their five senses are working, and they've been working pretty much since they were tots. So everything that happens on that stage, everything that happens on that screen, they can pass a judgment subconsciously as to whether we are hitting the marks or not.

There isn't a person that sits in a movie house, of any maturity, who hasn't been disappointed, who hasn't been exhilarated, who hasn't felt fear, who hasn't felt joy. Every one of the emotions that human beings experience, even the most terrifying ones, they have been akin to all of them at one time or another, either in their daily lives, their weekly lives, their monthly lives, their yearly lives. So that when they sit in that theater, that's all they bring in. That's the scoreboard they bring in. And they sit there and they watch actors playing at fear, embarrassment, at love, at hate, at all of the emotions in life. That's what they bring in. So when they sit there, and they're looking at actors doing that, they cotton to those actors that make that connection, makes that connection with them. And that's the actor's job, it's not their job. All they do is they bring this panel of human emotions with them. And these emotions are in neutral. They are absolutely in neutral as they sit there. And one by one, this really fine actress or actor begins to do things that somewhere in the consciousness of that audience, they're saying, "Ooh boy, yeah, I know about that. I've seen that. Wow." That's where the admiration comes from, because they can also tell when that actor or that actress is not reaching home.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Just a few nights ago, you received the Lincoln Medal at Ford's Theatre in Washington, with President Obama attending. What was that like for you?

Sidney Poitier Interview Photo
Sidney Poitier: I was overjoyed, for obvious reasons. It was an evening that I never thought would come in my lifetime. I'm glad it did, because I could use that as a peg around which I can articulate my appreciation of my country -- that he became the man that he is as a result of his experiences in this culture. He was an unknown young student with a point of view, with an integrity, with a vision, with an understanding far deeper and far wider than his objective imagery would imply. Objective: meaning his color. He is a young man who perceives himself to be African American. However articulate he might be, he is not only articulate. However visionary he might be, he's not only articulate and visionary. You can go down the line, and he kept expressing that, showing that to us. Not intentionally, but we just couldn't help but see it. We saw it. And if you take him back to a time when he was not quite as revered as he is now, and you looked at him then and say that this guy could be president in five years, you wouldn't get one bet on that. But he has shown us that our survival is totally dependent on us perceiving ourselves as a single family.

We are 6,500,000,000 in our family. We have one home. It's a planet. It's a planet that has not grown one single inch since its creation. What is there is what we have. And that is our home. It will be our home until we either self-destruct or until nature decides that it wants -- or she wishes -- to alter it. Until then, it is entirely up to us to effectuate our survival in humane ways. We have to find a way to articulate the carrying capacity of our home. We don't have a clue as to how many of us can be accommodated on this piece of earth. We really don't. There aren't but so much resources to sustain us if we are 6,500,000,000 now. Before you know it, we're going to be 13 billion. What we need is men and women who can think on our behalf in the period of their existence.

He is an example. He has tried to surround himself with people who are like-minded and who will tend to and nurture the place we call home, who will attend to and nurture different cultures. We will protect different faiths, provided of course, there is a mutual understanding that the principle is always going to be us as a family.

He's also a student of Lincoln. And Lincoln is important to you, too.

Sidney Poitier: Lincoln is important to me. Let me just say this about Lincoln.

Sidney Poitier: It is not very good that we have really not made a stronger, sustained effort to speak to our children -- the black ones, the white ones, the brown ones -- about this man. This man. It is because of this man, Lincoln, that we have a President Obama. Because the values of Abraham Lincoln were ignited in President Obama. And President Obama ignited some of Lincoln's values in his fellow Americans. And if you were to take a listing of the American population two years, four years, five years ago, the possibility of him being what he is today wouldn't have crossed very many minds. Would not. As a result, here is a guy who says, "I am this..." and "I am imperfect, but yes -- and I screwed up here and I did this there, and I'll tell you about it. And if you can tell me where I can improve, I will listen to you. My responsibility is to represent you." Well, I find him absolutely glorious, this guy.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

It sounds like you see tremendous integrity in him.

Sidney Poitier: Tremendous. Tremendous integrity. Great, great humanity. I wish him well. I don't know the extent to which it will happen, but I think the world will be the better for him having come this way.

We can say the same of you. Thank you for talking with us today.

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