In the 1940s, as a member of Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, Sidney Poitier emerged as one of the most talented—not to mention handsome—actors of his era. In Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, he paved the way for more three-dimensional roles for blacks. By the time he became the first African-American to win a Best Actor Academy Award (in 1964 for Lilies of the Field), he had become one of the most respected performers of his generation.
Yet Poitier, now 73, never took success for granted. Born in Miami but raised on Cat Island in the Bahamas, he knew poverty as a boy. Though his father, Reginald, a tomato farmer, and his mother, Evelyn, had little money, their seven children knew that parental expectations ran high. “I didn’t know where I was going next,” Poitier writes in his new memoir, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. “But I knew that failure wasn’t an option.”
Neither was social passivity. During the civil rights era, Poitier marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the segregated Deep South. Poitier’s fame would peak in the months before King’s death with 1967’s To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. A respected humanitarian, Poitier currently serves as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan; he travels there three times a year.
There have been painful times, foremost among them his 1965 divorce from his wife of 15 years, Juanita Hardy, a former model and dancer and mother of their four daughters—Beverly, 47, Pamela, 45, Sherri, 43, and Gina, 38. At the time of the split, Poitier’s feelings about the breakup, the result of his having fallen in love with another woman, actress Diahann Carroll, with whom he had a nine-year affair, became almost unbearable. “The guilt of that was something that 11 years of psychotherapy couldn’t ‘cure,’ ” he writes.
Today Poitier lives comfortably in Beverly Hills with his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, 56, whom he wed in 1976 and with whom he fathered two more daughters, Anika, 28, and Sydney, 26. On March 12 he received a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. But he will never forget the lessons of his years as a struggling young actor, as he makes clear in this exclusive excerpt.
When I was comfortable on Cat Island, I was pulled out and placed in Nassau. When I had gotten some comfort in Nassau, which took some adjusting to, I was pulled out and placed in a hostile environment called Florida. Again and again I found myself having to leave behind the comfort gained and move on. After a time it became a ritual.
For a while it was New York, and then it was California. It was the various plays and movies and venues of the acting profession. It was the social friends that I would meet and develop at all the levels of my life. Most of these friends were eventually left behind.
The moving-on lifestyle I had adopted (though not initially by choice) placed all my friendships in perpetual jeopardy. I became a loner, a separate traveler. I always saw things differently than other people. I heard things differently. I viewed the future differently.
A survival tactic that worked well for me was one I had gotten from my mother: “Charm them, son,” she said, “into neutral.” Being charming bought me time by allowing me to at least temporarily deflect the jabs of a threatening society.
Society had created laws to keep me at a distance, or out of sight altogether. Learning to survive in that often-hostile world was trial-and-error, step-by-step. After I got out of the Army and started at the American Negro Theatre, I was more of an observer than most. I was from a black culture in the Caribbean, but it was wonderful being a part of the black culture of New York. Life had another rhythm there. Boundaries were emotional and physical, but they didn’t confine the spirit.
I was, however, also involved in white society. That’s where I went to work. That’s where the movie houses were, for the most part. That’s where 42nd Street was. I was always going into that world. You just walked around and—well, you got addicted to the electricity.
There was a multitude of things taken for granted by the city’s longtime residents that had to be learned, practiced, rehearsed. Like depositing a nickel and dialing a public pay-phone—though at the time I learned that, I didn’t know one solitary person in the whole city, much less anyone who had a telephone. Learning street names and signs. Learning subway and bus routes. Learning where I was welcome and where I was not. Learning to listen harder, look deeper and further beyond that which first meets the eye.
By the time I had reached my early 20s, I had fought many battles, lost many wars and lived many lives (unprepared for each of them). Life offered no auditions for the many roles I had to play. And nowhere along the roads I traveled can I recall ever hearing the word “outsider.” applied to me. I had for years considered myself an old hand at the game of staying alive. But with failure walking in my shadow every minute, waiting for the misstep that could derail my whole existence, “survivor” seemed to me a more appropriate label under which my life should be filed.
Over time, however, I began to notice the frequency with which “outsider” was applied to others. The term began to resonate with me, causing me to wonder who I was really, at the center of myself. Eventually, I came to see myself in the outsider, and the outsider in me. I knew that outsider and survivor often work as partners, but they’re not twins.
For me as a young man, the most relevant question was, How might such an outsider expect his life to unfold? What were the penalties? Hollywood let me know my place from the beginning. Back at Columbia in the early days I was doing a picture called All the Young Men. Cast and crew combined were close to 100 people, and I was the only black person on the set. I qualified hands down as the quintessential outsider. Accordingly, I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made.
One guy in particular, an electrical grip, took great delight in asking the cinematographer if he wanted to use a tiny spotlight to highlight my eyes. Whenever the cinematographer said yes, the grip would shout across the soundstage for one to be fetched by his subordinates. The N-word was a nickname for that particular spotlight, and this guy used it with relish.
In the early ’50s I made the rounds of every casting office in New York City, and I would walk through and stick my head in and say hello, and the secretaries and the receptionists and even the agents themselves got to know me.
It was in 1954 that a guy from the New York office of MGM called and said, “We’re doing a film, and we’re looking for some young actors.”
I said, “How young?”
“Well, you know, it’s gonna be high school.”
I said, “Oh, yes, I know some guys.”
I automatically eliminated myself because I was about 27 years old at the time. But they called me back and asked if I would stop in for a test. Well, we did the test, and they sent it to California, and Richard Brooks, the director, was interested. Then they looked at my other pictures, whatever else I had done, and lo and behold, they offered me the part.
Now, in New York City, as a black actor in the theater, there weren’t but so many things coming my way. As a matter of fact, Broadway had almost nothing for a black man. Naturally, there were those of us for whom that didn’t sit right in terms of fairness. I mean, in those days, there would be 40-odd plays on Broadway, but none having to do with our culture, our community, our lives. We used to petition the Actors’ Equity Association, and we would try to raise the question of more employment opportunities for us, but those of us who petitioned wound up being blacklisted. I was one of the young black actors who became persona non grata, charged with being a troublemaker.
I went out to California to do the movie The Blackboard Jungle. I went to the wardrobe fitting, I did all the necessary preliminaries and I met with the cast. We did the first reading and were scheduled to start work in four or five days.
Then I got a call from the front office, from one of the studio lawyers. He said, “Could you come up? I’d like to talk to you for a second.”
I said, “Sure.”
I went up to the front office to meet this man, a man I didn’t know from Adam, and he said to me, “You know, we’ve been told that you know some people who are questionable characters.”
“What people are you talking about?” I asked, though I knew instantly what he meant.
Then he came clean and said, “[Blacklisted actor-activists] Paul Robeson and Canada Lee.”
These, of course, were some of the most stand-up people in those days for things racial, and I was proud to be associated with them.
I said, “So what is it that you want from me?”
He said, “Well, we need you to sign a loyalty oath.”
And I said, “What am I supposed to do by signing the oath? I must swear what?” It drove me wild that these men could see red but couldn’t see black. That was galling enough. But what also appalled me was that I was being accused of being sympathetic toward, respectful of, even admiring of Paul Robeson and Canada Lee—men I did respect tremendously! How could I not admire men of such courage and integrity? Robeson had come to my house and played with my children, which filled me with pride. I got to know him well enough that he became concerned about me, urging me to be careful in my association with him.
Well, this studio lawyer—it seemed to me he didn’t fully believe in what he was doing. I think he was ashamed of himself, because I sensed that he was trying to disassociate himself a little bit from what he was asking of me.
I held my ground and said, “Well, I’ll have to think about it.”
He said, “Okay. You think about it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I left the office knowing full well that I would be heading back to New York within the week, because nothing in the world was more offensive to me than what he was asking. Here I am in a culture that denies me my personhood. I’m taking the Jim Crow car in all trains below the Mason-Dixon line. I live in a city in which I’ve been rebuffed at the doors of many restaurants. I’m living with the constant reminder that the law of this land once declared me to be three-fifths of a human being, and that only 100 years earlier the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had declared people of my race to be “so inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Everywhere I look, everywhere I turn, every attempt I make to articulate myself as otherwise is met with resistance, and here this guy is saying to me, “We want you to swear your loyalty.”
To what I wanted to know.
Okay, I went back to rehearsal and Richard Brooks asked me what had happened.
I said, “Nothing.” I said, “The guy’s gonna call me tomorrow.”
Brooks didn’t say anything more, and the next day I went in to work, and there’d been no phone call. The third day I went to work, rehearsing, getting ready, and still there was no phone call.
The day the shooting started, I said to Richard, “You know, I haven’t heard from that guy, but I gotta tell you what he wants from me. And I gotta tell you there’s no way. He wants my soul.” And I was struggling to explain how this was a question of my integrity. I said, “I have to let him know there’s no deal makeable here. This is not something that’s for sale.” And Richard Brooks looked me in the eye, and he said, “You know what? F—- him.” And we started shooting the picture. I never heard from that guy again.
Blacklist or no, I was determined that I was going to be an actor, because I felt a deep connection between myself and the craft. And blacklist or no, I swore I’d find jobs, or I’d work in a little theater, I’d work in off-Broadway theater, I’d work in Harlem, I’d work as a porter or janitor or wherever I could find jobs. To support my family, I would go out and work as a carpenter’s helper if need be, which I did.
I was fine working in the little restaurant [I had opened with a friend] and washing my dishes and putting on the barbecue and selling it for 80 cents a meal. I would far rather wash dishes and work over a grill any day than sign a loyalty oath I considered repugnant.
The curious thing about being an outsider is that you never know where your guardian angels are lurking. Had that studio guy called back, I would have said, “Hey, I can’t oblige you. What you want me to do is sign away my loyalty. You’re f—— with my dignity.” Had he called back and I’d said that to him, I wouldn’t have gotten work at MGM, you follow?
These were the days of the big studio contracts. In The Blackboard Jungle, the kid who played the bad guy, Vic Morrow, was offered a contract at MGM. All the other guys were talking about who else was being considered for a contract. But it never entered my mind that there was a chance of that for me. The great good fortune in that situation is that I never was considered, because had I been considered, the temptation would have been to accept. That’s guaranteed salary, you know? I probably would have wound up on suspension more often than not, because I probably wouldn’t have done the stuff they offered me. But by remaining an outsider on the free market, I was able to pick and choose my projects, which led to work I can still stand behind, work informed by my life experience, work aligned with my values.
In 1955 I was sent to Atlanta to do publicity for The Blackboard Jungle. I went down primarily to do black newspapers and black radio. When I was done, I was at the airport, ready to leave, but I was hungry and decided to have a bite. So I went to a very nice restaurant, where all the-waiters were black; the maître d’ himself, dressed in a tuxedo, was black. He recognized me, I suppose, from some movie.
I appeared at the entrance to this restaurant, and he said, “May I help you?”
I said, “Yes, I’d like a table.”
I saw his eyes widen a bit. “Are you alone?” he asked.
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Mr. Poitier, I’m sorry. I could give you a table, but we’re going to have to put a screen around you.” And I said to him, “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s the practice here; it’s the law.”
I looked into his eyes and I could see that he was pained by having to do this. I could tell it; I could smell it. For him, another black man, to be saying, “We do have this table, but we’ll have to put a screen around you”—it must have hurt.
So I said, “Well, no thank you,” and I walked away feeling for the man. Not feeling for myself, because I was getting out of there. But I was also somewhat impervious, because that wasn’t me. The me they saw and wanted to put a screen around didn’t exist to me.
But did I feel some outrage? Of course. Did I feel angry? Yes, but I took it in stride—because this moment of absurdity was, in fact, so totally unremarkable. To African-Americans in 1955 this kind of insult was old hat. So I digested it, and I went on with my life to fight other battles, as I had to. But I never accommodated it.