All achievers

Sidney Poitier

Oscar for Lifetime Achievement

In my first experience in front of a camera, my first experiences on stage, was a totally dimensional awareness of life...All of what I feel about life, I had to find a way in my work to be faithful to it, respectful of it. I can't play a scene that I don’t find texture of humanity in the material.

Sidney Poitier was born prematurely in Miami, Florida. His parents had crossed the Florida straits in a sailboat to sell the tomatoes they raised on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Although he barely survived the first months of life, the infant Sidney returned with his parents to their farm, on a tiny island without electricity, running water, paved roads, automobiles or other modern conveniences. He spent his first ten years living close to nature, fishing and working alongside his brothers and sisters on the family farm. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, but only sporadically, and learned little. At the time, the Bahamas, an archipelago of more than 700 islands and thousands of cays, was a colony of Great Britain. When Poitier was almost 11, his parents moved to Nassau, the colonial capital. In Nassau, he had his first taste of industrial civilization, and saw his first movies. The Poitiers were poor, and young Sidney left school at age 12 to help support his family. Tall for his age, he found work as a laborer, but without education, his prospects in life seemed hopelessly limited.

Sidney Poitier arrived in New York City in the 1940s, friendless and penniless. By the end of the decade, he was starring in his first film.
Poitier arrived in New York in the 1940s, friendless and penniless. Within a decade, he was starring in his first film.

When Sidney’s best friend was sent to reform school, his father feared that Sidney too would fall into delinquency if he remained in Nassau. The elder Poitier urged his son to try his luck in the United States. An older brother had already settled in Miami, and at age 15, Sidney joined him there. His birth in Miami entitled him to U.S. citizenship, but for a young black man in the Florida of the 1940s, the rights of citizenship existed only on paper. Even a slight infraction of the traditional code of white supremacy could lead to violence. Having grown up in a virtually all-black society in the Bahamas, Poitier had never learned the deference that white Southerners expected. Although he quickly found work in Florida, he could not as easily adjust to the indignities of segregation. After a summer spent washing dishes at a mountain resort in Georgia, Poitier left the South, and set off for New York City.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones.
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in the 1958 film The Defiant Ones. The motion picture tells the dramatic story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and must cooperate in order to survive.

Robbed along the way, he arrived in Harlem, barely 16 years old, with only a few dollars in his pocket. Knowing no one, he slept in bus stations and on rooftops until he had earned enough money to afford a rented room. Unprepared for the rigors of a New York winter, and unable to afford warm clothing, he lied about his age and joined the army to escape the cold. As out of place in the army as he had been in Miami, he feigned insanity to win a medical discharge. Returning to New York, he appeared trapped in a dead-end existence. On an impulse, he tried to audition for Harlem’s American Negro Theater, the foremost African American theatrical organization of its day, but the theater’s director ridiculed his Caribbean accent and poor reading skills. The young Poitier took the rejection as a challenge, and resolved to become an actor, if only to prove the man wrong. For the next six months, he worked doggedly to improve his reading. Convinced that the written word held the key to a better life, he pored over newspapers between shifts as a dishwasher, struggling to learn and understand. In his rented room, he listened to the radio for hours on end, repeating every word to modify his accent.

Sidney Poitier in an exuberant moment from the 1961 film of <i>A Raisin in the Sun</i>, with actresses Diana Sand and Ruby Dee. All three had appeared in the original Broadway production. (PhotoFest)
Sidney Poitier in an exuberant moment from the 1961 dramatic motion picture, of A Raisin in the Sun, with actresses Diana Sand and Ruby Dee. All three had appeared in the original Broadway production. (PhotoFest)

Returning to the American Negro Theater, he offered to serve as an unpaid janitor in exchange for taking classes at the theater’s school. His teachers had little faith in him, but when the star of their student production, the young Harry Belafonte, was unable to appear, Poitier was allowed to substitute for him. His performance was seen by a Broadway director who offered him a small role in an all-black production of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. The personality that had failed to impress his teachers in the classroom setting proved incandescent onstage. Although he flubbed his lines on opening night, critics and audiences were charmed. Lysistrata closed quickly, but another producer offered Poitier a job with the touring company of Anna Lucasta. One of the few successful dramas of the 1940s to feature black actors, the play toured for years and brought Poitier into a small, close-knit world of African American professional actors.

Actress Anne Bancroft presented Sidney Poitier with the Best Actor Award at the 1964 ceremony for his starring performance in Lilies of the Field. The film tells the story of an African-American itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns who believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel. Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first time an African-American male won a competitive Oscar.

Poitier made his feature film debut in 1950 in No Way Out. Although fourth-billed, Poitier appeared in the leading role, as a young doctor called upon to treat a bigoted patient in a town inflamed with racial hatred. For decades, American films had consigned black actors to the roles of servants or entertainers, often portrayed in the most demeaning light. Poitier’s powerful and dignified performance was a revelation to American audiences, and created a sensation in the African American community. The film’s depiction of interracial violence frightened many theater owners. It was briefly banned in Chicago and was never shown at all in most Southern cities. Word of Poitier’s success quickly spread to the Bahamas. British colonial authorities banned the film, fearing its portrayal of racial violence would incite disorder, but the censorship backfired. Black Bahamians organized to protest the ban, and when the authorities relented, a movement for independence from Britain intensified.

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington. (United States Information Agency, Press and Publications Service)
Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington. (USIA Press)

Poitier followed his appearance in No Way Out with Cry the Beloved Country, the screen adaptation of an acclaimed novel set in South Africa. Filming in South Africa was a frightening experience for the young actor. Experiencing firsthand the injustices of apartheid was the beginning of a greater political awakening. Although Poitier was well received in his first roles, dramatic parts for black actors were still scarce. He struggled for a number of years, alternating work in theater and films with poorly paid day jobs. Even when he needed the money, Poitier turned down roles that robbed black characters of their dignity by portraying them as powerless victims.

Dissatisfied with his work in movies, and barely making a living from his acting, Poitier joined an acting workshop led by the young director Lloyd Richards. Poitier sought not only to improve his acting skills, but to find kindred spirits in an integrated community of socially aware young artists. In 1955, the 27-year-old actor was improbably cast as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle. With its rock-and-roll soundtrack and violent portrayal of an inner-city school, the film was an international sensation and brought Sidney Poitier to the attention of a vast audience for the first time.

Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman in <i>A Patch of Blue</i>, a 1965 American drama film.
Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue, a 1965 American drama film. The motion picture is about the relationship between a black woman and a blind white female teenager, and the problems that plague their relationship when they fall inlove in a racially divided America. Against the backdrop of the growing Civil Rights Movement, the film explores racism from the perspective of “love is blind.” Scenes of Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman kissing were excised from the film when it was shown in movie theaters in the Southern United States.

In the first half of the 1950s, America was preoccupied with the Cold War, and most Hollywood producers, fearful of accusations of disloyalty, sought to avoid controversy. A major exception to the prevailing conformity of 1950s Hollywood was the producer and director Stanley Kramer, who deliberately courted controversy with his politically charged stories. In the 1958 film The Defiant Ones, he cast Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts, literally chained together. Although the two despise each other, they must cooperate to achieve their freedom. A graphic metaphor for American race relations, the film was a critical and box office success, and Poitier received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Poitier was now a certified movie star, a proven box office draw. The following year, he headed an all-star cast in a lavish film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess. Although he had reservations about the story, Poitier gave a passionate but measured performance in a role that could easily have been maudlin or bathetic. Opportunities for black actors were slowly improving at the end of the ’50s, but Sidney Poitier was the most visible African American star of the era, the first black leading man to gain acceptance in American movies.

Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie and Sidney Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs in the greenhouse scene from In the Heat of the Night. The film received an Oscar as Best Picture of the Year. (Credit: Mirisch/UA/Photofest)
Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie, and Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, in the greenhouse scene from In the Heat of the Night. The motion picture received an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. (Credit: Mirisch/UA/Photofest)

Back in New York, a rare artistic opportunity appeared. Poitier had received a copy of an un-produced play by an unknown playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and was determined to perform it on Broadway. Recruiting his old friend Lloyd Richards to direct, Poitier’s proven appeal helped draw investors for the unlikely prospect of a play about the everyday struggles of a working-class African American family. A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959. The play, and Poitier’s performance in the lead role, won an enthusiastic reception from the New York critics. Poitier stayed with the show for the first six months of its run, which lasted over a year. Raisin in the Sun has become an enduring classic of American drama. Poitier and other members of the original cast recreated their performances in an acclaimed 1961 screen adaptation.

In 2001, Sidney Poitier received a Special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in motion pictures. (PhotoFest)
In 2001, Sidney Poitier received a Special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in motion pictures. (PhotoFest)

As the civil rights struggle intensified, Poitier felt called to balance his need for artistic fulfillment with his sense of responsibility as the most prominent African American in the film industry. While leveraging his fame and resources to promote social justice movements — not only in the United States, but in South Africa and his native Bahamas — he chose his film roles carefully. In the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, he played an itinerant handyman who is persuaded to build a chapel for an impoverished order of refugee nuns from East Germany. The film was an enormous popular success and brought Poitier an Oscar as Best Actor. Although actress Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar for a supporting role in Gone With the Wind, and the actor James Baskett had received a special award for his role in Song of the South, these were performances that fell well within traditional stereotypes. Poitier received his award for the leading role of a self-sufficient, independent black man, neither a servant nor a victim.

Poitier’s films of the 1960s systematically eradicated a host of taboos regarding the portrayal of African Americans on film. In A Patch of Blue, his character becomes romantically involved with a blind white girl. Although an eight-second kiss was deleted when the film was shown in the South, A Patch of Blue was a success all over the country. In Atlanta, Georgia, it broke a box office record previously held by Gone With the Wind.

George Lucas, Mellody Hobson, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sidney Poitier, and President Barack Obama. at the Ford’s Theatre Reopening Celebration, Feb 11, 2009.
A gala celebration of the re-opening of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. From left to right: George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sidney Poitier and President Barack Obama, February 11, 2009. George Lucas and Sidney Poitier each received Ford’s Theatre’s Abraham Lincoln Medal at the gala ceremonies.

The year 1967 saw the release of three of Poitier’s most celebrated films. In To Sir With Love, he played a teacher assigned to a predominantly white inner-city school in London. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, directed by Poitier’s old friend Stanley Kramer, Poitier’s character is a doctor, meeting his white fiancée’s parents for the first time. In the enormously successful thriller In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective drawn into a murder case in the Deep South, where he must find the killer while overcoming the prejudices of the townspeople and sheriff. When the script called for a white character to slap Tibbs in the face, Poitier insisted that Tibbs slap the man back, an electrifying scene in a country emerging from centuries of legally sanctioned racial discrimination. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture. When box office receipts were tallied at the end of 1968, Poitier’s films were the three most successful releases of the year.

August 12, 2009: President Barack Obama awards American actor Sidney Poitier the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Poitier was the first African American to win a Best Actor Academy Award, receive an award at a top international film festival (Venice Film Festival), and be the top-grossing movie star in the United States. (© Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Corbis)
August 12, 2009: President Barack Obama awards American actor Sidney Poitier the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Poitier was the first African-American to win a Best Actor Academy Award, receive an award at a top international film festival (Venice Film Festival), and be the top-grossing movie star in the United States. (©Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Corbis)

Poitier’s enormous fame was a double-edged sword. His unprecedented success and popularity were a source of pride to many Americans, black and white, but they also made him a target for critics — including some in the African American community — who felt that the characters he portrayed were too admirable, and therefore not human enough. Understandably frustrated by this kind of criticism, Poitier gradually reduced his acting commitments at the height of his fame.

He returned for a time to the Bahamas, where he was a prominent supporter of the independence movement. The Bahamas became an independent nation in 1973. It remains a member of the British Commonwealth, like Canada or Australia, and continues to recognize the British monarch as Head of State. In 1974, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on Sidney Poitier. Although he does not use the title in the United States, he is known in the British Commonwealth as Sir Sidney Poitier.

November 2014: Sidney Poitier is inducted into the Academy of Achievement and receives the Academy’s Gold Medal presented by Awards Council member Oprah Winfrey during a ceremony held in Beverly Hills, California.

In the 1970s, Poitier devoted more of his time to directing, although he often starred in the films he directed. His first film as a director was the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), co-starring his old friend Harry Belafonte. While Poitier’s career as an actor was long on serious drama, his output as a director has shown a marked preference for comedy. Belafonte and Bill Cosby joined Poitier in his 1974 film Uptown Saturday Night. It was the first of a trilogy of popular comedies, including Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, pairing Poitier and Cosby, all directed by Poitier.

2014: Friends Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte at the American Academy of Achievement dinner honoring Sidney Poitier.
2014: Sidney Poitier with his longtime friend, actor, singer, and activist Harry Belafonte at the American Academy of Achievement dinner honoring Poitier. Their friendship began when they met in the 1940s while working for the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. Poitier was a janitor and drama student. Belafonte was a stagehand. They were active in the civil rights movement and key behind-the-scenes players in the 1963 March on Washington.

In 1980, Sidney Poitier published an autobiography, This Life. He continued to direct feature films throughout the following decade, helming such popular comedies as Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky, Fast Forward and Ghost Dad. In the 1990s, he appeared in a number of acclaimed television films, playing historical figures including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and South African President Nelson Mandela.

November 2014: Academy members Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Frances Arnold and Sidney Poitier with Academy Vice Chairman Catherine B. Reynolds celebrate Poitier’s induction into the Academy. Sidney Poitier was inducted into the Academy of Achievement by Oprah Winfrey in a ceremony held in Beverly Hills. (© Academy of Achievement)

Poitier, who has maintained dual citizenship in the Bahamas and the United States, was asked to serve as the Bahamas’ Ambassador to Japan in 1997. Since that time he has also served as the nation’s Ambassador to the United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO. In recent years, he has devoted much of his time to writing. In 2000, he published a second book of memoirs, the bestselling The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. The following year, he received a second Oscar, a Special Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has since published another book of reflections, Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great Granddaughter (2008). In 2009, a few days before his interview with the Academy of Achievement, he was presented with the Lincoln Medal for “accomplishments exemplifying the character and lasting legacy” of President Lincoln. The medal was awarded at the gala re-opening of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, attended by President Barack Obama. Later that year, President Obama selected Sidney Poitier to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sidney Poitier was inducted into the American Academy of Achievement in a dinner ceremony held in Beverly Hills, California on November 6, 2014. The Gold Medal of the Academy was presented to Sidney Poitier by Awards Council member Oprah Winfrey (Academy Class of 1989). Oprah’s remarks on that special occasion, and Sidney Poitier’s address to the Academy members, can both be viewed above.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2014

In the 1950s and ’60s, Sidney Poitier won international fame as a film actor and transformed the image of African Americans in the cinema. Although others had enjoyed success in character roles or as musical performers, Poitier won fame as a dramatic actor and romantic leading man, embodying an entire people’s struggle for social equality.

Sidney Poitier rose to a position of international eminence from a childhood of poverty in the Bahamas, where he spent the first years of his life on a tiny island, without electricity or running water. He arrived in New York City as a teenager, nearly illiterate, but determined to make his mark on the world.

In 1964, he won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field; he was the first African American to be so honored for a performance in a leading role. His roles in To Sir With LoveGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night made him the top-grossing star of the era. He has followed his successes as an actor with impressive accomplishments as a film director, author and diplomat.

His rise from poverty and obscurity to the heights of success and acclaim is a great success story in itself, but his application of his renown to the cause of human rights and social justice has made him one of the most universally admired men of our times.

Watch full interview

You began your acting career with the American Negro Theater in Harlem in the 1940s. How did that come about? Is it true that you answered an ad in the paper?

Sidney Poitier: I saw an ad, yeah.

I was not looking to be an actor.  I was not looking for opportunities.  I had absolutely no interest at all in being an actor.  I was a dishwasher.  I was, at that point, content to be a dishwasher because I felt and understood and embraced the fact that I did not have the wherewithal to do much else.

I wanted to do more.  Not only did I want to do more, I was preparing myself to do more.

Keys to success — Preparation

One of the preparations I decided was essential to my survival was I had to learn to read.  I really had to learn to read.  I could read third grade level, fourth grade level. As I told you, I left school at the age of 12-and-a-half.  I then decided that I have to learn to read well and I went about that process.  That I knew was my goal.  The reason was, I realized that in New York there were many streets.  Some were numbered, but not all.  Some were named.  And three syllables, I had great problems with pronouncing three syllables.  And every word that had three, four syllables in it, it staggered me.  I mean it just defeated me.  So I decided that I had to learn to read better because all of the information necessary for my survival came to me, would come to me in words.

I knew if I didn’t understand the words, I wouldn’t know the message.  And if I don’t know the message, no one will have time for me.  So that’s what I did.  I tried to learn to read.

The acting came totally as an accident.  I was looking for a dishwashing job, and I could find a dishwashing job in a paper. There’s an African American paper called the Amsterdam News.  And I would go to the want ad pages there, and it would list porters wanted, dishwashers wanted, maids wanted, whatever.  And on this particular day when I needed a job and I looked into this paper, there was nothing there concerning any dishwashing. So what I did was I was about to fold it up and put it into the street bin, you know the trash bin on the streets?  And something caught my eye.  And what caught my eye was a phrase.  It said, “Actors Wanted.”  Well, on the want ad page it said dishwasher wanted and this wanted and dah-dah, porters wanted. And I figured well, I can even manage some of those jobs.  But what is this actors job?  That doesn’t sound like it’s too bad.  And, they’re inviting me because they say actors wanted.

There was an address there in the article.  It was just ten blocks away. I knocked on the door, and a guy came to the door, opened it.  It was the basement of a library, and this was the headquarters of the American Negro Theater.

A guy opened the door.  He’s a massive, massive guy.  I mean huge guy. Big.  And he said, “Yes?”  I said, “I came to see about actors wanted.”  He said, “You’re an actor?”  I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “Come on in.” I went in, and he said, “Where have you acted before?”  I said, “Florida.”  And he said, “Yeah?” he said, “You acted in Florida?”  I said, “Yeah.”  Anyway, he said, “Okay, here is this script.  Turn to page 28.  Read this scene.  It’s a page and a half.  Go over it a couple of times and then let me know when you’re ready and we’ll read it together. I’ll read the other part and you’ll read John.”  I said, “Okay.”  And I looked over it.  I could hardly make out what the scene was.  Anyway, he said, “You’re ready?”  I said, “Yeah.”  And I stepped up on a little stage, but so big.  It was maybe 12 feet, 15 feet wide and 9 feet deep or something, you know.

Sidney Poitier starred in three successful films in one year, all of which dealt with issues involving race relations: To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of 1967. In 2002, thirty-eight years after receiving the Best Actor Award, Sidney Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” The American Film Institute named him one of the greatest stars of classic Hollywood cinema. In 2011, he received a lifetime tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

And he said, “You ready?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Okay.  Remember, you’re on page 28.”  I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “Okay…” He said, “You start.”  I said, “Okay.”  I started the line, my line.  And now…

Now, I’m reading like I read when I was in school.  I am very slow. And I am very particular in trying to pronounce these three syllable words and four syllable words.  As a result I’m saying, “When-are-you-going-to-be…”  Well, he came up on the stage, and he snatched that book out of my hand.  And he spun me around.  He grabbed me here and here, and he’s marching me to the door. And he’s saying, “Get out of here and stop wasting people’s time.”  He said, “You can’t read, you can hardly talk,” because I had this accent, you know.  And he says, “Why don’t you just go out…” and he is marching me to the door.  He’s got my collar back here and my belt back here. And he’s really pissed.  He’s marching me to the door, and he said, “Just get out of here and stop wasting people’s time.”  He opened the door, pushed me out. Slammed the door.

Didn’t he tell you to go be a dishwasher?

Sidney Poitier: Yeah. He said, “Why don’t you go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher?” Now, I’m walking down the street to go get a bus down towards the end of Manhattan, where there were loads of employment agencies. I suspected I would be able to get a job because I’d gotten them before. Halfway in the block between Lennox Avenue and 7th Avenue — and 7th Avenue is where I’ll catch a bus or get the subway — I stop dead in the middle of the street between the two.

Keys to success — Perseverance

I said to myself, “How did he know that I was a dishwasher?”  He suspected.  I said, “I didn’t tell him that.  I didn’t say anything about dishwashing.” That was one thing I wouldn’t have told him.  And I realized then and there that what he said was his perception of my worth.  He perceived me to be of no value beyond something that I could do with my hands.  And while he was correct in his anger to characterize me that way, I was offended. I was offended deeply.  And I said to myself, “I have to rectify that.  I have to show him that he was wrong about me.”  I decided then and there that I was — this is a wild decision I made, of course, but I did decide then, at that moment, on that street, that I am going to be an actor just to show him that he was wrong about me. And then I would give up the acting, because what do I want to be an actor for?  I committed myself to that.  That goes to show you that I was a rather peculiar kid.  Luckily, I wasn’t around psychiatrists and all that kind of stuff, because they probably would have marked me as a guy who was a little off his rocker.

You came from the Bahamas. Do you think it was just your reading that he was judging or your Caribbean accent? What did he say?

Keys to success — Vision

He said, “You can’t talk, you can’t speak, you can’t read.”  No one ever said that to me before.  And I always dreaded that someone would say that to me because I really couldn’t read well and I really didn’t speak terrifically.  Certainly my accent was Caribbean. So his complaints were dead on.  But I had to now not push that aside.  I had to then look at it and say wait a minute, that’s the me that he sees.  Therefore, I have to assume the responsibility for either remaining that way or changing it and to change it for what purpose? I have to change it because I felt in myself that if I don’t change, I would be less the person that I perceived myself to be.

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

Keys to success — Perseverance

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.

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.

November 2014: Academy Vice Chairman Catherine B. Reynolds, Sidney Poitier, Joanna Poitier, and Academy Chairman Wayne R. Reynolds celebrate Sidney Poitier’s induction into the Academy at a ceremony in Beverly Hills.

So 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…

Keys to success — Perseverance

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.” 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 went back. I said, “I’ll come back in a couple of days.” I went back in a couple… three days, and I could tell that she didn’t really tell them. She said, “Oh yeah, yeah.” She said, “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. And I said, “Yes.” 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.