Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sidney Poitier: Actor, Author ... And More

I don't remember a world without Sidney Poitier.  Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, To Sir With Love,  A Patch of Blue.  I remember his movies vividly even though I watched them at a tender age before I should have understood what they were about.  And yet, the way S.P. played a character, I did understand what his films were about.  I especially remember his presence.  He brought a strength and grace to every role he played.

Mr. Poitier's memoir came out in 2000.  Like his acting, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography is expansive, timeless and worth revisiting.

The book shares memories of his Caribbean childhood, celebrated life and acting career.  He says his parents and boyhood in the Cat Islands gave him his self-worth and unwavering sense of right and wrong.

Poitier was born prematurely in Florida on a trip his parents took to sell tomatoes grown on their farm.  He wasn't expected to live.  His parents spent 3 months nursing him to health before returning home.  He grew up in poverty, but learned to enjoy simple pleasures in a world without material distractions.

At 15 he was sent to live with a brother in Miami.  He moved to New York at 17, working menial jobs and living in a toilet at a bus station.  He joined the Army and later worked as a dishwasher until an audition won him a spot with the American Negro Theater.  Poitier became an actor to earn a paycheck, but worked doggedly to overcome his dialect and develop his craft.

A stage role lead to an opportunity to play a black doctor treating a white bigot in a 1950 film, No Way Out, which lead to other roles, more prominent than what black actors usually were offered in those days.

He talks about his religious faith, thoughts on racism, the influence of world leaders like Gandhi and Mandela and how it was to break barriers along the way.  In 1963 Poitier became the first black actor to win an Academy Award as a leading man for Lilies of the Field. ("I stand up!")

He writes with clarity, passion and humility about being a husband, father and artist.  Throughout his book, he probes personal values and the importance of character. He had less than a 6th grade education, but became an avid reader, as well as, a student and citizen of the world.  In both his private and public life, Poitier strives to honor his upbringing and the legacy of his parents.

In the 70s he became a successful director and producer of films, including Stir Crazy and Uptown Saturday Night.

His talent, morals and likability made him one of the most respected actors of all time.  Today S.P. is 84 years old.  His autobiography is a great book to keep on your shelf for inspiration and life lessons.  In 2008 he published a new book: Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great Granddaughter.

Filmstrip I'm not exaggerating when I say, as a child, I knew Sidney Poitier personified dignity even before I knew what the word meant.  When you see it, you just sense it. 

You may also enjoy:
The Voice Premieres On NBC
What I Like About Mad Men
The Story Of English, A Review
Michael Jackson: An Artist At Work, A Review

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