- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000


Two men were responsible for Sidney Poitier becoming an actor. One because of cruelty, the other because of kindness.

Mr. Poitier, the star of such classics of "In the Heat of the Night," "The Defiant Ones," "The Jackal" and "Sneakers" remembers the first time he thought about acting. He was a young child, separated from his family and toiling as a dishwasher in New York.

One day he was scanning the want ads for a dishwasher's job when he saw an ad that read "Actors wanted."

"So I said, 'My, that's interesting. Maybe I could go there and try out for one of those jobs.' "

He searched out the address and knocked on the door. "There was a man, a single person there. I said, 'I came to see about a job as an actor.' He said, 'Are you an actor?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Where have you acted?' I said, 'Florida,' which was untrue."

The man gave Mr. Poitier a script and told him to glance through it and then they would read the roles together.

Mr. Poitier, who had left school after only two years, didn't read well. His audition was a disaster.

"This man came up on the stage and snatched the script out of my hand and said, 'Why don't you stop wasting people's time.' He spun me around and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck mind you, I'm a 16-year-old and he marches me to the front door. And he says, 'Why don't you go out and get a job you can handle.'

"As he slammed the door behind me he said, 'Go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher.'

"Now dishwashing was precisely what I'd been doing, and as I walked down the street humiliated, I'm thinking: 'How can he perceive my worth to be no more than that of a dishwasher? Because he is suggesting that's what he saw in me.'

"I decided then and there at that moment that I would be an actor. Not because I had any interest in being an actor. Because I had to come back and show him. I had to show him before I could go on. In other words, I had to transcend his suggested prophecy."

Not only did Mr. Poitier see the man again, but years later the man played a few roles in Mr. Poitier's movies.

The other person who changed his life was a Jewish waiter at one of the restaurants where Mr. Poitier washed dishes. The old man noticed Mr. Poitier reading the newspaper every night. Mr. Poitier explained that he wanted to improve his reading ability.

"He said, 'If you come across any words you don't understand or if you want to pronounce them, you can ask me to point them out to you.' Every night after we finished work he as a waiter, I as a dishwasher we'd sit in the back of the restaurant and every word I didn't understand or know how to pronounce, he would explain the meaning of the word, its pronunciation and he would frame the word in a sentence so that I could understand. We did that night after night after night."

Years later, Mr. Poitier was honored by the American Film Institute. "In my thank-you remarks I said that one of my regrets is that I never knew the name of that waiter because I would certainly want him to know or if he's no longer with us, I would want his family to know what an effect he had on my life."

It's been a long and fascinating saga for the 73-year-old actor, who rarely grants interviews.

But he has succumbed to the pleadings of PBS and its "American Masters" series.

Mr. Poitier will be the subject of a two-hour documentary, "One Bright Light," directed by Lee Grant, his co-star in "In the Heat of the Night." The special will air on at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WETA-TV (Channel 26).

He's traveled a long way from that poor youngster who grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas.

When he was 15, his father, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, felt he could no longer keep up with his rambunctious son. He dispatched the young Poitier to relatives in Florida.

But Sidney wasn't there for long. Soon he was braving the mean streets of New York, where his daydreaming pushed him to that theater where his inept tryout ended in shame and humiliation.

Today, Mr. Poitier is an elegant and cultured man, dressed in a black pinstriped suit, red paisley tie and a white shirt with French cuffs and gold cuff links. His diction is perfect, his vocabulary impressive as he chats in a quiet hotel room here.

Mr. Poitier is the father of six children, four by his first wife, two with his actress wife of 24 years, Joanna Shimkus.

Two of his daughters are actresses. "We couldn't say no, and we didn't say no," he says. "And we encourage them."

He has recently been named ambassador to Japan from the Bahamas and claims he hasn't hung up his acting shingle yet. Still, he has second thoughts.

"I think the world is about so many more important things, and I have invested a great number of years in this business and at this work that I do," he sighs.

"And I have been fulfilled by the relationship. But knowing the world as I know it now, I would probably reach for something else to do with my time. I would try to learn something that could probably be more useful."

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