The legendary actor and director opens up about what five decades in Hollywood have taught him—and why his biggest challenge has been to be his own person.
Just hearing the word "linoleum" makes me recall the exact moment that awakened me to my possibilities: Milwaukee. 1964. My mom's place. I am 10 years old, black people are still "colored"—and colored folks don't ride in limousines unless their kinfolk have just died. I press my knees into the cold linoleum and stare into our RCA black-and-white TV. My mouth falls open as a towering Sidney Poitier steps from a limo and into the Academy Awards. Awe. Freeze. Thaw. Run. "Everybody, come see: A colored man is in a limo—and nobody's died!" The next day—the next moment—I see myself in an entirely new way. Thirty-six years later, I get to tell Sidney Poitier what that moment meant to me.
"In my spirit I knew that because you had won the Oscar, I too could do something special—and I didn't even know what it was," I say. "I thought, 'If he can be that, I wonder what I can be.'" Poitier and I are sitting across from each other at the Bel-Air hotel in Los Angeles—and I'm admiring that, at 73, this man still personifies grace, ease, strength and courage. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word. In my more than 25 years as an interviewer, I've talked to hundreds of people—yet today, I'm giddy. When I admit this to him, he grins. "That flatters me," he says. "I've never done anything to warrant that."
Not so. The youngest of seven children, Poitier lifted himself from extreme poverty—his parents were tomato farmers who worked on Cat Island in the Bahamas, where they had no running water or electricity. At 15 and with no education, he went to live with his older brother in Miami, Florida, where he had an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. A few months later, he arrived in New York with only $3, and then he answered an ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theatre. But when he flubbed his lines and spoke in a thick Caribbean accent, the director told him, "Stop wasting your time—get a job as a dishwasher!"
The rejection galvanized Poitier. After months of mimicking American newscasters in order to lose his accent and of working in exchange for acting lessons, Poitier returned to the same theater company and landed a role in Days of Our Youth . That began his ascent to becoming one of the most bankable actors of any race. In his 50 years in film, he has starred in and directed more than three dozen movies whose titles read like a time line for our memories: The Defiant Ones , 1958; A Raisin in the Sun , 1961; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love , both in 1967. And when he won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field , Poitier changed film history: He became the first and only black person to receive an Oscar for best actor.
However remarkable his achievements, Poitier will tell you that he doesn't measure himself by these things—really. Especially during the Civil Rights movement when nonblacks often defined him solely in terms of race—and conversely, when some black people branded him an Uncle Tom who wasn't enough of a race revolutionary—Poitier's fight became not about race but about self—"In America," he tells me, "it is difficult to be your own man." But by focusing on the big picture—the breadth of who he is as a man, not confined by color—he has indeed embraced the fullness of his humanity.
Poitier and I talk about the convictions his parents passed on to him and how his family perceives him. He has four daughters from his marriage to his first wife, dancer Juanita Hardy; he and his second wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus-Poitier, have been married since 1976 and have two daughters. When Sidney and I part, I weep—he leaves me feeling expanded, more hopeful and more human, and willing to engage in the complete arc of life. And after sitting with him through four hours of conversation, I am still in awe of him—and I am as inspired as I was as a 10-year-old colored girl colored girl.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Sidney Poitier
Note: This interview appeared in the October 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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