Oprah: But the character did nothing?
Sidney: Nothing. And I could not imagine playing that part. So I said to myself, "That's not the kind of work I want." And I told my agent that I couldn't play the role. He said, "Why can't you play it? There's nothing derogatory about it in racial terms," and I said, "I can't do it." He never understood.
Oprah: Was this Marty?
Sidney: Yes. Marty Baum, my agent. I didn't want to have to explain it. It was stupid! My daughter Pam was about to be born, and Beth Israel Hospital had told my wife and me that it would be $75 to cover the birth. I didn't have the money. So when I left Marty's office, I went to a place called Household Finance on Broadway near 57th Street, and I borrowed against our furniture.
Oprah: You turned down $750 a week and then borrowed against your furniture?
Oprah: What did your wife say?
Sidney: She was a very supportive person. She was a different kind of person than I was, but she knew it meant a lot to me to be the way I was.
Oprah: Were you thinking, "I'm a man defined by character, and this is something I won't do"? And is that how you made all your film choices?
Sidney: Every one. I had two roles for which I compromised.
Oprah: What were they?
Sidney: One was Porgy and Bess, the other was The Long Ships.
Oprah: Why do you feel that Porgy and Bess was a compromise?
Sidney: I was in the Caribbean making a picture with John Cassavetes. There was no telephone on the island, so I would take a four-hour trip to St. Thomas and go to a hotel to call home, then my agent. On one such trip, Marty said, "We've got a problem." His West Coast co-agent had gotten a call from [film producer] Sam Goldwyn, who had said, "I want Sidney Poitier to play Porgy. Can you get him for me?" and the co-agent said, "I'll get him for you." That went public quickly, and mind you, I'm away, so I don't know anything about this. After Marty told me, I said, "Just call Mr. Goldwyn and tell him that I'm not going to play the part."
Oprah: Because you didn't like what it represented?
Sidney: Yes. And Goldwyn said to Marty, "Why don't you have Sidney come out and talk with me, and if he tells me that he doesn't want to do it, then I'll know that he means it." So when I finished my movie, I went to California to see Sam. And I told him as respectfully as I could that I couldn't play the part. He said, "Do me a favor: Go back to New York and think about it for two weeks." And I said, "But I know now!" And he said, "Just think about it." When I went back to my hotel, there was a script waiting for me called The Defiant Ones. I read the script in one sitting and said to Marty, "This is something I'd like to do. Tell Mr. Goldwyn that I'd like to meet with Stanley Kramer"—the guy who wants me to do this movie. So I went to see Stanley, and he said, "I would love to have you play in it, but you have a problem—Sam Goldwyn." Sam was one of the most powerful men in the entire industry. And having having gone public with the news that I may play the Porgy role, he had put himself on the line.
Oprah: And he could not be embarrassed.
Sidney: He wouldn't have stood for it. So I got a call from Hedda Hopper [the famous Hollywood columnist]. She said, "I know Sam, and he's in a tough position. If you don't do his picture, he'll see to it that you never work in this town again."
Sidney: So I had a lot of thinking to do, and I agonized. And I couldn't come to a conclusion. Finally, Marty and I came up with the only thing I could do, because I wanted to do The Defiant Ones. I did one movie, Porgy and Bess, so I could do the other. It was painful, but it was useful. I learned some lessons, and if I had it to do again, I wouldn't do it any differently, because I had work to do.
Oprah: Oh my goodness, Sidney—if you hadn't done it, I wouldn't have been on that linoleum floor watching you get out of the limousine! And I might not be here today. So what did doing Porgy and Bess teach you?
Sidney: That it is difficult to be your own man in America. There is a fierce requirement to adjust to circumstances.
Oprah: Wasn't that just the nature of Hollywood at the time?
Sidney: It was difficult. [Blacks] were so new in Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters.
Oprah: Maids and buffoons. And obviously, you weren't going to play any role that negated the character of blacks.
Sidney: Not only was I not going to do that, but I had in mind what was expected of me—not just what other blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.
Oprah: And what was that expectation?
Sidney: To walk through my life as my own man. I'd seen my father. He was a poor man, and I watched him do astonishing things. After the tomato business failed [on Cat Island], he moved to Nassau with no money. He moved there with rheumatoid arthritis, and I saw him hang on to his dignity day by day. And it was hard, because there, if you had nothing, you got no respect. Yet he never lost his dignity. And in his lifetime, my father never earned as much money as I spend in a week.
Oprah: I read that shortly after you were born, you weren't expected to live because you were delivered so prematurely.
Sidney: I was expected to be dead within two, three days. I was born two months early, and everyone had given up on me. But my mother insisted on my life. She went throughout the black sections of Miami, where I was born, looking for help to save her child. She went to the church, and she went to the few people she knew. Absolutely heavyhearted, my mom passed a fortune-teller's stall, and she sat with this lady. She said, "I need you to tell me about my son." And the woman said, "Don't worry about your son. He will not be a sickly child. He will walk with kings. He will step on pillars of gold. And he will carry your name to many places."
Oprah: What was your mother's name?
Sidney: Evelyn. I was a gift to my mother. She was a remarkable person. God or nature, or whatever those forces are, smiled on her, then passed me the best of her.
Oprah: Did she live long enough to reap the benefits of your life?
Sidney: She lived long enough to see me win the Academy Award. And that was tremendous.
Oprah: Did she understand what that was?
Sidney: Not altogether. But she figured it out, because when I arrived in Nassau, the people gave me a parade around the island, and she thought that was swell. The thing that best describes my mother is that, subsequent to me winning the Academy Award, she would go around the neighborhood, and whenever she'd see a mother chastising her kid, she would say, "You be careful with that child—my Sidney used to act that way."
Oprah: So you have carried her name?
Sidney: I have carried her name—a name I was asked to change.
Oprah: You were asked to change your name?
Sidney: When I went into the business, the name Poitier was thought to be difficult.
Oprah: I was asked to change my name, too!
Sidney: Were you?
Oprah: The name Oprah was thought to be too different. In my first job, they wanted me to call myself Susan.
Sidney: My goodness!
Sidney: When I was asked to change my name, I said no. I wouldn't. I couldn't. So, back to my mother—I cannot take credit for who I turned out to be. I have had that woman on my shoulder all my life. You hear? She has been there taking care of me. I am not a hugely religious person, but I believe that there is a oneness with everything. And because there is this oneness, it is possible that my mother is the principal reason for my life.
Oprah: I also believe in that oneness. Didn't you feel a greater sense of your mother's presence after she'd passed? Because when people die, their energy doesn't leave you, if you're open to it. And so of course your mother has been on your shoulder. That's why you couldn't have lost.
Sidney: I was helped.