Raised on a remote island in the Bahamas called Cat Island, Sidney says he never considered that the color of his skin mattered until he moved to Miami at age 15 and encountered Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Because of his age, Sidney says he had a strong sense of self when he arrived in Florida. The youngest of seven children, Sidney's hardworking parents taught by example the values of pride and integrity that always guided him. "My identity was formed. I knew largely who I was," he says. "So when Florida said to me, 'You are not who you think you are,' I said to Florida, 'I am not what you think I am.'"
After arriving in Miami, Sidney became a delivery boy for a drugstore, but the pharmacist didn't explain the "rules" that came with his job—or his skin color. Once, Sidney rang the front doorbell while delivering to a white woman. She snapped at him to "get around to the back door, where you belong." Sidney couldn't figure out why, so he left the package on the front step. When he arrived home, he found his family had been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.
Being the 1940s, the pharmacist had assumed that Sidney would know, as a black boy making a delivery he was expected to go to the back of the house. "Thank God that pharmacist didn't tell you, didn't tell you to go to the back door," Brian says. "Your life may have turned out completely different if you had known."
One of the most powerful passages of Sidney's book is where he talks about the true measure of a man. "Of all my father's teachings, the most enduring was the one about the true measure of a man," Sidney writes. "That true measure was how well he provided for his children, and it stuck with me as if it were etched in my brain."
It's a passage that guest Tommy has taken to heart. The father of four sons, ages 3 to 7, he constantly searched for the perfect parenting manual—until he read The Measure of a Man. "I only get one shot and I gotta do it right," Tommy says. "This is everything I've been looking for in a how-to manual on how to raise men—not boys—men."
He's already taught his sons about strength, dignity, character and a strong sense of self. "One of the main points that I've already shared with them is know who you are," Tommy says. "So when someone calls my oldest son, Oree, a name in school, 'Well, you know who you are, so that [name] does not mean you. Let it fall away like an autumn leaf because you know who you are.'"
In 1946, Sidney was an understudy with New York's American Negro Theatre. On opening night, the lead actor, a young Harry Belafonte, couldn't perform. At the last minute, Sidney took his place. As it turned out, a major casting director was in the audience and made him an offer. Watch Sidney discuss the roles that fate and luck played in his life
, and learn about his mother's fascinating encounter with a soothsayer.
In 1968, violence raged across America as race riots divided the nation. It was also the same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Yet during this turbulent time, Sidney was breaking down social barriers by starring in the top-three films of that year. He made history by playing the romantic lead in a film that was banned in many parts of the South—Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It was the first film to feature an interracial romance in a positive light.
The film particularly had an impact on dinner guest Betsy, who is married to an African-American man. "We just go about our lives, and if we run into anyone who looks askance or doesn't want to seat us, I just think, 'That just told me something about them,'" she says. "It never occurs to me or to my husband, John, to think, 'Oh, maybe there's something wrong with what we're doing.'"
Sidney is the father of six daughters. So what was it like raising all those girls? "Girls were problematical in that they have to be protected because there are things out there in the world, in the schools, that can be problematical," he says.
What "things" is Sidney talking about? "Are you talking about boys?" Oprah laughs.
All joking aside, Sidney couldn't be prouder of his family. "My girls have grown up wonderfully well and are doing quite nicely," he says. "They have given me five grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and I'm happy with them as people, though, especially happy with them as people."
And his family couldn't be prouder of him. The Oprah Show gathered all of Sidney's daughters to put together a video tribute to their father for his 80th birthday. "I think my dad passed on to me and all his children to really have a sense of who you are and a sense of self," his daughter Sydney says. "He has such a strong moral and ethical core that growing up, we tried to emulate that."
"We're so proud of you," they all say to Sidney. "We love you."
It's a gesture that moves Sidney to tears. "Isn't that something," he says.
"To me, that's the measure of a man," Tommy says. "When your children are talking like that. That's what I want."
Sidney writes that he's felt like an outsider throughout his life, even when he won the Best Actor Oscar® in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field—and he was the first black actor to receive the honor. "I am an outsider by instinct," he says at dinner. "I have always had a sense of myself as the observer, but I don't mind it. An outsider to me is the person who by instinct prefers to walk on the edge. So I've done it and I didn't fall off. I survived fairly okay."
Still, Sidney says he is always looking to improve himself as an outsider. "I am who I am, and whenever I am treated in a way that I feel is contrary to how I hold myself, I will defend myself by improving myself," he says. "The more I improve myself, the more of a man I become, the more of a humane person I become."
With little education and no job skills, Sidney survived the tough streets of New York City by washing dishes. One day, he answered a job ad for actors, figuring it couldn't be any harder than being a dishwasher or parking cars. Sidney showed up with his thick Bahamian accent and could hardly read. The director threw him out, telling him he'd never be more than a dishwasher. Sidney was shocked that the director not only knew he was not an actor, but that he even sized up what he actually did for a living. He called that assessment "a death sentence for my soul."
Looking back, Sidney says he never would have pursued acting if the director had not shown him the door. "I went back and I decided that I was going to become an actor to show him that he was wrong about me," he says.
Sidney went home, deciding to tackle his thick accent first. At night, Sidney listened to the radio and picked out different voices to emulate. One radio host stood out—Norman Brokenshire. "It was distinctly American but with a very British flavor," Sidney says. "Every word he spoke, every sentence he made, I would repeat it. By the end of six months, I was ready for an audition."
With only two years of formal education in Nassau as a child, Sidney also worked to strengthen his reading skills. On his breaks from washing dishes at a Queens restaurant, Sidney found a quiet booth where he could sound out unfamiliar words from the newspaper. Soon, an older Jewish waiter at the restaurant became his tutor, and they worked on reading every night. To his regret, when Sidney tried to find that man to thank him, he couldn't find him. "I would love to have been able to thank him and explain to him the good services he had rendered to me that was essential to my success."
Education still weighs heavily on Sidney's mind. "That question bothers me a lot, the question of education. We are too rich a country to have inner city education what it is. It is each family, I believe, who has the responsibility to educate their children no matter what their own education is," Sidney says.
Dinner guest Philip volunteer teaches in the inner-city New York schools. "When I introduced the book to them, they said, 'Wow, I didn't know Sidney Poitier could barely read in the beginning,'" Philip says. "And that registered. They could connect with this because they could relate."
As the dinner ends, Oprah asks everyone to raise their glasses in a toast to the man of the evening. Watch all of Oprah's emotional toast to Sidney.
"I'd like to make a toast to the forces," she says. "Here's to you, who I have loved my entire life and even before I was born."
After Oprah's toast, Colin Cowie and Wolfgang Puck present Sidney with a beautiful Sam Godfrey red velvet cake made to look like the cover of The Measure of a Man. It was not only in honor of his life and book…but also a celebration of Sidney's recent 80th birthday.
"Don't we all wish that we could be 80 and looking like this?" Oprah says.
What does it mean to Sidney to turn 80? "It makes me feel good that I have attended to some of my responsibilities over the years. I have my children, my wife and my friends, so it feels wonderful getting to be 80," he says.
But Sidney's not the only one who receives such a lovely gift. The dinner guests are presented with gifts on silver platters. Each receives a leather-bound, autographed copy of The Measure of a Man and the Montblanc pen that Sidney used to personally sign each person's copy.
As everyone finishes their "book cover" birthday cake, Lisa shares a final story about another dessert and her experience reading The Measure of a Man.
The day she picked up the book, she ate Chinese food. After the meal, she says her fortune cookie read, "What you will discover is yourself."
"I thought that was really interesting, and I kept that fortune," she says to Sidney. "I kept reading the book, looking for things to tell my sons. And what I found was me and my dignity through you. I want to thank you for that because that is the gift I can pass to my boys."
Oprah chooses The Road
by Cormac McCarthy for her book club. It's a post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son on a journey of survival. "Their story is both haunting and inspiring, and I promise you you'll be thinking about it long after you finish the final page," Oprah says. "It's a quick read and a journey well worth taking."
Watch Oprah's interview with author Cormac McCarthy—his first time ever on television! Get everything you need to get the most out of reading The Road.
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