Oprah Talks to Sidney Poitier
Photo: Kwaku Alston
Oprah: I'm with you. But I can tell you for a fact that I do not feel a thing for flies. I am not that evolved. Do you save flies?
Sidney: If a fly's on my arm, I will brush near it.
Oprah: But you won't hit it?
Sidney: I wouldn't swat it.
Oprah: Now that is honor beyond that which I know.
Sidney: I have this feeling that life is so magically created that if I respect it, that respect will come circling back to me in ways I don't even know.
Oprah: I believe that. Now I must go home and mourn the flies I've killed! Sidney, how is it that you never appeared to be angry?
Sidney: Let me tell you about anger. I don't express it to people, to family, to friends. I know better than most about the devastating results of humiliation. I know how soul-destroying rejection is. I walked into a hotel once, and there was a famous emcee standing there. He was speaking with some friends, and I stood aside and admired him. At a moment when I thought I wouldn't be disturbing him, I walked up and said, "Excuse me, may I please have your autograph?" He didn't say anything. He just looked at me with an annoyed look, like I was wasting his time. I was frozen. Finally, he reached out in a disparaging way and took my paper and pen, scribbled something and passed it back to me. I felt awful, awful, awful. I collect those moments, just like I collected my regrets about the birds. And having to carry that moment inside me produced a certain response, and as a result, I am never too rushed to give someone an autograph.
Sidney: I will stop. And if I'm running to catch a plane, I will say to the person, "Please jog with me." I don't want to be the agent of passing that feeling to anybody.
Oprah: Have you been able to pass on all of your wisdom and honor to your children?
Sidney: I live my life as we have discussed, and my children see that. After I won the Screen Actors Guild award [for lifetime achievement], one of my daughters said to me, "You're pretty good, Dad." Now this is a kid who most of the time thinks I'm just an old fuddy-duddy, so I know when she says things like that, she's saying a lot more.
Oprah: Would your children say you're an easy dad to get along with?
Sidney: I think my children would be unlikely to say that I'm easy. But in general, I'm perceived as a person who's relatively easy to get along with.
Oprah: Would your wife, Joanna, agree with that statement?
Sidney: Yes. She would tell you that I'm a perfectionist to a degree and that I ask of others a certain kind of loyalty to and respect for relationships. My wife would say that, on occasion, I'm a little tough on the children.
Oprah: In what way?
Sidney: In what I expect and demand of them in terms of values. My children respect my values, and I can see some of those values in them. That pleases me, because my values are not constricting. They are human values. My kids are quite intelligent—all six of them.
Oprah: You've said that you want to keep growing. Is there anything else you want to do in your life?
Sidney: I would like to grow less afraid of dying. I am infinitely less afraid today than I was 15 or 25 years ago. I was most afraid of dying when I was 33, because I come from a Catholic family.
Oprah: And Jesus was crucified at 33?
Oprah: I went through that, too. You think, "If Jesus can die at 33, who am I?"
Oprah: Would you prefer to be diagnosed with a long-term illness as opposed to passing on suddenly?
Sidney: I would like to die like my mother did. She was walking about the house, and she said to my sister, "Make me a cup of tea and bring it to me, I'm going to take a nap." It took my sister two or three minutes to get the tea, and when she walked into the bedroom, my mother was gone.
Oprah: How old was she?
Sidney: Sixty-eight. She was gone in three minutes, and that was a blessing. I hope I'm that deserving.
Oprah: We earn everything in our lives. Do you think we also earn our death?
Sidney: I won't speculate on that, because death is so sacred a state of being.
Oprah: I think it's interesting that you would have any fear about death, since you're not killing flies! Whatever happens, you'll get the best end of it.
Sidney: I'd like to meet my end with grace.
Oprah: And don't you know you will, since you've met everything else in your life with grace, Sidney?
Sidney: I shall certainly try my best to meet it with grace. There is always the element of anxiety about it, but that anxiety lessens over the years.
Oprah: It doesn't increase as you age?
Sidney: It decreases. If you are anxious about death, then you don't have a sense of the oneness of things—you feel that after death, you will be no more.
Oprah: Right. What else would you like to do in the coming years?
Sidney: I'd like to write, act, teach, lecture—anything creative. I must also service my curiosity. I want to continue to wonder about things, because there is a young man inside me, and he is energetic and mentally active.
Oprah: So being 73 means kapooey to you? It's all those soy products!
Sidney: I can examine so many things. I would like to do independent thinking about everything—to just sit and think independently about things.
Oprah: That's fantastic. I'm not there yet.
Sidney: I am right there.