HOLLYWOOD — A stargazer since he was a boy growing up in the quiet rural hinterlands of Cat Island, Bahamas, Sidney Poitier must have figured that the stars had aligned Feb. 12, when the Oscar nominations revealed that, for only the second time in history, no less than three African-American actors — Halle Berry, Will Smith and Denzel Washington — were up for awards.
They’ll be “coming to the ball,” as Berry put it, and so will Poitier. The man who, as much as anyone, made careers like Berry’s, Smith’s and Washington’s possible, will receive an honorary Oscar for a career that single-handedly marked the turning point for African-Americans in movies.
“Now you’re seeing a marvelous range of opportunities for young actors from all minorities,” says actor Brock Peters, who watched Poitier’s development as a fellow member of the Harlem-based American Negro Theater. “Sidney was the one able to open the door to those opportunities.”
In his recent autobiography, “The Measure of a Man,” Poitier, who turned 75 on Feb. 20, describes his adventurous years of development: Born in Miami but raised by parents living a simple, pretechnology subsistence life on Cat Island, he learned to appreciate nature and the hard rules of survival. That upbringing prepared him for his eventual teenage encounters with modern life in Nassau and the racist American South of the ’40s until he traveled north to Harlem.
“I wasn’t an intimate of Sidney’s,” notes Peters, “but, like all of us, he had things to conquer. He may have thought of himself at first as not being very good as an actor, but he worked extremely hard to master things like reading and writing and the other tools one must have in order to be an actor.
“He was really an immigrant, and from where he came from, he hadn’t required the kind of skills he would need in New York. It wasn’t that he made it look easy, but he always seemed to be on an even keel all the time, so I was never aware at the time of some of the real struggles he went through.”
Studying under acting maestros Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards (who went on decades later to be the director of choice for Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson), Poitier writes, “I arrived at the door of their workshop in the 1950s with no understanding of an ‘actor’s technique.’ Before they took me on, I had been a-c-t-i-n-g!
“Pretending, indicating, giving the appearance (his emphasis) of experiencing certain emotions, but never, ever, really getting down to where real life and fine art mirror each other.”
Like Jackie Robinson, whose signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball’s color barrier, Poitier soon began to break down Hollywood’s walls.
“That was relative,” says Peters, who acted opposite Poitier in Otto Preminger’s controversial film version of “Porgy and Bess.” “But in our smaller scale, among the brethren of actors, Sidney’s success began to have an impact for us they way Jackie Robinson’s had on a bigger scale for the nation.”
And like the ball player, Poitier’s timing was perfect: A new generation of directors and producers had risen up with a taste for socially critical films that would address America’s race problems. Poitier was their man, and he pointedly credits them: Darryl F. Zanuck, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Stanley Kramer (with whom he made “The Defiant Ones,” for his first Oscar nom, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), the Mirisch brothers, Ralph Nelson (who helmed the actor in his Oscar-winning turn in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field” and 1974’s “The Wilby Conspiracy”), Mike Frankovitch and TV innovator David Susskind.
Poitier also had screenwriter allies, like James Poe, who wrote “Lilies” and recommended Poitier as an aggressive magazine reporter in James B. Harris’ debut film, “The Bedford Incident” (1965).
Richard Widmark, who acted with Poitier in his second film, “No Way Out” (1950), and in the underappreciated Vikings vs. Muslims epic “The Long Ships” (1963), was co-producing with Harris, striking out on his own after a fruitful partnership with Stanley Kubrick. Receiving the script care of Kubrick, Poitier declared to Harris that the drama about a high-tension run-in between a U.S. nuclear battleship and a Soviet sub was “a movie movie.”
Measure of achievement
Equally underrated, “Bedford” reflected the true measure of Poitier’s achievement, since he was the first choice for a role where the character’s race was never mentioned. “We were extremely proud of that,” says Harris, “and Sidney made it easy, and never treated me as a first-time director with him as the big Oscar-winning star.”
Contrary to a general perception that Poitier strove to make his characters as likeable as possible to the still white-dominant movie audience, he wanted his reporter role to be angry. “We decided to lighten him up a bit,” says Harris. “Sidney didn’t want to be pegged as just Mr. Nice Guy.”
Nevertheless, Poitier was pegged, and the label came from people in the politicized black power movement who felt that the star had become an Uncle Tom for Hollywood. Like author Ralph Ellison, whose landmark novel “Invisible Man” is having its 50th anniversary, Poitier ceased symbolizing change in the late ’60s, and became associated with a softer, compromising image.
Addressing this in his book, he argues that “there’s a place for people who are … defiant, and sometimes they serve a purpose, but that’s never been my role.”
He seemed to underline this sentiment in the ’70s with a series of comedies he helmed and acted in, often opposite Bill Cosby, and which reached their climax with the 1980 B.O. smash (his biggest ever) “Stir Crazy.” At the same time, though, Poitier turned to tougher material, such as the South African-themed “Wilby” with Caine, in which Poitier played a revolutionary.
“With Sidney, if you think of one word, it’s ‘dignity,”’ says Caine. “Although he has a sense of humor, he would never use it for ridicule. And he has high standards for movies. When we finished watching a particularly awful African American comedy one night, I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘Well, it sets back the African-American cause two years.’ Two years. That’s Sidney, very precise.
“Now, he’s an ambassador for the Bahamas, and as a friend, when I talk to him, he never talks about box office or acting. It’s rather like talking to a philosopher, about the best way to live one’s life. He has the grace of a 17th-century English courtier, in movement and thought. He can step back now, and consider life as a whole.”