Sidney Poitier Celebrates A Birthday — And An Anniversary

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This week (Feb. 20) Sidney Poitier turns 87.

That’s not an especially important birthday milestone, except for the longevity.

But this year does mark an especially important anniversary.

It’s 50 years since Poitier became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

He was handed the Oscar in April, 1964, when schools, workplaces and public facilities in the U.S were still segregated. It would be three months before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation.

In 1992, I was invited to interview actors in the ensemble movie “Sneakers.” The cast included Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix — and Sydney Poitier.

At group interviews and at my “one-on-one” time with him, I was aware, more than with almost any other actor I’ve met and interviewed, that I was in the company of an icon — someone who broke ground with his charisma, his giftedness and the sheer power of his presence.

And yet, there was nothing of the Hollywood superstar about him. On the contrary, he was affable and modest.

Seated with several reporters at a round table, he told us, “I’ve never done an ensemble piece before. I always carried the weight of the films I was in. And I’ve not played in comedies very much. I did a couple with Bill Cosby, but of course nobody saw me because they were looking at him.”

We all laughed at that, not only because it was self-deprecating humor from someone even the film’s director, Phil Alden Robinson, called “an American icon” but also because, as I wrote at the time, “The joke is that you can’t now and never could take your eyes off Poitier…”

He made his screen debut in “No Way Out” in 1950 and his career took off in 1958 with “The Defiant Ones,” for which he received his first nomination for Best Actor.

He told reporters, at our “round table” interview, “”There was a time when I was the only guy out there. And that was burdensome, of course. I couldn’t carry the dreams of so many people. When I came, I was alone.”

Nevertheless, he admitted, noting the chronology but refusing to take the credit, “I look at Spike Lee and (John) Singleton and (Robert) Townsend and I say, ‘Hey, I was the forerunner to this,’ and it makes me feel terrific.”

Poiter came to the U.S. from the Bahamas at the age of 15 to live with an older brother. He’d grown up in poverty, the son of a farmer, but received a strong British education while at the same time chafing against the rigid colonialism and class disparities.

After serving in the U.S. Army, he joined the American Negro Theatre in New York.

Later, Poitier told me that the agenda of the young black filmmakers of the time is not his agenda. ”I’m from a different time,” he says. ”They come with a different value system.”

For Poitier, against all odds, the old system worked.

”I’ve had the best of times. I’ve made movies and played a principal role in each of them. I’ve earned my living from acting almost all my adult life.”

I asked him whether he felt the enormous gains of the ‘60s — which brought such profound change, especially for African-Americans, and which brought him to the pinnacle of success and celebrity — were accompanied by subtle losses.

”There are subtle losses and not-so-subtle losses,” he said. ”There was a time when there was more attention paid to social graces. There was a time when there was a sharper demarcation between children and adults, when the role of children and the responsibilities of adults were more clearly defined.”

His own responsibilities, including his choice of roles, have always been determined by one principle. ”My father was a remarkable man, and I loved him a great deal. Therefore, when I started in this business I chose never to do anything that wasn’t a compliment to his name. Any success that came to me was retroactively due to my dad.”

It may have been his father’s character that helped shape his performance as the teacher in the 1967 film, “To Sir With Love.”

Poitier went on to direct a few films and made his last big screen appearance in “The Jackal in 1997, and in a TV movie in 2001.

In 1992, at the age of 68, he told me, in that inimitable velvety voice,“”I am working on several pieces of material that I kind of conjured up. I do a lot of daydreaming, even yet.”

If Poitier were British, he would have knighted decades ago. In our hearts and minds, he has been.

Happy Birthday, Sir.