Actor Sidney Poitier arrives at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars Party in West Hollywood, California March 2, 2014. Photo: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok.
The death of Bahamian-American trailblazing actor and director Sidney Poitier at the age of 94, announced Friday, has inspired an outpouring of tributes and remembrances, with “CBS Sunday Morning” sharing a 2013 interview in which the Academy Award winner revealed that a former Jewish coworker taught him how to read English.
The youngest of seven children, Poitier was born three months early on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, where his Bahamian parents travelled to sell tomatoes. He lived in the Bahamas until age of 15, when his parents sent him back to Miami to live with his older brother.
He left for New York at age 16 and tried to launch an acting career, though he had only two years of schooling and was unable to read well. However, a Jewish waiter at a restaurant where Poitier worked washing dishes devoted time to helping him, he told “CBS Sunday Morning” anchor Lesley Stahl.
Poitier recalled: “One of the waiters, a Jewish guy, an elderly man, had a newspaper and walked over to me and said, ‘What’s new in the paper?’ And I looked up at this man and said to him, ‘I can’t tell you, I can’t read very well.’ He says, ‘Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you?’ And I said to him, ‘Yes, if you’d like.’”
“Every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me, week after week after week,” Poitier added. “I learned a lot, a lot. And then things began to happen.”
In 1992, when Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, he told the audience, “I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young Black dishwasher learn to read. I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.”
Poitier started off his career with an acting apprenticeship at The American Negro Theater, before going on to star on Broadway in “Anna Lucasta” in 1948. Two years later, in 1950, he landed his first movie role in “No Way Out,” playing a doctor who faced racism from a prisoner played by Richard Widmark.
The prolific actor starred in more than 50 films. In 1959, he became the first Black man nominated for an Oscar as best actor for his role as an escaped convict in “The Defiant Ones,” also starring Tony Curtis. He was the first Black actor to kiss a white woman in the 1965 film “A Patch of Blue,” and when he won the Oscar for best actor in 1964 for his role in “Lillies of the Field,” he was the first Black actor to do so and remained the only one until 2002, “CBS Sunday Morning” reported.
In 1967, he starred in three films at a time when segregation was enforced in many parts of the United States, Reuters noted. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” starring Katherine Hepburn, he played a Black man with a white fiancée, and “In the Heat of the Night,” he took on the role of a Black police detective wrongfully accused of murder while investigating the crime. That same year, he played a teacher in “To Sir, With Love.” Other notable films included “The Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Poitier additionally performed on Broadway.
He directed nine films, including “Uptown Saturday Night” in 1974 with co-directors Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby, and 1980’s “Stir Crazy” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Poitier was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and UNESCO. He was on Walt Disney Co.’s board of directors from 1994 to 2003, and published a number of books, including three autobiographies. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama awarded Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Poitier is survived by his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, and six daughters.