Remembering Sidney Poitier: The Importance of Random Acts of Kindness

Sidney Poitier died recently in Los Angeles on Jan. 6 at the age of ninety-four. In 1963, the trailblazing actor became the first Black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was a civil rights advocate, director, novelist, diplomat, and ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan and the United Nations.

His humble beginnings began in the Bahamas as a poorly-educated youngster who was often getting into trouble. He attended school for only 2 years and left at the age of twelve. By the age of fourteen, he was spending his time with delinquents. His parents sent him to live with his brother in Miami, Florida, and soon he moved to New York. 

In 1962, Poitier received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. With his wife Joanne Shimkus in attendance, he finally explained how he overcame his lack of education and learned to read. Coincidentally his father-in-law was Jewish and Sidney credited an unknown Jewish waiter.

Poitier told the audience. “I cannot tell you his name, I never knew it. But I read fairly good now.”

Sidney Poitier’s 2013 Interview with Lesley Stahl

In a 2013 interview with Lesley Stahl, broadcasted on “CBS Sunday Morning,” available on YouTube, Poitier elaborated about his journey.

After arriving in New York at the age of 16 in 1943, Poitier followed his dream to become an actor. Despite his thick Bahamian accent and his inability to read, he auditioned with the American Negro Theater in Harlem. The audition was a disaster, and he quickly got a job washing dishes at a restaurant. He emotionally tells the story of the co-worker who saved his life.

“I sit there and I’m reading one of the newspapers. And there was a Jewish waiter sitting at the table and an elderly man, and he saw me there.” “He got up, and he walked over, and he stood by the table that’s next to the kitchen, and he said, ‘Hi. What’s in the papers?’ And I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you what’s new in the papers because I don’t read very well. I didn’t have very much of an education.'”

“He asked, ‘Would you like me to read with you.’ I said to him, ‘Yes if you’d like to.’” Poitier went on to explain that the Jewish waiter sat every night with him to teach him after his work shift over. Poitier fought back tears as he recollected the kindness of a man who took no money and had nothing to gain from teaching Poitier.

“Every night after that he would come over and sit with me, and he would teach me what a comma is and why it exists, what periods are, what colons are, what dashes are.” The visibly emotional actor continued to explain. “He would teach me that there are syllables and how to differentiate them in a single word and consequently, learn how to pronounce them…Every night.”

Poitier also added that learning to read changed the trajectory of this life, as a human being and as an actor. He still has one regret though. “One of my great regrets in life is that I went on to be a very successful actor, and one day I tried to find him, but it was too late, and I regret that I never had the opportunity to really thank him,” he said.

In a Washington Post interview in 1980, Poitier explained.

“I would come out of the kitchen and sit down next to him and read articles from the front page of the Journal-American. When I ran into a word I did not know (and I did not know half of the article, because anything past a couple of syllables and I was in trouble) he explained the meaning of the word and gave me the pronunciation, and then sent me back to the head of the sentence so I could grasp the word in context. He was wonderful, and a little bit of him is in everything I do.”

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