Sidney Poitier wasn’t expected to live long; he was born prematurely in Miami, where his parents, who were tomato farmers from the Bahamas, happened to be visiting in order to sell their produce. He was so sickly that his father bought a shoebox-sized coffin from a local undertaker.
Poitier tells us this in The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (Harper San Francisco, 272 pages), which he wrote when he was 72 years old — twenty-two years ago.
Poitier, who died on Friday at the age of 94, wound up having “a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns,” as he tells us in the book, which he wrote in order to reexamine “how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.”
It is a fascinating book, perhaps more so now — clearly enough so that a group of producers (including his daughter Anika Poitier) announced just last month that a new play based on thia memoir is aiming for Broadway. Entitled “Sidney” it is written by Charles Randolph-Wright (director of the production of “Trouble in Mind” that ends its run today), and will be directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
The book is compelling not just because Poitier was a successful actor widely admired, the first Black man to win an Academy Award (for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964.) The memoir does tell some engaging and enlightening stories about his unprecedented career as a leading man in Hollywood, especially choice anecdotes and observations about the three movies, all released in 1967 (“To Sir, With Love,” “In The Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), that ironically marked both the height of his artistry as a film actor and his last hurrah as a top box office draw.
He lingers more on his experiences in New York theater, including the almost comically unlikely events that led to his Broadway debut, and his experiences more than a decade later, positive and negative, performing in the play by Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The 1960 production was groundbreaking, and not just for the world: “I knew for certain that I was meant to be an actor when the curtain came down on opening night in New York.”
Yet there are other, lesser known aspects of his life that Poitier writes about, which I suspect are the main reason it has been made into a play.
Poitier spent the first ten years of his life on Cat Island, a “tiny spit of land” in the Bahamas 46 miles long and three miles wide, populated by a couple of hundred families, with no electricity or plumbing, no cars or motorboats, no radio or television, no movie theaters. He only wore shoes on Sunday, when the family attended a little church in town.
It’s this simplicity of his upbringing, and the integrity of his parents, that he sees as helping him to survive the tough years that came afterwards, and ultimately to thrive. “We put our kids to fifteen ears of quick-cut advertising, passive television watching, and sadistic video games, and we expect to see emerge a new generation of calm, compassionate and engaged human beings?” he writes. By contrast, “In the kind of place where I grew up, what’s coming at you is the sound of the sea and the smell of the wind and your mama’s voice…. On Cat Island, I was stimulated but I wasn’t bombarded.”
When he was ten years old, the state of Florida banned the purchase of tomatoes from the Bahamas, which destroyed the family business, and spurred the Poitiers to move to the city of Nassau. The urban setting was certainly an education for him, although neither a formal nor altogether happy one. He dropped out of school at the age of 12, by 13, “I was taking giant stries toward becoming a full-fledged rogue,” by 15, he was getting into so much trouble that his father sent him to live with an older brother in Miami. After some harrowing encounters with the racism of 1940s Florida, at age 16 he used his savings to take the first bus that would take him as far as possible from the South – which turned out to be New York City.
He worked odd jobs, mostly as a dishwasher in Harlem, sometimes slept in public toilets, joined the Army, and got himself kicked out of it. One day, while perusing the Amsterdam News for dishwasher jobs, he stumbled on the theater page, with an article on how the American Negro Theatre was looking for actors. “What the hell’ I thought….Acting didn’t sound any more difficult than washing dishes or parking cars.” But his auditioner, listening to a teenager with a thick singsong Bahamian accent who could barely read, threw him out by the scruff of his neck, and told him to get a job he could handle “as a dishwasher or something.”
The comment stung – “I had never mentioned to him that I was a dishwasher. How did he know?”– provoked him to embark on an intense course of self-improvement just to prove the guy wrong; that he was not destined to be a dishwasher his whole life. He learned to read, tutored by a Jewish waiter with whom he worked, during their breaks. And it worked. The theater hired him, as a janitor and an understudy. The night of the first major run through, “the other Caribbean kid they’d cast for the lead – a kid named Harry Belafonte – couldn’t make it.” That night a casting director happened to be in attendance – and cast him in a play on Broadway…in 1946, when he was 19 years old. Four years later, he starred in his first movie, “No Way Out” – which was the first movie his parents had ever seen.
There is more to the story of his stumbling onto stardom, much more, and it’s a delight – the kind of legendary tale that lovers of Broadway and Hollywood live for. But Poitier makes clear his life wasn’t just a show business fairytale. Even after he had been on Broadway and in Hollywood, he still had trouble finding work, and for a time tried to make it as the co-owner of a hole-in-the-wall bbq joint in Harlem – spending much of his time washing dishes.
Part of the problem was straightforward racism. Poitier tells us he pushed so much to increase the paltry opportunities for employment of black performers on Broadway that he was “blacklisted…charged with being a troublemaker.”
Yet, even though he was now married and struggling to care for his family, he turned down a job in a movie because he thought the character he was asked to play was too passive; didn’t fight for himself – a decision that so impressed the agent representing the movie that he took Poitier on as his client, instrumental in launching Poitier’s career as a bona fide movie star.
“I decided way back at the beginning, back when I was still washing dishes in a barbecue joint in Harlem,” Sidney Poitier explains, “that the work I did would never bring dishonor to my father’s name.”