From 2013: Interview with Sidney Poitier

He was a legend. He was a pioneer. Sidney Poitier, who passed away this week at the age of 94, was a revolutionary artist… truly in a class of his own. In 2013, “Sunday Morning” asked Lesley Stahl to speak with the Oscar-winning actor. We couldn’t imagine a better memory than their conversation:

Sidney Poitier’s life has been a series of “firsts”. In 1959, he was the first black man nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as an escaped convict alongside Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones”. He was the first black man to kiss a white woman in a 1965 movie, “A Patch of Blue.” And when he won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, he wasn’t just the first black actor. to do so, he remained the only one until 2002.

After appearing in more than 50 films, Poitier said his career choices were less about being “the first” and more about being his characters.

He didn’t want, he told CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl, to play the part of someone immoral or cruel. “If you walk through my career, you’ll find that I haven’t. I never have.”

Actor-director Sidney Poitier.

CBS News

His typical character was dignified, proud and ethical. Take Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who reluctantly helps a small-town Mississippi police chief (played by Rod Steiger) solve a murder, in “In the Heat of the Night” from 1967.

But before signing on to play the role, Poitier asked the film studio for a major script change for a scene in which his character is slapped: “I said, ‘If he slaps me, I’ll slap him back. . put down on paper that the studio accepts that the film won’t be shown anywhere in the world, with me standing to take the slap in the face. ‘”

“My God, did you write that in the contract?” Said Stahl.

“It’s true,” he replied.

“And sure, that’s one of those big, big moments in the whole movie, the whole movie, when you slap him back.”

“Yes, I knew I would have insulted all the black people in the world [if I hadn’t], Poitier said.

Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs takes no insults lightly from Larry Gates, in the 1967 mystery “In the Heat of the Night”.

United artists

The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born three months premature while his Bahamian parents were in Miami selling tomatoes. Not knowing if he would survive, his father bought a small coffin, while his mother consulted a palm reader …

“The lady took his hand and started talking to my mother, and she said, ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier recalls. “‘He will walk with kings.'”

Poitier lived in the Bahamas until the age of 15, when his parents – fearing their son was on the way to delinquency – sent him back to Miami to live with his older brother. But at 16, Poitier left for New York, where he tried his hand at the theater, when he only had two years of schooling.

“You couldn’t read, you had a very strong Bahamian accent and you decided to try and become an actor? Why did you choose this path? It just doesn’t make sense,” Stahl said.

“I had no way of knowing that there is some insanity in what I’m trying to do,” he said.

After a disastrous audition with the American Negro Theater, where Poitier could barely read the script, an act of kindness in his dishwasher job changed his life.

“One of the waiters, a Jew, an old man. I had a journal, and he walked up to me, he looked at me and said, ‘What’s new in the journal?’ And I looked up to this man and I said, ‘I can’t tell you what’s in the newspaper, because I can’t read very well.’ He said, “Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you? I said to him: ‘Yes, if you want.’

“Now let me tell you something: every night … every night the place is closed, everybody’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week.” I learned a lot. Many.

“And then things started to happen.”

Like getting an acting apprenticeship with the same theater company that had made him laugh at his audition.

There, Poitier learned alongside actors like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Harry Belafonte.

And then in 1950, he played his first leading role in a movie “No Way Out”, as a doctor faced with the overt racism of a prisoner played by Richard Widmark.

From the start of his career, Poitier insisted that he portrayed upright, well-educated men and often stronger in character than the whites around him.

“I didn’t enter the world of cinema to be symbolized by someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier said. “If the screen didn’t make room for me in their script structure, I’d take a step back. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”

In 1967, Poitier was among Hollywood’s top 10 silver producers and one of the top 10 men. In that year alone he starred in “To Sir, With Love”; the Oscar “In the heat of the night”; and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

But that year he began to face criticism from some members of the African-American community, who called him “Uncle Tom” for the “purity” of his roles.

“And it didn’t hurt you?” Stahl asked.

“To hurt me for what?” ” he has answered. “I’m just saying, ‘I live by a certain code.’ I must have some decency in my behavior. I must have it. “

In the 1970s, Poitier turned to directing. And surprisingly, the actor who has so often embodied elegance, grace and seriousness, has directed slapstick comedies including “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Stir Crazy”.

In the 1980s, he turned to writing books, producing three autobiographies. And when Stahl met Poitier, then 86, had just written a novel, “Montaro Caine.”

“I didn’t intend to make a good impression,” he explained. “I was breaking free of myself. I was looking for who I am at this point in my life.”

“Did you find out? Stahl asked.

” A little yes.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a good person,” Poitier smiles.

This story originally aired on May 12, 2013.

For more information:

Story produced by Kay Lim. Publisher: Remington Korper.

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