Sidney Poitier: The extraordinary story of how the late icon learnt to read for his first foray into acting

·3-min read

Sidney Poitier, the first ever Black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, has died, aged 94.

The news was announced by Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell, prompting tributes from the world of entertainment.

Bahamian-American star Poitier was automatically granted US citizenship after being unexpectedly born in Miami while his parents were visiting in February 1927.

He grew up in the Bahamas but moved to America when he was 15, and served in World War Two as a teen after lying about his age.

After leaving the army, he worked as a dishwasher until an unusual audition landed him a place at acting school.

In the 2004 biography of the star, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, author Aram Goudsouzian tells the extraordinary story of how Poitier learnt to read for his first ever foray into acting.

He writes of how, in the spring of 1945, an 18-year-old Poitier knocked on the door of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, New York. The theatre’s co-founder, Frederick O’Neal, answered the door.

“He pretended that he had been acting for years,” writes Goudsouzian. “A sceptical O’Neal handed him a script. Poitier would read one part from the stage while O’Neal responded from the orchestra. Poitier had never set foot on a stage. He’d never even heard the word ‘script’.”

Sidney Poitier filming ‘In the Heat of the Night’ in 1969 (Getty Images)
Sidney Poitier filming ‘In the Heat of the Night’ in 1969 (Getty Images)

Poitier struggled his way through the first line, word by word, and was soon dismissed by O’Neal. Goudsouzian writes that O’Neal told the young Poitier: “You can hardly talk. You’ve got an accent. You can’t be an actor with an accent like that. And you can hardly read. You can’t be an actor and not be able to read.”

The rejection only made Poitier more determined to become an actor. For the next six months, writes Goudsouzian, he “embarked upon an incredible programme of self-education”. While working as a dishwasher, he saved up for a radio and, trying to get rid of his Bahamian accent, mimicked the clean diction of the people in soaps, news bulletins and adverts.

He read any newspaper or magazine he could get his hands on. An “elderly, bespectacled Jewish waiter” he worked with helped him read and expand his vocabulary with copies of the New York Journal-American.

After half a year had passed, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theatre. He was responding to an open call for the ANT School of Drama. “He felt like a rank amateur... The other students read scenes from actual plays.” writes Goudsouzian. “Poitier brought an excerpt from True Confessions magazine. Even worse, he chose a love story – from a woman’s point of view… The spectators’ jaws dropped.”

It was suggested that Poitier perform an improvisation of a soldier caught in the jungle, instead. And so he did. He was sure the audition had been a disaster but he was accepted into the programme. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1955, Poitier secured his first lead film role in Blackboard Jungle. He went on to star in 55 films and TV series, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field, and has gone down in history for breaking down Hollywood’s racial barriers.

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