Sidney Poitier, who was 94, has passed away. He was a pioneer, and the Hollywood actor is remembered as the first Black actor. movie starand the first Black man to win Oscar for best actor.
Poitier could wear many hats. He was an actor, director and civil rights icon who was loved by many. He came from the Bahamas and settled in New York with the dream of reaching Hollywood.
However, Poitier attended school for only two years, so he couldn’t read very well.
The legendary Hollywood actor met a kind Jewish waiter, who would forever change his life.
As fans and fellow actors mourned Poitier’s loss, a clip of his 2013 interview with CBS Sunday Morning’s Lesley Stahl made rounds on the internet. The emotional episode featured him recalling how his waiter taught Poitier to read and write English.
Poitier was a dishwasher at a New York restaurant at the time. He would bring newspapers to his shifts and help to pay the bills. As he was trying to read the paper, a Jewish waiter sat at a table and asked Poitier what was in the news.
The iconic Hollywood actor then explained that he couldn’t read in English as he “didn’t have very much of an education,” so he couldn’t tell him what was in the papers.
“He asked, ‘Would you like me to read with you?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, if you’d like to.’” Poiter recalled.
After his shift, Poiter was taught by the waiter how to read English. Poiter was overcome with emotion as he thought back to the kindness shown him by this stranger. Although he had nothing to learn from the man, he did it anyway.
“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,” Poiter said.
“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.”
The daily lessons paid off. Poitier was able to share the knowledge he gained from the waiter and took him places he had only ever dreamed of. He soon got an acting apprenticeship with a theater company, and he went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Poitier played more refined roles in Hollywood films than the majority of Hollywood movies that featured Black characters. The prolific actor’s most remarkable works include “To Sir With Love,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”
“I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier said about his decision to play upright roles. “If the screen does not make room for me in the structure of their screenplay, I’d step back. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”
He had an amazing acting career. But he had one regret.
“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,” Poitier revealed in an episode of the What It Takes podcast.
Poitier has also paid tribute, in interviews with Oprah and multiple award acceptance speeches, to the waiter. It’s clear how much he valued the man’s generosity.
Poitier was well-known for his acting talents and his advocacy for civil rights. Poitier was an active participant in the fight for racial equality and was made an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire Order by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also awarded both the Kennedy Center Honor as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Watch Poitier’s emotional 2013 interview in the video below.
Sidney Poitier, rest in peace.