Sidney Poitier recounts roots in poverty, soothsayer's prophecy

April 13, 2001

Sidney Poitier recounts roots in poverty, soothsayer's prophecy

By DON AINES / Staff Writer

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. - The Bahamian ambassador to Japan regaled students, faculty and guests at Shippensburg University Thursday night, but had relatively little to say about his other career as an Oscar-winning actor.


"The man that I am was being built from inside the boy that I was," Sidney Poitier said of his life growing up on Cat Island, the youngest of seven children born to tomato farmer Reginald Poitier and his wife Evelyn.

A lean and youthful-looking 74, Poitier spoke at the university, where he was awarded an honorary doctor of public service degree.

Before the presentation Poitier said his father would travel by sailboat twice a year to sell tomatoes in Miami. On one such trip in 1927, he took along his pregnant wife, "expecting to be back well before my birth, but I was two months premature."


Poitier was born in a clapboard shack in a segregated section of Miami. Fearing his son would die, Reginald went to a local undertaker and returned with a shoebox he expected would serve as his premature son's coffin, the actor said.

Evelyn Poitier, however, went to a local soothsayer.

"Don't worry about your son. He will survive. He will grow up to travel to most of the corners of the earth. He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous," the palm reader told his mother.

"So for 50 cents my mother found the support she needed for backing a longshot," Poitier told the audience of more than a 1,000 at Heiges Field House.

That accident of birth gave Poitier dual citizenship, but it was not until he was 15 that he moved to Miami to live with an older brother. "My father was getting me off the island because I was getting a little rambunctious," he said.

From there he traveled to Harlem where he began his stage career. His first film, "No Way Out," was released in 1950. Like many of his later films, such as "Blackboard Jungle," "The Defiant Ones," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," it examined the state of racial relations in America.

In 1963, Poitier became the first African American to win the Best Actor Academy Award for "Lilies of the Field," the story of a handyman who helps six German nuns build a chapel in the desert.

In an interview before his speech he called 1968's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" "a very strong and forceful reminder that there are aspects of our society that need to be re-examined."

Now, however, he said the story about an interracial couple barely raises an eyebrow, a mark of how times have changed.

"I live my life by a certain set of values and I try to bring those values to my work," Poitier said.

There's no particular role he is anxious to play, he said, he simply examines a script to see if it fits in with those values.

"I was a restless boy with a fair amount of imagination and no common sense," he said.

His mother worked to instill that common sense through a strict form of discipline Poitier called "the Whap, Whap Method."

He said he didn't always "see the light. Stars is what I saw. And lots of them."

One of his earliest memories was of his mother repeatedly throwing him into the ocean and his father returning him to a makeshift raft from which his mother would again send him flying. Although he was not old enough to walk, he said they did this until he learned to swim.

"She knew that when I learned to walk I would be drawn to the rocks overlooking the ocean" and that she might not always be there to save him.

Poitier went on to break new ground for African-American actors in Hollywood. While the film industry has made great strides in diversity, he said, "There is always ground to be won, because race is still a profound aspect of our society."

Poitier's 51-year career includes more than 50 films in which he starred or directed. His next project is a made-for-television film, "The Last Brickmaker in America," scheduled to air next month on CBS.

While his film career has been begun to wind down after half a century, Poitier has turned to diplomacy as a new career. His dual citizenship allowed him to be named the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan, a position he has held since 1997.

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