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MOVIES : The Defiant One : Sidney Poitier's career has been one of self-determination, played out in Hollywood but grounded in reality

March 08, 1992|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin is the former arts editor of The Times

On Thursday night, at festivities to be televised later, Sidney Poitier will become the American Film Institute's 20th Life Achievement Award winner (a succession that began with John Ford in 1973 and has included James Cagney, Orson Welles, Bette Davis and Alfred Hitchcock, among others). Poitier is the first black person to be so honored, which is at once a commentary on his own great accomplishments but, hardly less, on the long struggle it has been for black actors and directors (Poitier is both) to achieve eminence in Hollywood.

Poitier, who was also honored with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1989, was for years virtually the only important black male film star in American films. But, thanks not least to his own unprecedented success, he stands now, at the age of 65, as the forerunner of a large and growing population of actors that includes such figures as Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Larry Fishburne and Forest Whitaker among the men, and Whoopi Goldberg and Alfre Woodard among the women.

Poitier's own story is cinematic in its often wryly surprising way. Born in Miami but raised in the West Indies, Poitier had emigrated to New York in his teens. He did a hitch in the Army at 16 by saying he was 18, and was later working as a kind of free-lance dishwasher and busboy, answering want ads and being sent out by employment agencies, when he saw an ad for actors. It was in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper, and had been placed by the American Negro Theater, which was then enjoying a large Broadway success with "Anna Lucasta."

Blithely insisting he was already an actor, Poitier was handed a script at an audition and told to read one of the parts. "I'd only been to school for a year and a half, so at that point in my life I was unable to read very well," Poitier said the other day in his by now beautifully modulated voice. "So I started reading very haltingly. Also I suffered from a very thick West Indian accent."

His auditioner was Frederick O'Neal, one of the founders of the theater and a massive figure. "He came up on the stage, furious, and grabbed me by the scruff of my pants and my collar and marched me toward the door. Just before he threw me out he said, 'Stop wasting people's time! Why don't you get yourself a job as a dishwasher.' "

The remark was so close to the facts of his life that it shook Poitier. "Was there a mark on me that my destiny is that of a dishwasher?" he asked himself. Walking toward 7th Avenue to catch a bus downtown to the employment agencies, he made up his mind, rather defiantly, to become an actor--at least long enough to show O'Neal that he could be an actor if he chose to be, before he pursued something else--if he chose to.

He went back to washing dishes, but also bought a radio and spent all his spare time listening to the announcers--"trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns." Unaware of printed plays, he bought some copies of "True Confessions" magazines in search of a piece he could memorize and recite.

Months later he went back to the theater again on an audition day, along with 70 other young hopefuls. They did soliloquies or scenes; he recited his paragraph from "True Confessions." He received the familiar don't-call-us routine, and when the theater did call him it was to say he'd been rejected.

"I found that that was devastating, and I couldn't accept it," Poitier remembers. He went to the theater again and sought out another of the founders, Abram Hill. Poitier told Hill he'd noticed the theater had no janitor and he volunteered to do the job in exchange for acting lessons. "And that's how I got into the American Negro Theater," Poitier says.

After nine months of lessons, he was given a chance to understudy a role in the annual student production, that year a play called "Days of Our Youth." The actor he was understudying was Harry Belafonte, later a film star in his own right, although his greater fame has been as a singing entertainer.

In the fine show-biz tradition, Poitier went on one night when Belafonte couldn't make it, and was seen by a visiting director who was casting an all-black production of "Lysistrata." He hired Poitier for a small role. It was his first professional job and he was terrified. "Oh, my lord, I'm going out there in front of 1,200 people," he told himself.

He forgot his opening line, jumping several speeches down into the script and naturally terrified the young actor playing opposite him. The other actor manfully went back to the first line, but Poitier jumped even further forward in the script. "At this point the audience starts laughing. My assumption is they're laughing at me because I'm so dumb." Finally Poitier ran out of lines and left the stage. "I was in the rest of the play but only as a kind of extra standing with other people."

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