Poitier Uses Letters to Granddaughter to Tell Life Story

Sidney Poitier is one of Tinseltown's most heralded actors. Known for more than his acting ability, the elder statesman of Hollywood also is praised for his grace, bravery and convictions.

Poitier has chronicled his extraordinary life in the book "Life Beyond Measure." He uses extended letters to his great-granddaughter to tell the story of his life in the book. Read an excerpt of his book below.

Excerpt

The first, most significant turning point in my career came one morning when I happened to stop at a newsstand at the intersection of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, where I picked up a local newspaper, the Amsterdam News, and thumbed through it to the want-ad pages, looking for a job as a dishwasher. With my couple of years of schooling, I couldn't read much in the paper other than the help-wanted listings. Not seeing anything of interest, I turned to toss the paper into the trash. But just as I was about to crumple it up and pitch it into the trash can, I looked again at the paper and my eyes caught something on the opposite page from the one with the dishwasher listings, which happened to be the theatrical listings. It was a headline streamer that said, in bold type: "Actors Wanted."

Knowing nothing about actors, I was still curious enough to look more closely at the article underneath the heading, which told me of a production being cast at a place called the American Negro Theatre in Harlem—not many blocks from where I was standing! The proximity was a major enticement.

After all, ordinarily when looking for work I would get on the subway early and go all the way downtown to stop in at the scores of employment agencies where I would invariably find a dishwashing job somewhere in the distant reaches of mid- to lower Manhattan. But this was a different kind of help-wanted ad, and the theater was close enough to home that I figured, Why not? Why not go to this place, this address, and see what kind of a job it is and what I will have to do?

With that one tiny flash of nothing more than curiosity, I unwittingly altered the direction of my life. Right there on the sidewalk of Harlem, standing over a trash can, a newspaper page in hand, puzzling over two words: "Actors Wanted."

How exactly, you may wonder, did it go at the audition—a word that was then as foreign as the fascinating sights, smells, and flamboyant personalities of the people who inhabited this strange behind-the-scenes world of the theater? Let me tell you, it could not have been worse! The first clue that it wasn't going to be easy was when the director had me read for him from a book. Needless to say, reading silently to myself was still a struggle, but reading aloud was painful for both of us. Before I got very far at all, he said abruptly, "Thank you very much for coming by," and he snatched the book out of my hand.

An extremely large, truly massive fellow, he didn't stop there but actually spun me around, grabbed me by the seat of my pants, and marched me to the door, letting me have it every step of the way. "Go on, get out of here," he bellowed. "Get out of here and stop wasting people's time. Why don't you go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something? You can't read, you can't talk, you're no actor!" And with that he opened the door, pushed me through it, and threw me out. He threw me out! Not quite finished, without skipping a beat, he slammed the door shut.

There was no mistaking the message he had meant to send me, to be sure. But as I was walking to Seventh Avenue from Lenox Avenue and 135th Street to get the bus to go downtown to hunt for a dishwasher job, I got to thinking, and it suddenly occurred to me—Why did he recommend my going out and getting a job as a dishwasher? Not once during the audition did I tell him that I was a dishwasher, so why did he say it? And what became clear to me was that dishwashing was his view of my value as a human being. In that moment, I made the choice that I could not and would not allow that to stand. Now, what was I operating on? I was operating on what I learned from my mom, and what I learned from my dad—that I am somebody. I was always somebody. And here this guy who didn't know me from Adam had fashioned for me a life that I could not allow to happen if I had anything to do with it. I decided then and there, in that pivotal moment, to be an actor, if only to show this man and myself that I could.

Up to that moment, I had no interest in being an actor. What did I know about acting? Get out of here. But I was determined to stand my ground and prove to him that his view of my worth was wrong.

A fateful event soon provided another pivotal moment. After completing another shift at yet another dishwashing job, this one in Queens, I took a seat at a table near the kitchen to wait for a group of waiters to finish up their coffee so I could wash the last dishes before heading home. To pass the time, I started idly browsing through a newspaper that had been left lying there.

An older Jewish waiter, seated with his fellow waiters, noticed me, stood up, and came over. "What's new in the paper?" he asked. "Oh," I said, somewhat awkwardly, and hesitated, not sure how to answer. "I wish that I could tell you," I offered, "but I don't know how to read very well."

"I see," said this gentleman. "Would you like me to read with you?" He was offering me a gift that would transform my life in ways that I couldn't imagine. And the gesture was one of basic kindness, made not so as to embarrass me or obligate me, but because that was who he was.

Of course, I answered yes, enthusiastically. And starting that night, and on many nights that followed, he sat with me after work for as long as we were able to remain, and he taught me to read—sounding out words, explaining syllables, pointing out the patterns of sentences and paragraphs, giving me pointers even on pronunciation.

Long before I could let him know in substantive ways how the power of literacy would change my life, my friend and teacher procured a job waiting tables elsewhere, and we didn't keep in touch after he left. That remains a tragedy, as far as I'm concerned—one that has haunted me for years. My heartfelt regret is that I was never able to properly thank him and tell him the story of how, in part because of his help, I became an actor.

Exerpt from Life Beyond Measure by Sidney Poitier