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Sidney Poitiers’ Pioneering Journey to Hollywood

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There was no doubting the figure walking down the hall at halftime of a UCLA basketball game at the Pauley Pavilion in the fall of 2002. Seventy-five years old and still strikingly beautiful , Sidney Poitier could not have stood out more if he had had a spotlight on him. I must have been 100 feet away, but I felt these little electric currents shooting through my fingertips, the internal hum created only by the charisma of the kind of movie star that takes your breath away, the kind that stands tall , I can say without hyperbole, as the most important American film actor of the 20th century.

For what it’s worth, I hardly ever approach celebrities. But this time it was different. At the Oscars earlier that year, Poitier received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his remarkable achievements as an artist and as a human being. In his speech, Poitier, who died this month at 94, remarked on the uncharted path he had followed since arriving in Hollywood in 1949 as a 22-year-old Bahamian-American brand new to film.

Poitier attributes its success to the courageous and disinterested choices of a handful of visionary American filmmakers.

Almost instantly, Poitier attributed his success to countless brave and selfless choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers who are unafraid to allow their art to reflect their values, ethics and morals.

They knew the odds were stacked against them, Poitier continued. Yet these filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best of us all. And I benefited from their efforts. The industry has benefited from their efforts. America has benefited from their efforts. And in ways big and small, the world has benefited from their efforts.

Then he named these visionary filmmakers. The first that came out of his mouth struck a deep chord. With respect, he said, I share this honor with the late Joe Mankiewicz, before speaking of Richard Brooks, Ralph Nelson, Darryl Zanuck, Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch brothers, Guy Green and Norman Jewison.

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It shouldn’t have been surprising that Poitier started with Joseph Mankiewicz, since my great-uncle Joe had portrayed Poitier in the actors’ first film, No Way Out (1950), a melodrama about a young black doctor who treats two racist gangsters. . One was played by Richard Widmark, sparking a lifelong friendship between him and Poitier. Joe had gone to Harlem to look for black theater actors to play the lead in No Way Out, and he had been impressed by Poitier, who was simultaneously working as a janitor at the American Negro Theater, taking acting lessons instead of acting. ‘salary.

Poitier didn’t yet have a clear understanding of how Hollywood worked, but he was a quick study. When he auditioned he told a pretty innocent lie, telling Joe he was 27 when he was really 22. he assumed he would never get the part and besides he s was already committed to performing in a play in New York. When he landed the role, he thought Joe would fire him if the truth came out.

It turns out, of course, that everyone in Hollywood lies about their age; Poitier had nothing to fear. Play was another matter, but Joe Mankiewicz and the Poitiers agent got him out of play at $75 a week and into a big movie at $750 a week. Shortly after the film’s release, Poitiers’ parents Reggie and Evelyn Poitier went to a theater in Nassau, Bahamas to see No Way Out. It was the first time they had seen their son in a film. It was also the first time they saw a movie.

It’s hard to imagine such a humble origin story for an actor who became one of the defining movie stars of the 20th century, but it’s a piece of what sets Poitier apart from other greats of his day, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Dean and William Holden among them. As great as these actors are, they have never taken responsibility for all white people, nor for all Christians, nor for all Jews. That kind of weight fell on Sidney Poitier. From No Way Out to 1967, when he became the nation’s top movie star with three huge hits, To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Whos Coming to Dinner, Poitier carried a unique burden. For millions of viewers, he represented every black man trying to manage life in post-war America.

There were no other black leaders. The white men who ran Hollywood wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t write that Poitier had to be the only black male movie star, but they didn’t have to. Scholars like film historian Donald Bogle, who has written extensively about the black experience in film and television, make it clear that actors like James Edwards or Ivan Dixon, who possessed all the charisma, talent, the beauty and masculinity necessary for stardom, would always have to settle for supporting roles in big movies.

I really felt like I was representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made, Poitier wrote in a memoir.

While Newman, Brando, Holden and their brothers pursued the role that sparked their artistic interest, Poitier chose his roles carefully, always understanding what his characters meant to white and black America. I really felt like I represented 15, 18 million people with every move I made, he wrote in a memoir published in 2000.

I doubt I had much of that in mind as I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to walk through the lobby of the Pauley Pavilion and thank Poitier for mentioning my great-uncle at the Oscars. Mr. Poitier, I said, perhaps preventing him from buying a giant hot dog and a beer at the concession stand. I followed it up with something like, My name is Ben Mankiewicz. On behalf of the whole family, I want to thank you for raising my Uncle Joe to the Oscars. It really meant

I’m sure I rambled. None of this matters. What I remember is Poitier mercifully lifting me out of misery by putting his hands on my shoulders and meeting my eyes. I had to find his height: he was 62 years old. He seemed to have 610. I’ve interviewed hundreds of movie stars over the past two decades, but Poitiers’ presence felt like it filled the entire arena.

Joe Mankiewicz gave me my start, he said. He gave me my career, everything. I am so grateful to him. There was no scenario where I wouldn’t have thanked him that night. He excused himself graciously and left. Garden side, if I remember correctly.

The most important actor of the 20th century opened a road that hundreds of actors of color can now travel, a road that did not exist for Poitier when he arrived in Hollywood in 1949. Who he thought had a debt of gratitude to a few filmmakers who recognized his prodigious talent testifies to his considerable character.

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