Wednesday, February 02, 2000

Sidney Poitier humbled by profile


Trailblazing actor 'One Bright Light'

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sidney Poitier may not like the comparison, but he was the Jackie Robinson of film.

        Through carefully chosen roles in the 1950s and '60s, he became the first big African-American star in mainstream movies.

        “The kinds of jobs I got . . . were the kinds of jobs that we (African-Americans) wanted to be part of. We wanted to be considered as teachers, as doctors, as lawyers, as scientists,” said Mr. Poitier, 72, who is profiled by PBS' American Masters series today (8 p.m., Channels 48, 54, 16).

        “There I was, part after part, pushing that envelope,” with the help of Hollywood producers and directors like Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, Daryl Zanuck and David Suskind.

        The characters he played “were fundamentally good people,” to force the white audience to ask: What's wrong with this person, other than the color of his skin?

        Yes, he did that. But in his mind, it didn't equal the effort by the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, three years before Mr. Poitier's film debut in No Way Out.

        “It makes me feel a little bit strange,” he said of the comparison, “because there is only one Jackie Robinson. And I knew him. And I always looked up to him as bigger than life, you know.

        “What he endured, it would take 1,000 men to be able to absorb. I wish I had enough ego to say, "I feel good about somebody saying I was like Jackie Robinson,' but I don't have that much ego, I can tell you that.”

        If he did have a big ego, he checked it at the door before breakfast at the recent TV writers' press tour in California. He humbly reflected on his life and career, explaining how the son of a Bahamas tomato farmer could become one of the world's most recognized faces, an influential Hollywood director and the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan.

        Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light will offer rare insights into Mr. Poitier, thanks to his friendship with director Lee Grant, his co-star in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night (1967).

        “I am a very private person, and I was not necessarily interested in this, but I came to it with a respect built up over many years for her,” he told TV critics.

        “What you will see on this film, and the things I say, I wouldn't have said it to anybody else in the world.”

        One Bright Light takes viewers with Mr. Poitier back to his childhood home of Cat Island in the Bahamas. He spent the first 101/2 years there without running water, electricity or automobiles.

        Each of his four brothers and two sisters was assigned chores. His job was to haul a bucket of fresh water 200 yards every day.

        “Life was lived very close to the edge in terms of survival,” he said. “So early, the sense of participation and responsibility seeped into me.”

        They have been his guiding light ever since.

        “With two exceptions in 56 movies, I never played a part that I felt did not the values by which I conducted my life,” he said.

        “That was not easy,” he explained. “The only power I had was the power to say no, which I did as often as necessary.”

At ease with himself
        He didn't say no to Porgy and Bess (1959), the George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward musical drama, and The Long Ships (1964), in which he played a villain vying with a Viking warrior (Richard Widmark) for a treasure.

        Ms. Grant, who narrated the film, credited Mr. Poitier's success in America to the fact that he grew up on an island where he was part of the majority population.

        “When he came to America, his character was fully formed,” she said. “And to me, that sense of ease with himself, that sense of comfort, that sense of humor, that sense of allowing people to see him as a man — not just as a black man — was the thing that allowed Sidney to (succeed).”

        At 15, he was sent to Miami by his father to live with relatives. Soon he had a brush with the Ku Klux Klan, after delivering a package to the front door — instead of the back — of a white woman's residence.

        He fled to New York, where he slept in bus station pay toilets and worked as a dishwasher. He listened to the radio to lose his accent, which enabled him to work at the American Negro Theater.

        Mr. Poitier moved to Hollywood in 1949 and a year later debuted in No Way Out as a hospital intern despised by a bigot (Mr. Widmark).

        In 1964, he became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor, for Lilies of the Field. No black actor has done that since.

        He stepped away from acting in the early 1970s to write his autobiography, This Life, then returned to Hollywood to act again and direct. In recent years, he has been busy writing “a spiritual autobiography” examining his childhood values, and serving as the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan.

        “I have been writing. I have been living,” said Mr. Poitier, who turns 73 on Feb. 24. “When you get to be as old as I am, you become very possessive of your most important asset, which is your time.”

Insider and outsider
        For 50 years, he has had a unique perspective on America, as both an insider and outsider, on show business and racism, two topics which have become intertwined with the NAACP's protest about the lack of minorities on and in television.

        “My own struggles in my career with racism ... is not so much my career, but my life,” he said.

        “Racism is very painful,” he said. “That's life. It never ends.”

        The thriving careers of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and James Earl Jones offer “clear evidence” of how Hollywood has changed since his arrival, he said.

        “There's been a bushel of change, (but) certainly we're not home yet,” he said. “Yes, we've come this far. We still have a way to go.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.