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Sidney Poitier Choked up While Remembering Kind Jewish Waiter Who Taught Him to Read as a Child

Edduin Carvajal
Jan 19, 2022
01:40 P.M.
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Sidney Poitier couldn't hold back his tears while talking about the elderly Jewish waiter who taught him to read years before making it big as an actor.

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Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor and one of the most popular actors of Hollywood's Golden Age.

His impressive acting skills were outstanding, but he owed much of his success to a Jewish man he worked with. Asking nothing in return, the man taught Poitier to read.

Sidney Poitier in an interview with CBS "Sunday Morning" in 2013 | Photo: YouTube/CBS News

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POITIER WAS EXPECTED TO DIE AS A NEWBORN

"The Defiant Ones" actor is considered one of the most influential Black actors in showbiz history, but everyone was sure he would die two or three days after birth. 

Poitier was born two months early, in February 1927. Doctors expected him to die and gave up on him. Luckily, his mother, Evelyn, never stopped fighting for his life.

She took her baby to different Black sections of Miami, trying to find someone who could save him. Although she visited the church and some friends, nobody gave her hope.

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Evelyn then went to a fortune teller and asked her about Poitier. The woman told her she should not worry about him because he would not be a sickly boy. Instead, he was destined to "walk with kings," "step on pillars of gold," and carry the Poitier name to many places.

Poitier was grateful that Evelyn was his mom. He confessed he couldn't take credit for the person he became because his mom was on his shoulder his entire life. He added:

"I believe that there is a oneness with everything. And because there is this oneness, it is possible that my mother is the principal reason for my life."

Sidney Poitier filming "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967 | Photo: Getty Images

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HE MADE HISTORY AFTER ARRIVING IN NY WITH $3

For Poitier, outliving his prognosis was only the first step of a long and challenging road to success. His family – including his six older siblings – was extremely poor.

Both Evelyn and her husband, Reginald, were tomato farmers and had a farm on Cat Island in the Bahamas. They would frequently go to Miami to sell his products to wholesalers to make ends meet. 

[Poitier] confessed that he didn't know what he was trying to do was crazy.

Sidney Poitier at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015 | Photo: Getty Images

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Still, living on Cat Island was tough because they had no running water or electricity. Getting proper education was also impossible for them, so Poitier moved to his older brother's place in Miami at 15.

It was a complicated adjusting process, mainly because he couldn't read very well. Poitier also dealt with the Ku Klux Klan before moving to New York.

Sidney Poitier and his family in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

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Once there, he found an ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theatre, but the casting director shattered his dreams. Since Poitier had a thick Caribbean accent and couldn't read his lines, the director told him to stop wasting time and better find a job as a dishwasher.

Given that he could not read lines, had a thick accent and had no money to pay for acting lessons, his dream of becoming an actor was unusual. He confessed that he didn't know what he was trying to do was crazy, though. 

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EMOTIONAL RECALL OF THE WAITER WHO TAUGHT HIM TO READ

For the next few months, he watched many American newscasters and tried to talk like them to lose his accent. He also began washing dishes at a restaurant and would use most of his money to pay for acting lessons.

That job changed his life, and he talked about it during an interview with CBS "Sunday Morning." One of the waiters was an elderly Jewish man who saw Poitier with a newspaper in his hands and asked him what was new.

Sidney Poitier at The Broad Stage on July 20, 2017 | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier told him he couldn't answer that because he didn't know how to read very well. The waiter asked if he wanted to read with him, and Poitier accepted. Taking pauses to avoid crying, Poitier revealed:

"Every night, the place is closed, everyone's gone, and he sat there with me. Week, after week, after week. I learned a lot. And then, things began to happen."

Sidney Poitier on April 6, 2017 in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier returned to the same theater company months later with an improved set of skills and got an acting gig in "Days of Our Youth." He made his acting film debut in the late 1940s and began directing movies in the 1970s.

"His most widely remembered films are the ones that broke racial barriers in Hollywood."

Sidney Poitier at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 8, 2016. | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier was part of the entertainment industry for five decades. He was one of the most profitable actors of any race and became the first Black person and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1963's "Lilies of the Field."

In the Oscars' history, only three other Black men have won the Best Actor award: Denzel Washington for 2001's "Training Day," Jamie Foxx for 2004's "Ray," and Forest Whitaker for 2006's "The Last King of Scotland."

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POITIER'S DEATH SHOCKED HOLLYWOOD

On January 6, 2022, Poitier passed away. He was 94. Although he received many tributes while he was alive – Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1974 and former President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 – entertainers honored his legacy after his death. 

Halle Berry, the only Black woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Actress (2001's "Monster's Ball"), wrote that Poitier was looking at her "as a proud father would" when she won her Oscar.

Sidney Poitier with his Academy Award in 1964 | Photo: Getty Images

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Martin Scorsese also praised Poitier's acting prowess and called him a significant figure in American cinema and culture. The "Irishman" director added:

"His most widely remembered films are the ones that broke racial barriers in Hollywood, but he was just as good in many other pictures that we should all look at again."

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Poitier's spent his final day surrounded by close friends and family. In a statement, his relatives called him a brilliant actor and activist with "incredible grace and moral fortitude." 

He is survived by his wife Joanna, six daughters, eight grandchildren, and many more great-grandchildren. His family concluded that Poitier's body might no longer be with them, but his soul would keep guiding and inspiring them. Rest in peace, legend.

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