Sidney Poitier’s Free English Lessons Changed his Life

The first Black actor to win an Academy Award was deeply grateful to a waiter who gave him free reading lessons every night after work. He went on to be the first Black actor to receive important roles in Hollywood films. He died on 6 January.

Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963 for “Lilies in the Field”.

Imagine you are an immigrant to New York City who wants to become an actor at the age of 16. You grew up in another county and have a strong accent. Your parents were farmers and you only went to school for 2 years. You don’t go to school now and wash dishes in a restaurant to pay your rent. You read very slowly and with difficulty. In fact, you can’t read the scripts for the plays that you want to act in. Do you think you will go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor one day and be one of the world’s most respected actors?

Probably not. But that is what Sidney Poitier did in 1963, when he went from being a dishwasher to the first Black actor to receive the Best Actor award after performing in 21 films. He continued to have an amazing acting career, which lasted 60 years. Not only because of his acting, but also because of his good character.

Hollywood’s first film studio was built in 1911, but until the 1950s all of the actors playing the main parts were white. Black actors only played minor roles as servants or criminals because of the racial divisions of the time. However, Poitier wouldn’t accept roles like that.

In 1950 Sidney Poitier played the part of Doctor Luther Brooks in “No Way Out”, a film about racist violence. It was his big break. In “Lilies of the Field” (1963), he plays a young man who helps 5 refugee nuns who want to build a church, a school and a hospital. Another of Poitier’s best films is “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), where he plays the part of Detective Virgil Tibbs. He investigates a murder in a town with a violent racist history. The scene where a white man slaps him and Detective Tibbs slaps him back is a Hollywood first.

But how did this happen?

Sidney Poitier was always very clear about it. And he very grateful to one special person: an elderly waiter:

“There was one of the waiters, a Jewish guy, elderly man, and he looked over at me, and he was looking at me for quite a while. I had a newspaper, it was called Journal American. And he walked over to me, and he said, ‘What’s new in the paper?’ And I looked up at this man. I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you what’s in the paper, because I can’t read very well.’ He said, ‘Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, if you like.’”

“Now let me tell you something: every night, …” (Poitier becomes emotional in the interview). “Every night, the place is closed, everybody is gone, and he sat there with me. Week after week after week. I learned a lot. And after that things started to happen.”

He later described the man as a patient, elderly man with glasses. He taught Poitier about punctuation marks and the how to pronounce the words in the newspaper. During the day, he listened to the radio to improve his vocabulary and his pronunciation. After six months, Poitier could finally read well.

One regret that Poitier had was that when he went back to the restaurant to thank the waiter, the elderly man had gone and Poitier never found him. But Poitier was deeply grateful for the free reading lessons that changed his life.

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