Lessons from a wise old actor

Special to The Times

In 1967, Sidney Poitier had three box-office smashes: “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” It was the career apex of a trailblazing actor who had vaulted over Hollywood’s color barrier to become Hollywood’s first black leading man, upturning the stereotypical roles inhabited by Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit and the like. Poitier gave the movies a bold new image of an African American man who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his white counterparts. That he did this during the turbulent years of the civil rights era made his impact even greater.

Then, suddenly, the love affair was over. In the racial and political fury of the late ’60, Poitier and the button-down, impossibly noble characters he played became outdated symbols of slow, moderate progress in a country that was in rapid upheaval. He worked decades longer without another major hit, gradually receding into the role of elder statesman -- revered by African American actors and filmmakers who passed through doors he opened, but seemingly ignored by just about everyone else.

What will Sidney Poitier’s legacy be to future generations, those born in the Barack Obama era and beyond? It’s an unasked question that resonates through “Life Beyond Measure,” Poitier’s third memoir. Composed as a series of letters to Poitier’s great-granddaughter Ayele, born in 2005 (when Poitier was in his late 70s), the book is equal parts family history, autobiography and ruminations on love, faith, life, death and personal strengths and foibles.

Poitier never lectures or condescends, but “Life Beyond Measure” still has the feel of an old man waxing nostalgic and philosophical to a little girl bouncing on his lap. He revisits oft-told tales from the arc of his life, from his upbringing in a dirt-poor paradise in the Bahamas, to arriving in New York alone at 16 and sleeping in bus-station pay toilets, to the job search that led him to an ad for “actors wanted.” Here, though, the stories are used as object lessons and entrees to broader essays about the world Poitier bequeaths to the little girl. It’s all written in simple, gentle prose that’s restrained even by Poitier’s own standards; not kid stuff exactly, but you won’t find the four-letter words or the simmering anger that fueled Poitier’s two previous books, “This Life” and “The Measure of a Man.”


Restraint and simmering anger are, of course, trademarks of the Poitier screen persona. His roles were groundbreaking, but only because of his skin color. Poitier had to be impossibly virtuous, perfectly spoken and sexless -- his few onscreen romances, such as in “For Love of Ivy,” were decidedly chaste. And when he railed against injustices, his temper was never allowed to boil; instead, it sputtered out in brilliant but measured bursts. Nowadays, his famous line, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” would be followed by a string of expletives, and he wouldn’t just slap the racist aristocrat in “In the Heat of the Night,” he’d deck the guy. But in Poitier’s day, there were limits to what his characters could say and do, so as not to offend the sensibilities of white moviegoers.

Off-screen, Poitier has wrestled with his own limitations. He remains something of an enigma, aware of his immense historical significance yet keeping his distance, unwilling to fully embrace his icon status. In “Life Beyond Measure,” Poitier explains the origins of this distance, writing beautifully about the shyness that took shape in his youth, when he had few friends and was left to wander tiny Cat Island alone. Later on, to shield himself against the “mad pace of life” in New York and the “shock of racism,” which he’d seldom faced in the Bahamas, Poitier became a loner, an outsider.

"[N]o matter how much of a public life I went on to have, I never shed that first skin,” he writes. " . . . I was not a social person at all when I decided to become an actor.”

Poitier called “The Measure of a Man,” “a spiritual autobiography,” but he devotes even more space here to questions about the existence of a higher power. Poitier is hardly dogmatic and subscribes to no particular faith; his views are informed by Christianity, but also by other influences, including the Caribbean voodoo practiced by his Bahamian mother and thinkers such as Carl Sagan. Without saying it explicitly, Poitier worries that the world his great-granddaughter inherits will be continually threatened by religious conflicts. God, he pleads, “is for all of us. It is not a God for one culture, or one religion, or one planet.”

Poitier describes himself as a searcher, a man whose rise from poverty to fame, from illiterate teen dishwasher to wise old actor, was fueled by endless questioning. It’s typical of Poitier’s modesty that what may be his last book is not another celebration of his triumphs but a collection of lessons learned by that wise old actor, passed on to generations who might never truly understand how he changed movies. Poitier doesn’t seem to mind that; he just hopes the young ones take what he has to offer.


Steve Ryfle is the author of “Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of Godzilla.” He is at work on a book about African American cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s.