The world lost one of its greatest actors when Sidney Poitier passed away last week at 94. He was a trailblazer, the Hollywood actor is known to be the first Black movie star and the first Black man to win the Oscar for best actor.
Poitier wore many hats. He was an actor, director, and civil rights icon loved by many. He came from the Bahamas to New York with dreams of making it to Hollywood.
However, Poitier attended school for only two years, so he couldn’t read very well.
Luckily, the legendary Hollywood actor met a kind Jewish waiter who would change his life forever.
As fans and fellow actors mourned Poitier’s loss, a clip of his 2013 interview with CBS Sunday Morning’s Lesley Stahl made rounds on the internet. In the emotional episode, he recalled how the waiter taught him to read and write in English.
At the time, Poitier worked as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant to support himself, and he would regularly bring newspapers to his shifts. One day, as he tried to read one of the papers, an elderly Jewish waiter sitting at a table saw him and asked him what was in the news.
The iconic Hollywood actor then explained that he couldn’t read in English as he “didn’t have very much of an education,” so he couldn’t tell him what was in the papers.
“He asked, ‘Would you like me to read with you?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, if you’d like to.’” Poiter recalled.
The waiter taught him to read English after his work shift. At this point in the story, Poiter fought back his tears as he remembered the kindness of this stranger. The man had nothing to gain from teaching him, but he still did it regardless.
“Every night after that he would come over and sit with me, and he would teach me what a comma is and why it exists, what periods are, what colons are, what dashes are,” Poiter said.
“He would teach me that there are syllables and how to differentiate them in a single word and consequently, learn how to pronounce them. Every night.”
The daily lessons paid off, and the knowledge the waiter shared with him brought Poitier to places he only once dreamed of. He soon got an acting apprenticeship with a theater company, and he went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Most Hollywood movies then presented Black characters negatively, and Poitier changed this by playing more refined roles in films. The prolific actor’s most remarkable works include “To Sir With Love,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”
“I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier said about his decision to play upright roles. “If the screen does not make room for me in the structure of their screenplay, I’d step back. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”
He enjoyed an illustrious acting career, but he had one major regret.
“One of my great regrets in life is that I went on to be a very successful actor, and one day I tried to find him, but it was too late, and I regret that I never had the opportunity to really thank him,” Poitier revealed in an episode of the What It Takes podcast.
Poitier has also paid tribute to the waiter in interviews with Oprah and in multiple award acceptance speeches. It’s clear how much he valued the man’s generosity.
Aside from his great acting skills, Poitier was known for being a civil rights advocate. He joined the fight for racial justice and was named an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. He also received the Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Watch Poitier’s emotional 2013 interview in the video below.
Rest in peace, Sidney Poitier.