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CNN Larry King Live

Interview with Sidney Poitier

Aired May 02, 2008 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Sidney Poitier -- actor, author, humanitarian, icon -- a very rare one-on-one.
SIDNEY POITIER, ACTOR: This guy came up on the stage -- an absolutely true story -- and he snatched the book out of my hand.

KING: Compelling, candid.

POITIER: I cannot be understood in three minutes.

KING: Intimate stories and inspirational advice from a trail- blazing movie star. Sidney Poitier opens his heart and shares the unique experiences of a remarkable life, next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Our special guest tonight, a long time coming. For me, a long time in the waiting. Sidney Poitier, one of the most admired actors in the history of movie making, the first African-American to win the Academy Award, for "Lilies of the Field". And his new and brilliant book is "Life beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter."

What inspired you to write this?

POITIER: My great-granddaughter, of course. The inspiration came when I saw her for the first time and she was in her second day of life.

KING: And you said, I'm going to write a book to you?

POITIER: No. I saw in the hospital room her, my great- granddaughter, in her mother's arms. And she and her mother were seated. And behind them was the baby's grandmother and the baby's great-grandmother -- four generations there in one tableau. And I realized that the child is barely two days old and I was about 80. And I realized that there wouldn't be much time between us to spend one to the other.

And I decided I would like to leave some depth to her, of who I was and am, because by the time she would get to be 10 or 12 or 15 or 20, I'm gone. And what she would have then would be a very, very thin sketch of who I, in fact, was.

KING: Do you, Sidney, feel like a great-grandfather?

POITIER: Yes, because I'm a fairly family man. And I also had missed the opportunity to see -- because I was born too late -- to see my great-grandparents on my mother's side -- on my father's side. And I didn't want that to happen to her, because I could not call on images of my great-grandparents. I just couldn't, because I saw bits and pieces of them, but mostly through the words of other members of the family.

KING: Was it a difficult write?

POITIER: Well, I'm writing, essentially, of a life that I've lived and experienced. It's a combination -- an accumulation of experiences. That represented my life, in fact. She will never be able to have the sense of how these moments unfolded unless I spoke them to her and told her what my experiences were at that particular time in my life. And so 20, maybe 30 years from her birth, she will be able to envision what kind of a person I was.

KING: Is there anything you left out, that you said no, I'm not going to write that?

POITIER: Well, if I hadn't, the book would be 500 pages or 1,000 pages. And I don't think that I should leave that to her. I mean, I wanted to leave the essence of myself to her. I'm not a library.

KING: You broke a lot of color barriers and you write about it.

Do you -- did you feel you were doing that? You know, did you say, I'm a black man and this is revolutionary?

POITIER: No. I felt that I was a black man and these moments were important, depending on how I spent them and how I participated in them. I had a sense of responsibility not only to myself and to my time, but certainly to the people I represented. And so I was charged with a responsibility to represent them in ways that they would see and say OK, I like that.

KING: When you decided to become an actor, did you think in terms of Hollywood or stage or did you think in terms of black movies?

POITIER: There were no black movies. There were black movie participants who were all either servants or jockey images in front of people's homes. No.

When I set out to become an actor, I had set myself a standard. I knew what it was to be uncomfortable in a movie theater watching unfolding on the screen images of myself -- not me, but black people -- that were uncomfortable.

So I naturally assumed that the only participation I would ever have in films would have to be of such a nature that I would probably never work.

KING: Then why became an actor?

POITIER: Well, I became an actor because I had to prove a point.

You want to hear about it?

KING: Yes.



Well, I was a dishwasher. I spent my early years in New York City I had no money when I arrived and I had no relatives, no friends. I was 15 turning 16 and I had to earn a living. And my education was quite poor. You know, I quit school at the age of 12-and-a-half and went to work as a day laborer. And -- because my family needed the money to survive.

Anyway, in New York, I was not comfortable being a dishwasher, but it was the platform from which I had to stand in order to feed myself and stuff like that. And one day I was looking for a dishwasher's job in the newspaper. And the news paper was called the "Amsterdam News". And I used to go there to find dishwashing jobs. I could read well enough to read the want ad pages.

KING: It was a black paper?

POITIER: Yes. And one day I'm looking in the -- I was at 125th Street, actually, looking in the newspaper for a dishwashing job. And there were none. And I was about -- I began to fold the paper and put it into the street bin for trash and something on the opposite page caught my eye. And what caught my eye was two words -- "actors wanted." They were the streamers over an article.

So I retrieved the paper and I started reading it. And I read it fairly well -- well enough to understand what it was saying. And what it was saying was actors wanted at a place called the American Negro Theater. It went into some detail, that if -- to come and see us and audition and stuff like that. Well, it never dawned on me to do any such silly thing.

KING: This is fascinating.

We'll be right back with Sidney Poitier.

The book is "Life beyond Measure: Letters to My Great- Granddaughter." And I'm going to read a few later.

Don't go away.



POITIER: I am sick of your foul language, your crude behavior and your sluttish (ph) manner. There are some things a decent woman keeps private and only a filthy slut would have done this. And those who stood by her and encouraged her are just as bad. I don't care who's responsible, you're all to blame.

I'm going to leave this room for five minutes, by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, do them in your homes and not in my classroom. (END VIDEO CLIP)

POITIER: We're back with Sidney Poitier.

The book is "Life beyond Measure: Letters to My Great- Granddaughter."

All right. The paper, the "Amsterdam News," actors, American Negro Theater. So you said, I'll go there?

POITIER: Well, I said -- only the calculation in my head was on this page over here, left-handed, is the want ad pages of dishwashers and porters and stuff like that. You know, people, who did -- worked with their hands. On the other side, the theatrical page, there is this thing saying actors wanted. But they're saying it almost as it's -- there's no difference between the two. So in my head there wasn't any, because I knew nothing about actors and all that stuff. But it's a possibility for a job.

So I went to this place. It was on 135th Street near Lenox Avenue. And it was in the basement of a library. So I went there and I knocked on the door and a guy opened the door -- a massive man, a huge guy.

And he said, yes?

I said, I came to see about the actors wanted.

And he said, are you an actor?

I said, yes.

Oh, my God.

So he said, come in.

And I walked in. And he said -- he had his suspicions from the beginning.

He said, where have you acted?

I said, Florida.

And the truth of the matter is I had gone to Florida from the Caribbean because I had a relative there. My father sent me to him because I was getting to be a young man and he was no longer able to keep a good hand on me.

So the chap said, OK, here is a script. Now, I didn't know what a script was, but he passed me a book. And he said turn to page 28 and take a few minutes and look over the scene. And you will read so and so and I'll read the other part a two part scene. So I said, OK. Fine. I looked at it and I began reading it to myself -- as I could read, barely. I was trying to figure out what some of the words were.

Anyway, he said, are you ready? I said, yes I'm ready.

And he says, OK, step up on that little stage and we'll start.

So I got up on this little stage and I'm holding this book in my hand. (LAUGHTER) Oh, my God. And he said OK, start. And I started. I said...

So where are we going when we -- and this guy came up on the stage. This is an absolutely true story. And he snatched the book out of my hand. And he spun me around and grabbed me here and here. And he starts marching me to the door. And he's saying, as we go, he says get out of here, just get out of here. You're just wasting people's time.

Why don't you go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something?

He said, you can't read. You -- I really couldn't, you know. He says, you're no actor.

We got next to the door. He opened it, pushed me out and slammed it.

So I'm walking from Lenox Avenue and 135th Street toward 7th Avenue, to a bus stop, to catch a bus to go all the way downtown New York to a place called Warren Street, where they had a plethora of employment agencies, so I could get a job there -- probably -- as a dishwasher. So I was going to go there.

But on my way to the bus, I got to thinking, I didn't tell him that I was a dishwasher.

Where would he get the notion to say to me go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher?

And I figured out that that was his view of my worth, you see. He characterized me. That was my limit. That was my level. That was who I could be, who I appeared to him to be. And I decided that I couldn't allow that to stand.

I don't know where I got the idea from, but I decided that I was going to be an actor and I was going to prove to him that he was wrong about me.

KING: Supposing you hadn't seen that ad in the -- that story in the "Amsterdam" paper, life's little luck.


KING: Do you still think you would have been an actor?

POITIER: You know, I have -- you're getting into very, very deep water here, you know, because I am of the opinion that we today -- you and I are sitting here today because of an almost limitless number of choices made by you and by me in our individual lives. Now, you say would I had been had I not. If you pull out one of those millions of choices you made, that would have altered all the choices that followed it.

KING: Correct.

POITIER: So you may not be sitting there and I may not be sitting here.

KING: How much of life is luck?

POITIER: It's a combination of things. But I believe that free will is a fact. And I believe that what we do is because we are driven by the survival need. We are driven to try all kinds of ways to effectuate our survival. And we keep looking for ways to do it as well as we can. While we are doing that with this free will choice we have, there are forces in nature that are operative. We don't know what they are and we probably never ever will know what they are. But they have an influence on our lives.

KING: Sidney Poitier is our guest.

I wish we had hours.

"Letters to My Great-Granddaughter," "Life beyond Measure" is the book.

Don't go away.


POITIER: Your attitudes, Mr. Endicott, your point of view, are a matter of record. Some people -- well, let us say the people who work for Mr. Colbert, might look at you as the person least likely to mourn his passing. We were just trying to clarify some of the evidence.

Was Mr. Colbert ever in this greenhouse, say last night about midnight?




POITIER: Mrs. Drayton, I'm medically qualified. So I hope you wouldn't think it presumptuous if I say you ought to sit down before you fall down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He thinks you're going to faint because he's a Negro.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I don't think I'm going to faint. But I'll sit down anyway.


KING: We're back with Sidney Poitier.

The book is "Life beyond Measure."

When you were born, prematurely, a soothsayer told your mother that you would survive and would some day walk with kings and carry his name across the world.

Do you feel a sense of destiny when you grow up with that, because you were born prematurely by more than two months, you weighed only three pounds. Your father prepared a shoe box to be used as a casket, a native of Cat Island in the Bahamas, the son of a dirt farmer.

You would not, based on those stats, bet on the major success for that infant.

POITIER: Me personally?

KING: Yes.

Would anyone?

POITIER: Well, yes, of course, but I had no say in it. I was...


POITIER: My mother was the principle player.

KING: More forceful than your father?

POITIER: My father was, as I am, in a way, he was a remarkable man -- no education, minimal education, a hard worker. He was a tomato farmer. That's how he made his living, you know?

KING: But your mother was more of a force?

POITIER: My mother was, you know, you spoke of faith earlier. My mother was a rather remarkable lady. She -- I think she had a good deal to do with it. Now, she worked her days from sunup to sundown. There was no electricity, no running water, no paved roads. I mean it was semi-primitive, the whole existence. And she couldn't read, she couldn't write.

But she had a sense of the world -- a sense of the world that we don't -- at least I didn't have. She understood things through this faith of hers.

KING: Toward the end of your book, you write, "I have been so close to death that my salvation was of a nature that I could not possibly understand. I'm alive for reasons I cannot explain. The many close calls I've had were of such a nature that under normal circumstances, they would have taken me away many times over."

Do you ever stop and say to yourself that I'm lucky?

POITIER: Obviously, I am.

If you apply the word, yes, I was very, very inexplicably lucky. But it's more than luck. Luck comes as a result of some other energies.

KING: Residue of design, Branch Rickey once said. Luck is the -- we make our own luck.

POITIER: Well, probably. Maybe I did. But I give my mother the credit because without her at the beginning...

KING: You had nothing to do with living at birth.

POITIER: No, exactly. But I'm still of that opinion that -- I'll give you an idea. I sometimes think there's a guy in San Diego and there is another person deep in the valley here, where in California, where we are. And a guy coming out of his house going to his car because he works in Los Angeles.

He gets to his car and he says ah. He had forgotten his key just at the little table at the door. And he dashes back and he grabs his key and goes and he turns it on.

At the same time, the guy in the valley gets in his car going to Los Angeles. The fact that the one -- the first guy -- the first guy forgot his keys and went back, that took 17 seconds. The guy coming in from the valley, they pass each other at a terrific speed. The guy in San Diego could have -- save for the fact that he had left his keys -- could have run into yet another car.

Now is that luck? Is that predetermination? Is that his responsibility?

Certainly, he can't take responsibility for that.

KING: You know what you're doing to me?

You're forcing me to think.


KING: I hate that, when I have to think.


KING: Sidney Poitier.

The book is "Life beyond Measure."

We'll be right back.


POITIER: I have cherished the ideals of a democratic, free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's a lot of jobs for a lot of colored people. You follow me?

POITIER: Follow you home, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're your people.

POITIER: Not mine, yours. You made the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you want to do? You want me to beg you? Is that what you're asking?

POITIER: Look, I've had your town up to here!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It would give me a world of satisfaction to horse-whip you, Virgil.

POITIER: My father used to say that.


KING: We're back with Sidney Poitier, the book "Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter." And I might add, on a personal note, a terrific read. It's published by Harper One, a division of Harper Collins. What do you like about being other people, the profession of acting?

POITIER: What do I like?

KING: Yes. In other words, you get to pretend for a living.

POITIER: Yes. Yes, I do. What do I like?

KING: Yes, you must enjoy it.

POITIER: I did enjoy it. I did enjoy it.

KING: What is the -- you don't act anymore, right?


KING: Nor would you take a role?


KING: What is the enjoyment of being Mr. Tibbs?

POITIER: It is the degree to which I can -- I can create what kind of a life exists behind the words. Behind the words, I have a -- maybe a script of 110 pages, and I say, I'm paying a -- I am a principal player. I have to speak a lot. So what am I speaking about? And who is doing the speaking? I have to create a character and make that character authentic so that out of his mouth will come all of the emotions that an audience would be expecting the words to bring.

KING: Do you wonder about if the character -- Is 45-years-old, do you wonder about what it was like when he was in school?

POITIER: No, I don't. When I worked as an actor, what I did was -- and I learned it from a couple of guys in New York who were teachers. Most people who go and sit in a movie house or on stage, and they're watching, they came into that theater, into that movie house, already armed with all of the necessities to pass a subconscious judgment on the character -- characters they're watching, because every person who goes to a movie, they have experience. If they are young adults and on, they have experience, just about every experience that young people have ever had. They know about love. They know of the loss of it. They know about embarrassments. They know about fears. They know about anxieties.

They know all about those things, because they've experienced them over and over in their lives. So when they watch an actor try to recreate it, they know when he's not doing it very well. They know when he or she is missing the mark. They -- the audience may not be able to articulate it in those terms, but somehow they come up with the actor, well, he was all right, you know. It was OK.

KING: So you're saying they know.

POITIER: Somewhere in them they know. One of the reasons Marlon Brando was so brilliant, particularly at his beginning, was that when you watched him on stage, you didn't think you were watching people on the stage. You would think you were peeking in on someone's life because what he did with the words, he made them so real that that audience gets swept up.

KING: Would you have liked to have worked with him?

POITIER: Yes, I would have. I would have.

KING: Interesting guy. He was interesting on this show twice.

POITIER: Yes? As a matter of fact, I think I saw one of those.

KING: He was a piece of work. By the way, do you feel the sense -- you may not wish to endorse anyone -- but do you feel a sense of pride in Barack Obama as one black to another, to have come this far?

POITIER: Yes. But it's a -- it's a difficult question in that naturally I carry inside me a pride that has been battered from time to time over my 81 years. When I got to America at 15, I had not been exposed to a segregated state. I had no knowledge of it. I had probably heard some references from adults who were black from the Bahamas, like my parents, who may have gone there to sell their tomatoes.

But when I got here, it was -- it was right there in my face, and I had never experienced that, you know.

KING: So do you feel a pride in an Obama who rises from -- POITIER: My point is that my experiences subsequent to 15-years- old when I experienced what America was -- as a matter of fact, I've been a party to its -- such transformation as it has made. So I was right there. I couldn't go into certain stores and try on a pair of shoes. I had to travel in the back of a bus. And I had never had to do that before. So it was a big disappointment to me.

KING: We'll be right back with Sidney Poitier. The book, and a tremendous read, is "Life Beyond Measure." Don't go away.


POITIER: We have this problem. I fell in love with your daughter. And as incredible as it may seem, she fell in love with me. And we flew back to San Francisco to see if you or Mrs. Drayton would have any objections if we got married.




POITIER: All I want is to make a future for this family. All I want is to be able to stand in front of my boy, like my father never was able to do to me, and tell him that he can be somebody in this world besides a servant and a chauffeur. You tell me that.


KING: We're back with Sidney Poitier. The book is "Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter." We recently celebrated, if that's the right term, the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Did you know him?

POITIER: Yes, I did.

KING: What was your relationship? What effect did he have on you?

POITIER: Oh, the impact was remarkable. I mean, the courage, the courage, the example of courage, and it was genuine. He knew that he had to put himself on the line every day of his life. He knew that it would probably kill him. But he also was, interestingly enough -- you know, we know of and love him for what he was. But he was a part of a larger structure.

There were young African-American children actually, who were in schools, mostly in college, who were in college in states where if they left the college grounds, they could not sit at a counter and have a cup of coffee in a Five and Dime store. They just weren't allowed. He came after them. So they, in a way, inspired him. And he understood them. And he was looking -- he knew that he was looking at young people who all their lives to that point, in a democracy, in an expanding democracy, that they had no place, or rather, the place that they did have was a place of disrespect. KING: What has it been like for you as a black man in a largely white society? Southern California has been largely white society. I think you were in a club where you are the only black.

POITIER: No, there was three of us actually.

KING: Is that difficult?

POITIER: Well, if you look at the numbers, it wouldn't matter if the -- if our democracy, as it exists today, which is a far cry from what it was. It is still not yet home all the way.

KING: No, it's not.

POITIER: No. But if you look at where it was, it was at a place where we said, we, our country and our population said, we are a democracy. And then you question that and they -- to justify it, they say, we cannot include those people or those people. Now, those people were black. Some were Indians. Some why Asians. Some were Mexicans, depending on their color. So it was a color question. And so it was -- it was tough.

Listen, I don't want to waste your time with that stuff. But how do I feel now? First, I have to acknowledge happily that there has been enormous changes. The changes have been admirable. We have a distance yet to go about, but before we measure that distance we have yet to go, we have to stop and say, wait a minute, this is America. And this America has improved, has grown. There has been wonderful things happening here, so that the elasticity of the Democratic structure, in terms of cultures, has grown itself, and it has expanded. It's embracing more and more. But it isn't home yet.

KING: And all of this, in your lifetime.

POITIER: In my lifetime.

KING: By the way, weren't you ambassador to Nassau?

POITIER: No, I was the ambassador for ten years from the Bahamas to Japan.

KING: From the Bahamas to Japan.

POITIER: And from the Bahamas to UN-ESCO.

KING: We'll be right back with Sidney Poitier. The book, "Life Beyond Measure;" I'm going to read a little excerpt from it right after this.



POITIER: I kind of entertain the idea every now and then, as I sat out there. However, when it came to the moment and Annie opened the envelope, I thought I'd faint. I thought I'd fall down. I almost did.


KING: Back with Sidney Poitier. The book is "Life Beyond Measure."

In your book, writing to your great granddaughter you write: "The sense of myself has been described by others as someone who is a loner, an outsider, a private person and one driven to walk on the edges of life" What do you mean by that?

POITIER: I mean precisely that. Well --

KING: You're outside looking in?

POITIER: No. I was for a very long time. I was an outsider. I was an outsider when I came here. I was an outsider because the structure of the culture was such that a place was reserved for me. And it was against the law for me to venture outside of it more often than not.

KING: Being a loner doesn't have to do with whether they let you in the bar.

POITIER: Of course. But being a loner is an internal state of being.

KING: Right.

POITIER: I was a loner. I was an observer. I was an uneducated kid. I could not express myself when I was 15-years-old. As I said, I could barely read, OK. So what does such a person do? I had the internal mechanism to absorb and to see and to try to analyze in such words as I had at my disposal. But I was not fit yet to participate as a person in the society, as the society was structured at that time. It took me a long time. And during that time, I was a loner. I was very much a loner.

KING: Why have you generally not done interviews? It only took me 30 years.

POITIER: For the reasons you've just stated, that I am a loner. I'm a private person. I have a family. My wife and I, we have two children. I have four other children from my first marriage. I am content with my family.

KING: You ever felt the need or been asked to promote a movie?

POITIER: I have been asked to.

KING: Did they say, Sidney, you got to get out on the tour here.

POITIER: Well, I didn't -- I didn't do much of that, because the few that I did were morning shows and some evening shows. But they were three minutes. You know, I don't want to -- I don't -- I cannot be understood in three minutes. Nor can I -- I can speak of who I am in any kind of depth in three minutes. So what I would be giving them is a sketch, a fragment of myself. And I don't hold myself as -- I just don't -- didn't like it.

KING: You're enjoying this, I hope.

POITIER: Yes, I am.

KING: You better say that. We'll be back with our remaining moments with Sidney Poitier and we'll ask him to reflect on his great- granddaughter, what her life is going to be like right after this.


KING: Sidney, would you read a portion of one of your letters?

POITIER: "Hope is the eternal tool in the survival kit for mankind. We hope for a little luck. We hope for a better tomorrow. We hope, although it is an impossible hope, to somehow get out of this world alive. And if we can't and don't, then it is enough to rejoice in our short time here and to remember how much we loved the view.

KING: We're back with Sidney Poitier, our remaining moments.

A couple other quick things. What was it like to turn 80?

POITIER: What it was like to turn 80. Wonderful.

KING: Really?

POITIER: Yes, of course.

KING: Better than the alternative.

POITIER: Listen, at 80-years-old, I'm on my feet, my head is working fairly well. and my memory is OK.

KING: How's your health?

POITIER: Terrific, for 81.

KING: Ever had a major illness?

POITIER: Yes. I had prostate cancer.

KING: Operated on?

POITIER: Operated on.

KING: How do you want to be remembered?

POITIER: If I'm remembered for having done a few good things and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that's plenty. What I am -- what I did with the book was to my great-granddaughter and to her generation. I was not able to pass that back to generations past. I can only hope that her generation will find one or two things of interest that they themselves could spend with generations yet to come.

KING: Would you bet on her?

POITIER: On her being?

KING: Doing well.


KING: Comes with good genes.

POITIER: Yes. Well, listen, I don't know if the good genes would have to have been from my dad and my mom. But I would expect her, because her mother is quite a remarkable young woman -- and so is her dad. I suspect that the combination from both ends of the families would bode well for her.

KING: She's your daughter's daughter, right?

POITIER: My daughter's daughter's daughter.

KING: Daughter's daughter's daughter. You'd bet on her, though?

POITIER: Yes, I would bet on her.

KING: You happy?


KING: Content?

POITIER: In the world as it stands, pretty much.

KING: Why won't you do another film?

POITIER: Because I spent 56 years making movies. I've made a great number of movies. The body of work of which I was a part was the out-growth of a goodly number of film makers who are no longer here. And they I owe a great deal to. And one of the things I owe them is to never work beneath my level or theirs. And at the age of 81, I find that I don't want to do that in any way. I just don't want -- I prefer to leave the work because it is not just my work.

It's the work of others, and particularly a group of American film makers who put themselves on the line, crucially on the line at a given time in the history of the United States, the motion picture industry. They took huge chances, Stanley Kramer, Joe Mankowitz (ph), Ralph Nelson, a ton, the Mirish brothers. Just a -- they were all white. They felt in the bowels of the Civil Rights Movement -- they made these movies and these movies are their legacy, in a sense. And since they're all gone now, and I'm here, I would like to let that body of work, which is principally theirs, just let it sit.

KING: Thank you, Sidney.

POITIER: Thank you, sir. KING: Sidney Poitier, "Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter."

Anderson Cooper and "AC 360" is next.

Thanks for joining us. Good night.