Sidney Poitier's Introduction To Motion Pictures

Actor Sidney Poitier's memoir, Life Beyond Measure, is out in paperback. Much of the book focuses on his childhood, growing up on rural Cat Island in the Bahamas. The Academy Award-winning actor looks back with Renee Montagne at the first time he saw a movie.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

During his long acting career, Sidney Poitier has been the very picture of a classic movie star. A string of iconic roles have made his face and voice among the most recognizable in the world.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lilies of the Field")

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (as Homer Smith) You hold on one minute. You just hold on one minute. I mean, I ain't no nun. I'm nobody you can boss around. See? I get up when I feel like getting up. And if I don't want to work, I don't work.

(Soundbite of movie, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner")

Mr. POITIER: (as Dr. John Wade Prentice) Mrs. Drayton, I'm medically qualified. So I hope you wouldn't think it presumptuous if say you ought to sit down before you fall down, honey.

Ms. KATHARINE HOUGHTON (Actor): (as Joey Drayton) He thinks you're going to faint because he's a Negro.

(Soundbite of movie, "To Sir With Love")

Mr. POITIER: (as Mark Thackeray) We are all going to observe certain courtesies in this classroom. You will call me sir or Mr. Thackeray. The young ladies will be addressed as Miss, the boys by their surnames.

(Soundbite of movie, "In The Heat of The Night")

Mr. ROD STEIGER (Actor): (as Police Chief Bill Gillespie) Colored can't earn that kind of money. Boy, hell, that's more that I make in a month. Now where did you earn it?

Mr. POITIER: (as Detective Virgil Tibbs) Philadelphia.

Mr. STEIGER: (as Bill Gillespie) Mississippi?

Mr. POITIER: (as Virgil Tibbs) Pennsylvania.

Mr. STEIGER: (as Bill Gillespie) Now just what you do up there in little old Pennsylvania to earn that kind of money?

Mr. POITIER: (as Virgil Tibbs) I'm a police officer.

MONTAGNE: Sidney Poitier. Of late, his acting has given way to reflecting - not on the big, even historic moments of his career like winning an Oscar, but on the quieter, more personal moments of his 82 years. He has a book now out in paperback called "Life Beyond Measure." It focuses on his childhood as a son of tomato farmers on the very isolated Cat Island in the Bahamas.

Until he was 10, Sidney Poitier had never seen a car, never tasted ice cream, and maybe most surprisingly for a future screen star, never seen a movie. Then his family moved to the big city, Nassau, and some pals invited young Sidney to see a Western.

Mr. POITIER: One day, they said to me, they said we're going to go to a matinee. You want to come? And I said, yeah, of course. I had no idea what a matinee was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POITIER: So they bought me a ticket and we went in and we sat down. And there we are sitting there, and then the lights go out and a curtain opened up. And then there was this big, white thing. It was a screen, I would come to understand. And then the movie started. Well, it was the biggest shock I have ever had. There were people - suddenly there were people there, and they're walking around. They had carts and horses pulling them, and I am absolutely fascinated. How could they get all those people in this little place, this little theater place, you know?

Well, we started home after, so, and I'm filled with anxiety about how do I learn about this stuff? So I decided, I told the guys, I said, listen guys, I'll meet you later. I'll see you at the place. I'm going to take a walk down so and so and so. And so after they got out of sight, I went back to the theater, but I went to the back of the theater because I figured all of those people and all of those animals are going to come out. They have to come out.

I stood at a door behind the theater waiting to see what or who would come out, and nobody ever did. Anyway, that was my introduction to motion pictures.

MONTAGNE: Sidney Poitier, speaking to us from his home in Beverly Hills. He'll be back with us with more tales from his childhood tomorrow.

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