RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Sidney Poitier was born, he was not expected to live. He was premature and so tiny he could fit into his father's hand. That was 1927, and as the family lore goes, a fortune teller assured his mother he would survive and one day carry the Poitier name around the world.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Sidney Poitier's memoir, "Life Beyond Measure" begins with the story of another birth, his great-granddaughter Ayele. The book, which is now in paperback, is composed of a series of letters taking her back to the moments that shaped him.
MONTAGNE: And that's what he's thinking about these days, not the movies that made him famous. We joined Sidney Poitier at his Beverly Hills home overflowing with family photos, art, and antiques. It's a dramatic contrast to the rough farm where his parents grew tomatoes and raised nine children. He looks back on his childhood on rustic Cat Island in the Bahamas as an enchanting time.
Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): It was magical. There was no transportation unless you had a donkey or a horse, no automobiles, no electric lights, no running water. It was a very simple life.
MONTAGNE: So in a way out of the way - or so without the obvious modern conveniences that you never saw your own face as a young boy. There were no mirrors.
Mr. POITIER: No mirrors. You could look in the water in the pond. My mother used to go to a pond to do her laundry. And of course the water was never quite still, so that I would look and what I would see is a distorted face. It was something - had something to do with me because every time I moved, it would move.
And that's how I got to be introduced to my shadow. And my shadow and I became very good friends. We would race down the beach against each other and the winner was always determined by the position of the sun. I would - I remember dancing. I did all kinds of things with my shadow, and I could have been arrested if I lived in a much more developed community.
MONTAGNE: The first time, you write, that you actually saw yourself in a mirror, was shortly after you moved, your family had to move from Cat Island…
Mr. POITIER: To Nassau.
MONTAGNE: To Nassau.
Mr. POITIER: Correct.
MONTAGNE: What was it like?
Mr. POITIER: When we got off the boat, my mother and I came down, I saw something moving and I asked my mother, what is that? Because I thought it was a beetle. But it had to have been a gigantic beetle in order to be moving along on this island. And she said to me, that's a car. And there were trucks. And there were windows with glass. I saw a mirror as we were walking after we got off the boat, I found one. But it was a small mirror, but it was the first time I saw my face.
MONTAGNE: Did you like it? I mean…
Mr. POITIER: It wasn't bad. It was pretty okay, you know.
MONTAGNE: You know, to jump ahead a bit, at a certain point, your father ended up sending you to Miami…
Mr. POITIER: Yes.
MONTAGNE: …to stay with your brother…
Mr. POITIER: Yes.
MONTAGNE: …which wasn't actually a very good situation.
Mr. POITIER: It was not a particularly good situation, but my brother got me a job at a place called Berdine's(ph) Department Store and I worked there as a delivery boy, as a matter of fact. But I couldn't adjust to the racism in Florida. It was so blatant that I decided that it was not a good mix. I had never in my life, my early life, been so described as Florida described me. I think - essentially I think that Florida said to me, you are not who you think you are, we will determine what you are. And I decided, no, I will determine who I am. And I wound up in New York. That's how I got started in the theater, and the theater went to movies.
MONTAGNE: What, even today, do you make of the fact that the boy who'd never even seen his own image until you were 10 years old could go on to become one of the world's most famous faces? Have you puzzled over that? Is it kind of an irony or…
Mr. POITIER: I never puzzled over it. I believe that there are forces in nature that have influences over our lives. And I think those forces at their choice nudges us a little bit this way or a little bit that way. My life has not been my doing only. I always wanted to be someone better the next day than I was the day before. And I today am going to be 83 years old before you know it. Today that is my drive, still my drive, still my drive.
MONTAGNE: This book is written as a series of letters to your great-granddaughter, and you share memories of the people that have touched your life as a sort of gift to her, an instructive one. And of all the luminaries that you have known, you end the chapter on people of courage with your father.
Mr. POITIER: Uh-huh.
MONTAGNE: And I'm looking - the whole time we've been talking I'm seeing over your shoulder a silver frame with a photograph of your mother and father.
Mr. POITIER: Yes. Oh, yes, that's them, yes.
MONTAGNE: What was it about him?
Mr. POITIER: Well, my dad, he was honest. My father was the quintessential husband and dad. When I left to go to Miami, he gave me a lecture on the dock and he told me what I must make sure I try to do with myself. And then he put three dollars in my hand and he said to me, he said, take care of yourself, son. And he stood there on the docks waiting for the boat to take off, and it did.
And I'm looking back at him and I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking about whether he and my mother had given me enough before I had to go out into the world. And I think now that they did. He gave me infinitely more than the three dollars he put in my hand.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.
Mr. POITIER: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Actor Sidney Poitier at his home in Beverly Hills. His memoir is "Life Beyond Measure." And if you'd like to see him as a teen hoodlum in "Blackboard Jungle" or with the nuns in "Lilies of the Field," go to our Web site. It's NPR News.