Party with the greatest, with Sidney Poitier

Party night in Beverly Hills. The legendary restaurant Morton’s closes and celebrates itself once again. In its heydays, it was called Hollywood’s Camelot. Sly Stallone, Angelina Jolie, and powerful agents, such as the CAA powerbrokers, held court here. The place is buzzing! Full to bursting, flawless beauty everywhere. Lots of Hollywood, lots of It-girls, plus a huge in-crowd.

Surfing through the crowd, you immediately realize there’s something else, another energy center. Surrounded by a crowd, you immediately recognize him: It’s not his smile, not his striking facial features, it’s his charisma that hits you like a freight train. The legendary Sidney Poitier, the Oscar winner, or as they say in LA: Hollywood Royalty!

He sees me, points with his huge index finger, smiles and waves me over. „You look like you’ve come a long way. What’s your story?“ I’m from Berlin! „Wow,“ he interrupts me, „what brings you here?“ I tell him about my year in Los Angeles after winning a German Academic Exchange Scholarship, and that I’ve been here 2 to 6 weeks a year ever since. „Lovin it,“ I add, „got californicated!“

Sidney Poitier’s smile becomes warmer, almost fatherly. „What do you do my son, what is your education, what do you work in Germany?“ Journalist I return, studied politics, journalism and business administration in Berlin and Los Angeles.

„Oh wow, in my time it was different. There was no such thing as you. I did visit elementary school.“ „But you happened in my life big time,“ I reply. „I’m sure you didn’t just influence me! Poitier smiles, „Why?“

I tell about my mother, who packed me and my siblings up several times a year and dragged us to our aunt Gertie, who had a TV. My mom strictly refused television, wanted us children to play. But my mother had experienced racism in her exchange student days in London after my father’s marriage and wanted her children to see black role models. And movies were the right vehicle for her to do just that. And so every few months, usually on Sunday afternoons, we would sit on the sofa at Aunt Gertie’s house. It was always a movie with Sidney Poitier. We saw „Lilies of the Field“ a hundred times. We kids sang along with the songs, acted out the scenes.


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„What, you saw ‚Lilies‘ 100 times because your mommy loved it so much?“ Sidney Poitier bends with laughter, „that’s amazing! How’s your mom doing? Be sure to say hi to her. And I guess, she probably liked my old buddy Harry Belafonte too.“ There must have been a brief moment of distress flitting across my face. Poitier notices, of course, and laughs even harder. „I bet your mommy used to torture you a lot with the Banana Boat Song.“ Around us, more and more are laughing. The classic generational conflict with their parents‘ music seems universal.

Poitier smiles and talks about his time with Harry Belafonte, first as competitors at New York’s ‚American Negro Theater‘. Later they became best friends, especially in the fight for civil rights. „You can’t imagine this, but de facto you couldn’t get into certain neighborhoods. Cops would give Blacks a ticket for being in the wrong neighborhood. ‚Arrested for driving while black,‘ as we used to say. Law and justice were very relative; we had to fight.“

As he speaks, the aura around him grows larger, stronger. He sort of sucks you in. Suddenly I am very sure I have just run into a very good old friend whom I haven’t seen for a long time.

And probably it was exactly this gift, to trigger exactly this in his counterpart and also in an audience of millions, that made a 15-year-old farmer’s son, who made his way from his native Barbados to New York, go ways that were unthinkable and impossible before, at a time of hard racial segregation.

He sailed – or rather – it seemed as if he glided on an imaginary cloud of untouchability through the adversity of his time. Blacks sit in the back of the bus, blacks aren’t allowed in good schools, can’t get jobs, live in quasi-apartheid! And Sidney Poitier plays leading roles! It cannot have been easy to make it in Hollywood. And he plays these leading roles with an intensity, nonchalance and elegance that is second to none. How does one do that? Poitier smiles, „You just have to find a channel for your anger, otherwise it destroys you. The best way is to turn it into something positive and the highest form of that is forgiveness.“ And into my astonished gaze he adds, „I’m the me I chose to be!“

No matter how great his fame, Poitier never forgot where he came from. Even as a Hollywood star, he was right on the front lines of the civil rights struggle of the Sixties, looking police dogs in the eye. It is this combination of courage, nonchalance, dignity, kindness and respect, plus an incredible amount of charisma, that define Sidney Poitier.

„Why did you wave me over,“ I ask. „I knew right away you weren’t American. The way you look, your clothes, you are different, you are not shaped by this society.“ Sidney Poitier was born in Miami rather accidentally, grew up in his parents‘ Bahamas. One does him probably not wrong, saying that these were probably lucky circumstances. So he experiences a loving environment in a Caribbean society. He was shaped – can learn and grow up – without the daily US racism of that dark time, which teaches everyone who is „not blond and blue-eyed“: You can’t do anything, you are nothing, please get in line. This bombardment of you-can’t-do messages triggers that many do believe that and do not even try anything. Sociologists call that internalized racism, which Poitier obviously did not receive as a child.

When he first auditioned for the (black) theater, they kicked him out. He, who had no stage training, was told to please wash plates. But he had just done that, so he was back the next day and the next and the next. And he kept going until something worked.

And his „I-can-do-and-will-do“ charisma is contagious. As absurd as it may sound, despite all the racism of the time, he fits into the American dream: anyone can make it. He is black, but somehow different. Many could live with him and even love him.  Although he always stands up for equality, always carries the torch for the black cause.

Poitier comes back to Belafonte again. A `best buddy`, a very good friend is a great support, he says. „Do you have someone like that, who goes with you through thick and thin?“ I nod, since school days. „Good“ says Poitier, „keep that one, it’s really important!“

I try to rationalize why I’m so captivated by him. Why can’t I escape him?

He wears a gray suit of a striped heavy wool fabric, a printed banker’s tie, an immaculately starched white shirt with a light check pattern of heavy cotton, an undershirt, of course. Actually, too formal and probably too warm for the climatic Mediterranean Los Angeles. Defacto, he is quite old school, a walking anachronism, a greeting from a bygone era.

And that’s where his magic kicks in: That slender upright stature, the head posture, the expansive speaking with his arms and hands, and on top of that, his gaze! Sparkling, casual and at the same time sharp but with a dash of kindness in it. Despite his advanced age, he seems timeless. He talks like a 40-year-old, looks like he’s in his early 50s, but he’s over 80!!!

In Hollywood, there’s a term for this since time immemorial: ‚Leading Man Looks‘! This means something like this rare leading man magic that carries a whole project, a whole movie. And it doesn’t seem boring when you see the film for the third or tenth time.


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Sidney Poitier was one of those who broke through a very thick glass ceiling, and he did it with such elegance that many after him could push through that gap, and he opened it worldwide!

Even at his proud age, Poitier still fills every room, including Morton’s with many celebrities. And he has questions: „You know Cherno, I was born with insatiable curiosity, wanting to understand everything. Tell me, how is Merkel doing in the German male world? Does your postwar friendship with the French still hold?“ He listens, his eyes sparkle, he nods, it blazes inside him.

He has something, that you can’t learn, that you can’t train. He’s just there! But on a whole different scale, and I get to spend the evening with him.

Sidney Poitier has now passed on, Bon Voyage! RIP, but in this case: Rest in Power! And: THANK YOU!!!

Spiegel 11.01.2022