Sidney Poitier Was as Committed a Humanitarian as He Was an Actor

·2-min read

I loved the opening line of Tim Gray’s endearing tribute to Sidney Poitier on Jan. 7, one day after the beloved actor died at age 94: “Every artist hopes to make the world a better place. Sidney Poitier actually did.”

As many have written, Poitier not only had a tremendous impact on Hollywood and the culture at large; his immeasurable contributions to the civil rights movement and other humanitarian causes were equally poignant and inspirational.

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In late August of 2005, I witnessed one of his many acts of kindness up close, one that gave me a personal glimpse of someone I had grown up adoring and admiring for all his incredible work on the silver screen.
I came across Poitier that summer just after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans and the surrounding areas, killing around 2,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

My two young daughters, who were 5 and 9 at the time, wanted to raise money for the survivors, so they set up a lemonade stand in front of our house and collected about $80. We had heard that the best way to donate was to provide funds to the Red Cross, whose response to the Category 5 hurricane would turn out to be its largest single disaster relief effort ever.

We drove over to the Santa Monica chapter of the Red Cross on 11th Street, and just as we were pulling into a space in the parking lot of the nondescript white-and-red stucco building, a car drove into the spot right next to us, and out came Poitier.

“Oh, my God,” I recall saying to my children. “That’s Sidney Poitier, one of the greatest and most important actors in the world! Let’s go meet him!”

I had not ever had the pleasure of interviewing Poitier over the years, but that of course didn’t stop me from going up and introducing myself, my partner and our children. Naturally, I sang his praises to my daughters and told Poitier that they were donating their lemonade money to the Katrina relief fund. He totally engaged in a conversation with us and couldn’t have been any warmer, sweeter or friendlier.

Understandably, our encounter was more momentous to me than to my children, since they had not yet seen any of Poitier’s movies. When we got in our car to go home, I explained what a maverick Poitier was and ticked off all of his accomplishments, including being the first Black man to win the Oscar for best actor.

This week I asked my daughters if they recalled meeting Poitier that day and, if so, what they remembered. “I remember he was very tall and very handsome,” said my youngest.

There’s certainly no arguing with that.

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