The Money Was Never What Drew Sidney Poitier To Acting

Sidney Poitier's career has always been synonymous with dignity, both on-screen and off. The late actor searched for films that respected their Black characters, and characters that would create better opportunities for Black actors. He would often turn down roles in films that failed to align with his principles, even when he needed a job more than anything. He was an actor who would rather take out a loan to support his family than compromise for a film, so it was definitely not about the money for Poitier.

Though his career got off to a slow start in the '50s, Poitier eventually earned critical acclaim with "The Defiant Ones." It was the first film that gave Poitier star billing (alongside his co-star Tony Curtis, of course), and his performance also earned him his first Oscar nomination. But even as his star began to rise in the '60s, Poitier maintained an incredibly down-to-earth approach to acting. 

Acting as an outlet

In 1959, Poitier sat down with Studs Terkel to promote "The Defiant Ones" and to discuss what initially drew him to acting. "I think there is that about acting that affords me an expression that I couldn't find anywhere else," Poitier explained. The actor described himself as "a pretty emotionally stirred-up dude," and as such, he required "a great many releases" for his inner frustrations:

"Acting at the time — when I was 17, 18 years old — acting offered me an area where I could be an exhibitionist ... where I could pour out some of my confusion and other ills into a fictitious character ... so I used the theater, I used acting and acting classes as a therapy. I would go there after working in the garment district, or any of the 14, 18 places I did work. I would go to class at night, and I would sit and study and do scenes and read. And I had I felt, you know, that this is something that gives me a badge of distinction. I can be many things here, and the areas of life — socially and otherwise — that were then restricted to me, I had ways of retaliating in this kind of illusion."

The opportunity to present as a dimensional being was something of a luxury for a Black man in the '60s. Though Poitier's characters rarely stooped to the level of their oppressors — nor were they ever the villains of their stories — Poitier was able to grapple with the less-dignified emotions he struggled with day to day. Of course, his work was instrumental in creating more inclusivity in film, but it was still a personal pursuit for the actor. It meant as much to him as it likely does to us today.