HOLLYWOOD -- On Thursday night, at festivities to be televised later, Sidney Poitier will become the American Film Institute's 20th Life Achievement Award winner (a succession that began with John Ford in 1973 and has included James Cagney, Orson Welles, Bette Davis and Alfred Hitchcock, among others). Mr. Poitier is the first black person to be so honored, which is a commentary at once on his own great accomplishments and, hardly less, on the long struggle it has been for black actors and directors to achieve eminence in Hollywood.
Mr. Poitier was for years virtually the only important black male star in American films. But, thanks not least to his own unprecedented success, he stands now, at the age of 65, as the forerunner of a large and growing population of black actors.
Mr. Poitier's own story is cinematic in its often wryly surprising way. Born in Miami but raised in the West Indies, he emigrated to New York in his teens. He did a hitch in the Army at 16 by saying he was 18 and was later working as a kind of freelance dishwasher and busboy, answering want ads and being sent out by employment agencies, when he saw an ad for actors. It was in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper, and had been placed by the American Negro Theater, which was then enjoying a large Broadway success with "Anna Lucasta."
Blithely insisting he was already an actor, Mr. Poitier was handed script at an audition and told to read one of the parts. "I'd only been to school for a year and a half, so at that point in my life I was unable to read very well," he said the other day in his by now beautifully modulated voice. "So I started reading very haltingly. Also I suffered from a very thick West Indian accent."
His auditioner was Frederick O'Neal, one of the founders of the theater and a massive figure. "He came up on the stage, furious, and grabbed me by the scruff of my pants and my collar and marched me toward the door. Just before he threw me out he said, 'Stop wasting people's time! Why don't you get yourself a job as a dishwasher?' "
He did go back to washing dishes, but also bought a radio and spent all his spare time listening to the announcers -- "trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns." Unaware of printed plays, he bought some copies of True Confessions magazine in search of a piece he could memorize and recite.
Months later he went back to the theater again on an audition day, along with 70 other young hopefuls. They did soliloquies or scenes; he recited his paragraph from True Confessions. He received the familiar don't-call-us routine, and when the theater did call him it was to say he'd been rejected.
"I found that that was devastating, and I couldn't accept it," Mr. Poitier remembers. He went to the theater again and sought out another of the founders, Abram Hill. Mr. Poitier told Mr. Hill he'd noticed the theater had no janitor, and he volunteered to do the job in exchange for acting lessons. "And that's how I got into the American Negro Theater," he says.
After nine months of lessons, he was given a chance to understudy a role in the annual student production, that year a play called "Days of Our Youth." The actor he was understudying was Harry Belafonte, later a film star in his own right, although his greater fame has been as a singing entertainer.
In the fine show-biz tradition, Mr. Poitier went on one night when Mr. Belafonte couldn't make it, and was seen by a visiting director who was casting an all-black production of "Lysistrata." He hired Mr. Poitier for a small role. It was his first professional job, and he was terrified. "Oh, my lord, I'm going out there in front of 1,200 people," he told himself.
John Wyberg, who was producing "Anna Lucasta," saw the notices and invited Mr. Poitier to become an understudy in the company, at $40 a week. "It wasn't a lot of bucks, but it was more than I had ever earned." His professional career had begun.