Editor’s note: In 2000, USA TODAY reporter Claudia Puig sat down with Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington for a rare joint interview. Washington, then 46, was on the cusp of directing his first film, “Antwone Fisher,” and Poitier, 76, had just been awarded the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon news of Poitier’s death, we are resurfacing their conversation.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – If Denzel Washington wins the best-actor Oscar on Sunday for his role as boxing champ Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane,” it will be the first time a Black man has won since 1963, when Sidney Poitier won for “Lilies of the Field.”
And Poitier – during breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel just days after Washington presented him with the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award – seems eager to pass the baton to Washington, whom he met more than 20 years ago. (Editor’s note: Washington lost that year, but went on to win the best actor Oscar in 2002 for “Training Day.”)
They are the two most famous Black actors of their time, and they get along famously. Washington, who no longer addresses the elder actor as “Sir,” is quick with a laugh and a witty one-liner. But he listens with rapt attention as Poitier speaks – not in sentences, it seems, but in paragraphs, giving every utterance an uncommon heft.
Poitier is dressed in a peach shirt and tweed sport jacket, Washington in a dark-blue T-shirt and jeans. But they are cut from similar cloth – even though Poitier started his movie career five years before Washington was born.
“As young men in different generations, we both have been exposed to classic values,” Poitier says.
Those values helped them weather tough times. “There’s no way we could be sitting here today if our journey was pain-free,” Poitier says. “We treasure our self-image as actors, but then we keep raising the bar for ourselves. The only compass we have, really, is to stay steady by the values with which we conduct our lives.”
Poitier praises Washington for the “excellence that permeates his career. . . . He is more shy than I. He doesn’t like to feel that he is that important. Well, I’ve got news for him: He is that important, and he better get used to it!”
Washington speaks of his admiration for Poitier, calling him a gentleman and comparing him to his father. He was thrilled to be asked to deliver the SAG honor: “I mulled it over for about a second and a half.”
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Such honors seem to be the work of fate. And that seems even more so after hearing how each actor’s life was touched by a fortuneteller.
The Bahamian-born Poitier squeaked into the world in 1927 weighing just 3 pounds. He was not expected to live, so his father made arrangements for his burial.
“He went to a local funeral parlor and came home with a shoe box,” Poitier says. “My remains would have been so tiny, they would have fit.”
Poitier’s mother refused to believe her son would die, so “she visited a soothsayer, a reader of tea leaves,” Poitier says. “She came home and told my dad the shoe box wouldn’t be needed.”
Washington received his prediction during his sophomore year at Fordham University. “I didn’t have a shoe box,” says Washington, eliciting a big laugh from Poitier.
A church member known to have the gift of prophecy came into his mother’s beauty shop. “She said she had a prophecy about me. I was flunking out of college, so I really wanted to hear it. She said I would travel the world, speak to millions of people.”
Washington reaches into his wallet and pulls out a tattered piece of turquoise paper he has carried with him for 25 years. “This is the piece of paper. I kept it,” he says. “It says March 27, 1975. . . . I’ve had it all these years. It’s just an old ,beat-up envelope. You’d think I might have kept it in a little better shape.”
Two icons in fine form
Speaking of being in good shape, both men are even more handsome in person than on screen.
Poitier has barely aged since his acting heyday. He drinks green tea and orders an omelet with broccoli and will be off to play a round of golf after breakfast.
Washington has just come from shadow-boxing at the gym. He, too, orders green tea.
The dignified and eloquent Poitier has a surprising side: the rollicking raconteur. He recounts his first acting audition, turning it into an epic farce.
“I was looking in the newspaper for a job,” he says. “On one side it said ‘Dishwashers Wanted.’ And on the other it said ‘Actors Wanted.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’ “
The acting coach who auditioned him threw Poitier out after he read haltingly, having had only two years of formal education. “He led me by the back of the trousers to the door,” Poitier says. “I decided I was going to be an actor only to show him.”
Six months later, Poitier tried again.
“I didn’t know you could go into a bookstore and buy plays,” he says. “I brought a True Confessions magazine to audition with.”
“Did you play all the parts?” Washington asks.
“There were no lines,” scoffs Poitier, clearly enjoying laughing at himself. “They didn’t let me finish one paragraph. They said, ‘Would you like to do a pantomime?’ “
“So, did you get in?” Washington asks.
He did, and he went on to star in 53 movies, direct nine and write three autobiographical books, “This Life,” “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography,” and “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.”
A decades-long friendship
Washington remembers the time his path first crossed Poitier’s.
“It was around 1978,” Washington says. “I was walking, probably catching the bus, and I spotted Sidney in a bookstore, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is my big chance.’ I said, ‘Mr. Poitier, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m trying to get into this business.’ “
Washington thrust his resume and 8-by-10 glossy toward the actor. “He was very gracious,” Washington says. “I took that as weakness. I thought, ‘This is my shot. I might as well ask him for a job.’ “
Poitier’s laughter bellows through the restaurant: “I remember that. He thinks I don’t remember, but I do.”
A few years later, Poitier went to see Washington onstage in “A Soldier’s Play,” and Washington still relishes the memory: “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re good, keep working.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir! Can I give you another resume?’ “
Then, in 1984, Washington was offered a high-paying role and turned to Poitier for advice.
“I was offered this film that was just going to make me sick,” Washington says. “But it was going to be the first movie where there was a lot of money involved. I thought, ‘I can’t do this, but I guess I should.’ So I called Sidney, and he told me: ‘The first three or four films that you make getting your career going will determine how you’re perceived in this town and by the audience.’ I turned it down and waited for about six months for another opportunity.”
That turned out to be 1987’s “Cry Freedom,” for which he received the first of four Academy Award nominations. (He won a supporting-actor Oscar for 1989’s “Glory.”)
(Editor’s note: As of 2022, Washington has been nominated for nine Oscars. He made history as the second Black man to win the best actor Oscar in 2002.)
Life as actors, role models and fathers
Though both lament the scarcity of Black Oscar winners and the exclusion of minorities in Hollywood, they say they have chosen parts for their merit, not as part of any racial agenda.
“Acting is my job. I work hard at it,” says Washington, whose next movie, due in the fall, is “Remember the Titans,” in which he plays a football coach. “If people appreciate my work, I appreciate that. But I don’t do what I think the (Black) community wants, because I don’t know what they want. . . . I do something because I’m interested in it. It’s more personal.”
Adds Poitier: “I don’t duck the role-model tag. If I can encourage or influence kids to have some of the values that I have, I’ll stand for that.”
Washington and wife Pauletta have four children. Poitier and wife Joanna have six daughters and five grandchildren. (Editor’s note: At his death, Poitier’s family had expanded to eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.) Both men admit to struggling to raise kids amid prosperity.
“We all are blessed to be living in such a wonderfully rich country, but there are downsides in terms of our children,” Poitier says. “We have cultivated, to a gargantuan proportion, the pleasure principle. More and more, I’m witnessing values like respect, integrity, honesty, fairness having to play second fiddle to the power of materialism. That bothers me. It is a huge job for parents to teach that sense of personal responsibility.”
Washington, after listening intently, says: “I’m getting depressed now. So what do we do, Sidney? What do we do? Where do you go after ‘Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?’ “
Poitier says that he and his wife kept their kids away from the TV, only to find them watching at friends’ homes.
“I went through that with the explicit music,” Washington says. “My son said, ‘Dad, I don’t hear it here at home, but I hear it everywhere else.’ I said, ‘Well, at least you know the difference.’ . . . Yes, we live in a big house, with all this stuff and the cars in the garage. But one thing our children are getting, which I think helps, is very good religious instruction. Also, I teach my kids a lot through sports. I tell them, ‘You have to put the work in; there’s no easy way about it.’ You try to drill them in a positive way as much as the television does in its way. It’s an uphill battle because you’re fighting against commerce and the lower and lower common denominator.”
Both actors strive to never stoop to that ever-dropping standard. As a result, Oscar recognition means lot to them. “It’s a symbol of accomplishment in a very, very exact discipline,” Poitier says.
Whether he wins for “Hurricane” or not, Washington is preparing to take the next step in his career – directing his first feature film. “I wouldn’t dare to say I’m going to start directing because there needs to be more African-American directors, because I may be lousy,” he says.
(Editor’s note: At 67, Washington has now directed four films, including the best picture-nominated “Fences” and the just-released “A Journal for Jordan.”)
Poitier switched to directing when his career “was nearing its peak,” he says. “The nine movies I directed bought me an additional 15 years of life as an artist in filmmaking.”
Washington asks Poitier if he will ever direct again, and the elder actor’s answer is prompt: “Only if I have you as an actor.”
Sidney Poitier’s most notable movies:From ‘Lilies of the Field’ to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’