Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Life lesson from Sidney Poitier

Last Sunday morning I had the pool to myself, as I often do when I get out there early enough. I floated around, engulfed in my serenity… enjoying the sunshine, blue sky and palm trees… reading my OK! celebrity rag… vowing that if John Mayer breaks Jennifer Aniston’s heart, I am personally going to kick his tattooed ass.

I also flipped through the September/October AARP magazine (yeah, I know…), which has a nice article on page 42 about Sidney Poitier. To this day, the thought of Sidney Poitier sparks a memory from childhood of watching Lilies of the Field on an old black and white TV and my mother going absolutely nuts over him.

“Look at the way he carries himself!” she sighed. Even at age eight I could kind of see her point, although I also couldn’t help but wonder if maybe my father’s Pillsbury Doughboy physique wasn’t exactly cutting it for her.

Anyway, in the article Mr. Epitome of Grace and Eloquence talks about how a shy boy from a tiny island in the Bahamas eventually made it to Harlem, where he worked as a dishwasher, and responded to a call in a newspaper for actors at the American Negro Theatre.

“When I auditioned, I read so poorly, I was thrown out,” he recounts, and then tells how the director grabbed him by the seat of his pants and said, “Just get out of here and go get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something!” Poitier had not told the man he was a dishwasher; “He was passing judgment on my worth,” he concluded.

The experience drove Poitier to improve his reading skills, which he reveals were at about a fourth-grade level. To improve his speech, Poitier bought a radio and listened carefully to a particular newscaster and would eavesdrop on people whose articulation he found impressive.

“I’d made a promise to myself that I’d become an actor just to show the man at the American Negro Theatre,” he said.

Hmmm… writers, think about those agents who respond to a query or manuscript with a simple, “Thanks, but not for me.” Suppose the agent instead replied with, “What the hell were you thinking, sending me that piece of shit? You call yourself a writer? Go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher!”

In the long run, wouldn’t that be a kinder response?

What if that seemingly cruel director simply said to Poitier, “No thanks, not for me”?

Angels come in all disguises, don’t they?

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