Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon

By Aram Goudsouzian | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
STAGES
(1945–1949)

In appearance alone, Frederick O’Neal was intimidating. The generous cut of his suits accentuated his mountainous build, and his goatee punctuated a withering glare custom-tailored to pulverize the egos of cocksure eighteen-year-olds. To the black acting fraternity, O’Neal was doubly intimidating. Organizer of the Ira Aldridge Players in St. Louis, actor in the New Theatre School and the Rose McClendon Players in New York City, and co-founder of the American Negro Theatre, O’Neal stood atop the small world of black theater. His reputation extended downtown. In the spring of 1945, O’Neal won Broadway’s Clarence Derwent Award for his performance in the play Anna Lucasta. That same spring, Poitier knocked on the door of the American Negro Theatre, then housed in the basement of the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. To Poitier’s misfortune, the man who answered was Frederick O’Neal.1

Poitier began his cool bluff, the one from Miami parking lots and Army recruiting offices. He pretended that he had been acting for years in Nassau and Miami. A skeptical O’Neal handed him a script. Poitier would read one part from the stage while O’Neal responded from the orchestra.2

Poitier had never set foot on a stage. He had never even heard the word “script.” He had to deduce his expected lines while walking to the stage. He stared at the script. O’Neal looked impatient. Poitier read his first line—one word at a time, with plenty of pauses, and in his gelatinous singsong accent. O’Neal’s first line never came. He commanded Poitier off the stage. “You can hardly talk,” said O’Neal, as Poitier remembered. “You’ve got an accent, and that accent—you can’t be an actor with an accent like that. And you can hardly read. You can’t be an actor and not be able to read.” O’Neal met Poitier at the stairs, snatched his script, grabbed his arm, almost pushed him out the door, and offered a parting

-43-

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