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Oprah Shares Life Lessons She Learned From Sidney Poitier

I’ve carried Sidney Poitier in my spirit for many, many years. When I was 10, I distinctly remember sitting in Milwaukee on the linoleum floor watching that magical moment when he won the Oscar for Lilies of the Field. I’ve often told the story of how that moment was a turning point in every way.

I was so inspired by him that I followed his career and watched everything that he did as an actor. And then, I finally met the man I so revered at my 42n.d birthday celebration hosted by Quincy Jones. I walked down the stairs, and there he was. He smiled and said, “Oh, my dear, I’ve been longing to meet you.” It just meant everything.

Years later he came on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I’ll tell you, it was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I didn’t like anything about myself that day. I just didn’t feel comfortable, because I wanted to appear how I wished he could see me.

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We finished the interview and I walked into the control room and sobbed, as in the kind of shoulder-shaking cry that requires a towel. I thought I had failed to be smart enough, to be the kind of person he would want to know. Then the next day I got a call from Sidney, and he said, “My dear, I wanted to speak to you because I wasn’t quite myself. I feel that I was off, and therefore contributed to you being off.” He continued, “Well, let us do it again some time, have a real conversation as real friends.” He gave me his number, and that’s how our friendship began.

I picked Sundays for our regular calls. It felt like that lazy day that you have for yourself. Our talks were about everything. We talked about what it meant to walk in the world and have all eyes on you while remaining grounded in something that’s bigger than those eyes. There was not a conversation, a time, or an experience that I shared with him where I did not come away expanded. I am so grateful for those calls. Here are just a few of the invaluable lessons from Sidney that I hold dear:

#1 Stay True to Yourself—and Only Yourself

That night I met Sidney, we ended up sitting in the corner talking, talking, talking. I shared with him how much trouble I was having being attacked by Black people who thought I wasn’t Black enough? wasn’t doing enough for Black people? wasn’t doing Black shows. He said, “It’s always a challenge when you’re carrying other people’s dreams. And that is what you’re carrying, our dreams.” He knew this from experience. He explained that the most important thing you can do is hold on to the dreams you have for yourself, knowing fully who you are, your boundaries, what you’re willing to live and die for. If you can stand with yourself, then you will always know the best decision to make for you.

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Kwaku Alston/Harpo, Inc.

#2 Make Others Feel Seen

Sidney embraced every single person as though they were the most important person he’d ever met. He’d engage everyone from the parking valet to the waiter to the flight attendant about where they were from, their family, and their aspirations—and he was genuinely interested. When you are a giant among giants, that is when you must be the kindest. It’s your responsibility. I felt it in his presence, and I watched him do it. It makes me tear up just to think about it. It goes beyond being a movie star. It’s what being a real star on the planet is about, shining your light on others so they feel the brightness? so they feel your light shining upon them.

#3 Fill Your Loved Ones Up

Many Sundays I didn’t go to church, but I would have church with Sidney. I would leave the conversation full. We talked about things that truly mattered to us. Now I do the same thing for my other friends and my daughter-girls. I try not to spend time talking about meaningless things, but to leave each person with something that will lighten their load or lift them up. That’s always the goal.

In 2012 there was a Master Class interview being done with Sidney for OWN. I just went to support him since someone else was doing the interview. Uncharacteristically, I asked to step in and take over. I was so connected to Sidney and knew what to ask because I knew all the stories. The interview ended up going on for eight hours over two days. And believe me, I could have talked to him longer than that.

The footage for Sydney comes from that interview. When director Reginald Hudlin came to me and said, “The family would like you to come on as producer. Would you be interested?” I said, “Yes, and I’ve got the footage!” I said yes because it was about Sidney. I said yes because I wanted to protect his story. I said yes because I wanted the world to experience all that he was—the personification of integrity, courage, dignity, and possibility. I said yes because Sidney Poitier was larger than life and, most importantly, he was my friend.

The documentary Sydney is out Friday, September 23, on Apple TV and in theaters.


preview for Watch Sidney Poitier Tells Oprah Why He Turned Down a Role

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