Our unforgettable encounter with Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier’s recent death has led to an outpouring of tributes with one common theme: In addition to being one of the greatest actors of our time, he was also a great human being. Based on personal experience, my wife and I concur.

In 1967, we honeymooned in New York City, her home town. As a wedding gift, her uncle gave us tickets to Fiddler on the Roof, which was playing at the Majestic Theatre on W. 44th Street. As we approached the box office, we saw that Sardi’s, the famous after-the-theatre restaurant frequented by Broadway and show business celebrities, was right across the street. ‘Maybe we should try to get in after the show,’ I said. My New Yorker wife was unsure that we would be successful.

After thoroughly enjoying the theatre, we crossed the street. Beyond Sardi’s unpretentious front doors was a long narrow dark vestibule. At the far end, next to an open double door leading to the restaurant, a well-dressed couple stood in front of a concierge desk manned by a gentleman in a tuxedo whom I suspected from his robust physique was also a bouncer. As we approached, I saw what appeared to be a large denomination bill exchanging hands. My heart sank as the concierge smiled, picked up two menus and escorted the couple into the restaurant, leaving us alone to ponder our fate.

When he returned a few minutes later I went up to the desk and told him that we were newlyweds on our honeymoon. ‘I really don’t have the money to tip you, but we would be so happy if we could get in,’ I said, explaining that I was a medical student and my wife was in teachers’ college. From his expression, it was clear that he was somewhat taken aback. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said and then again disappeared into the restaurant.

Just then, a very handsome man, accompanied by two women, walked in, stopping a few feet from us as we all waited for the concierge. I instantly recognized him. ‘That’s Sidney Poitier,’ I whispered to my wife. Perhaps he overheard us because he looked at me and smiled. Taking advantage of the moment, I stepped forward. ‘Mr. Poitier, I don’t want to bother you for your autograph. I just want to tell you how much my wife and I enjoy your work (we had just seen him in To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night).’ That’s beautiful, man. Thank you,’ he replied, his smile warmer than ever.

Just then, the concierge returned, nodded to Sidney Poitier, and escorted him and his party into the main room. After what seemed like an eternity, the concierge reappeared, motioning to us from inside the restaurant doors. ‘Young couple, follow me,’ he said in a loud voice as he led us to a table for two, not next to the kitchen, but in the centre of the room beside a long table occupied by Broadway stars and right next to Sidney Poitier, who immediately acknowledged our presence with a gracious smile.

The next 45 minutes of heavenly bliss went by in a flash as we took in the room, its walls crammed with large framed autographed caricatures of famous people, shared a piece of chocolate cheesecake and drank coffee (all that I could afford; with tax and tip the bill came to a hefty $20).

Finally, realizing that we couldn’t milk the occasion any longer, we got up to leave. As we did, Sidney Poitier suddenly turned away from his companions, stood facing us, and said, ‘I hope you folks had a really good time tonight.’

‘We certainly did, thanks in great part to you,’ we replied in unison. Not only was Sidney Poitier a great actor, he was a real mensch.

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