Jamaican international film-maker and actress Esther Anderson shares with the Style Observer ( SO), from her Chelsea home in London, fond memories of Sir Sidney Poitier. The celebrated Bahamian/American film director/actor/activist and diplomat passed away on January 6, 2022.
“I first met Sidney Poitier at Shepperton Studios in London when I was 19 years old. I was introduced to him by Terence Young, the director of Dr No who was, at the time, directing the historical comedy film called The Amorous Adventure of Moll Flanders with Kim Novak.
“Sidney was making the British-American Cold War movie with Richard Widmark called The Bedford Incident on location in London. He, during his costume break invited me to his caravan for a cup of tea. I was excited because he told me when we were introduced that he knew my brother-in-law Roger Pyfrom in Nassau. Roger was a handsome tall football star so I guess that's how he knew him. We talked about The Bahamas and Jamaica, chit-chatted stuff about family etc, but while we were talking I remembered watching him put on his shirt and saw that his beautiful skin was as smooth as silk and glowed with health.
“He was ready to go back on the set. I finished my tea and went back to join Terence on Moll Flanders.
His English theatrical agent Dennis Selinger was a great friend of mine and Sidney was in town again to look for actresses to test for the lead opposite him in his next film which he would be directing. This was seven years later.
I had since made Ghengis Khan for Columbia Pictures alongside Omar Sharif, The Sandpiper for Filmways, The Touchables for Twentieth Century Fox, Two Gentlemen Sharing for Paramount Pictures, One More Time, with Sammy Davis Jr and Jerry Lewis. The Avengers, Theatre of Death with Christopher Lee, The Wednesday Play, Season 1, Episode 155 called The Exiles, ITV network series called No Hiding Place, an episode of the BBC television series Dixon of Dock Green called English-Born and Bred with legendary British/Bermudian actor Earl Cameron... and won the DaDA (Dance and Drama Awards) for my dancing in a set of TV commericals... so I had some experience!
“Theatrical agent Dennis Selinger told me to tell my talent agents Ros Chatto and Robin Fox about the impending film and that I should be put up for the part. Ros got on it.
“An appointment with Sidney at a hotel off Bond Street in Mayfair was made.
“Actresses were coming in and out. We used separate elevators so we wouldn't run into each other. I thought that was so considerate of him.
“Poitier was charming, polite and professional and I felt at ease with him. I don't think he knew I was the same girl he had met seven years before at Shepperton Studios. He never mentioned it and neither did I.
“He took me out onto the terrace of his hotel suite and looked closely at my face in the clear daylight. He didn't explain himself but I trusted him as a professional... that he must know what he's doing. We went back inside. He seemed content and the meeting was over and he escorted me to the lift. I thanked him and left.
“About a month later, my agent Ros called me to let me know I would be testing with Sidney for the lead part opposite him. I was given the date.
“I called Jimmy Gardner, an actor friend from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and told him what was up. He volunteered to help me work on my Oxford English accent. A week later, a car arrived and I was taken to Pinewood Studios and the work started!
“We did two scenes from the script which was called Escapade at the time... He didn't waste time..he moved quite fast with each take...until he was satisfied.
“That was it for the day. I was taken home, and two years passed. I didn't hear anything and thought it was not going to happen.
“It's now 1970. I am on a boat trip around the Caribbean islands with my then partner in the music business when the radio on the yacht came on. My partner said it's for you. A message came through for me. It was from Sidney.
“I had to get to Nassau for a meeting with him ASAP. I was sent on our company's plane to Barbados where I caught another flight to Jamaica to collect my bags and get to Nassau.
In Jamaica at Perry Henzell's office (film director Perry Henzell directed The Harder They Come) another call came in, but from New York this time. It was the beautiful Joanna Shimkus, Poitier's girlfriend at the time, congratulating me. That's when I knew I had won the part.
“On my arrival in Nassau a car picked me up and I was taken to Sidney's house where a housekeeper named Esther opened the gates.
“I went in, met the man himself. We discussed the script, agreed on some things and disagreed on others. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting meeting.
“When we were through a white man walked in and he was introduced as the screenwriter. He was ex military... I immediately understood why some of the dialogue I had to say was so military. Still, I was as charming as he was.
“Poitier agreed to take me home. I was staying in Love Beach, the opposite side to where he lived... in one of the Island Records cottages. I was wearing a black chiffon antique dress and was quite shocked when he led me to his bike. But I got on. He was cool and took me part-way, before putting me in a taxi to the house. We made arrangements to meet at his office in New York in a few days.
“I arrived in New York and checked in at my friends Marjorie and Robert Loggia's Sutton Place apartment where I stayed during all my visits to the United States.
“At the office Sidney greeted me with his usual charm and warm smile. I would have to allow him to 'darken' me and I would have to wear an afro, as I had done in the film One More Time as Sammy Davis Jr's girlfriend. It was the end of the '60s and Black Power and the Black Panthers still dominated the climate. Black Americans wanted changes. Young, Gifted and Black was a big hit song that stayed in the psyche of the young blacks growing up. As a trained professional, I agreed to everything he wanted to do to make the character come to life.
“He had wardrobe, hair, and make-up people brought in, and they spent the rest of the day, turning me into what he was looking for. This was the end of 1971.
“Back in London we met up to go shopping for other off-the-peg clothes he wanted. We chose clothes from all the top British designers of the time while the formal wardrobe was being created by a known designer in New York, and the hairdresser was brought over from Hollywood to quaff my afro wig, and the jewellery was being made to adorn it.
“We started shooting at the beginning of '72, and wrapped by the autumn. Sidney said he wouldn't edit the film himself but got two of the best British editors in the business, and used cameraman Paul Beeston, who shot To Sir, with Love, 'for luck'.
“We said our goodbyes and he left London. The film was released in 1974, winning every award at the NAACP of 1975 with Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson serenading us. I wasn't there, I was in Jamaica working with Bob Marley.
“I was told by a journalist that I had won the NAACP Image Award as Best Actress for my performance in uplifting the 'black race' (their words). I believe we only have one race, the human race. Sidney collected my award for me.
“The last time we saw each other was at 20th Century Fox Studio in Hollywood. I was there with Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci and there he was striding towards me. He came over to us and we greeted each other. He hugged me and said, 'Girl aren't you ever going to age? Look at you!'
“I introduced my friends, and we chatted for a bit. He wanted to know how I was and what I was doing these days. I told him about the 30-minute film I had made called Short Ends with two of the co-stars from To Sir, with Love. He said he always knew that one day I would give him a job. We had a good laugh and he left. I never saw him again as our paths never crossed again... my life was no longer in Hollywood.
“The African Odyssey programme, in association with Black History Month at the BFI (British Film Institute) screened Warm December for two weeks last autumn as a month-long tribute to Earl Cameron, who passed away at 100. Cameron played my uncle in the film. So I will suggest a tribute to Sidney of the same standard.
“I was shattered by the news of Sidney's passing, because I didn't know till late afternoon that day. My sister, Conchita Pyfrom, Roger's wife, called from Nassau with the news. All the memories came flooding back.
“On the night he was meant to get his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Brits he had a stroke. That same night I was being honoured in Florida with a proclamation by the mayor and senators of North Miami Beach with a day in my name: The Esther Anderson Community Arts Day, February 26. I so wanted to share my news with him because it all happened after the screening of the film. Maya Angelou's grandson Elliott Jones presented me with the signed and framed citation. It was supposed to be a happy night for me, but all the time I couldn't help thinking about the stroke he'd had... wishing he was also there to be honoured like this.
“Now the news of his passing cut deep and I've been swamped by messages of condolences. I wish I knew how to get them to his family. They should all know how much love and respect the people of the world had for him. And this new generation coming up will embrace him, because they'll know what a great legacy he left them from his work, and the way he treated people.
“He will be remembered for breaking down walls. Breaking through the glass ceiling, showing us how to respect ourselves and have dignity throughout our trials on our journey. I would love to dedicate the next Esther Anderson Community Arts Day to him and get permission to screen as many of his films that show his journey from childhood to his passing, and lobby for a statue of him to be placed in Harlem where he started his new life. A giant like Sir Sidney Poitier was the first one, but I know he'd want to see other young men step up to the plate, against all odds and obstacles and deliver.
“He will always be with us through his work and his beautiful family.
And now farewell my friend, RIP. Goodnight, sweet prince, may angels bear you to your rest and may you rise again in power.”
As told to Novia McDonald-Whyte