"I've never done an ensemble piece before," Sidney Poitier says. "I always carried the weight of the films I was in. And I've not played in comedies very much. I did a couple with Bill Cosby, but of course nobody saw me because they were looking at him."
That gets a big laugh and not only because it is self-deprecating humor from a man called an American icon by the director of "Sneakers," Phil Alden Robinson.The joke is that you can't now and never could take your eyes off Poitier, not since he made his screen debut 42 years ago in "Blackboard Jungle."
In 1953, when Rosa Parks was still riding at the back of the bus, Poitier won his first Oscar nomination for "The Defiant Ones."
Five years after that, when President Dwight Eisenhower was halfway through his second term and America was like so much vanilla ice cream ready to melt, Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor for "Lilies of the Field."
"There was a time when I was the only guy out there," he says. "And that was burdensome, of course. I couldn't carry the dreams of so many people. When I came, I was alone."
He came from the Bahamas, where he'd received a British education and experienced the standards and surface civility of a commonwealth outpost. But he was the son of a poor farmer and, as a teenager, fled the island's stifling colonial mentality and rigid class structure.
After serving with the U.S. Army, Poitier headed for New York City and the American Negro Theatre. He cites the late Canada Lee, a stage and film actor - he played Bigger Thomas in the 1941 version of "Native Son" and was in the movies "Lifeboat" (1944) and "Cry the Beloved Country (1951) - and Marlon Brando as "actors I regard as towering images."
Now, he says, "I look at Spike Lee and (John) Singleton and (Robert) Townsend and I say, `Hey, I was the forerunner to this,' and it makes me feel terrific."
And, yes, he tells reporters at a press conference, "It would be terrific if I get an invitation from one of them to participate in a film, but I don't expect it. It's their turn to fly."
Later, in a rare interview, Poitier, 68, explains that the agenda of the young black filmmakers is not his agenda. "I'm from a different time," he says. "They come with a different value system."
For Poitier, against all odds, the old system worked,
"I've had the best of times. I've made 42 movies and played a principal role in each of them. I've earned my living from acting almost all my adult life."
He is asked, as a black man who reached the pinnacle of success and celebrity in the '50s and '60s, whether he feels there have been subtle losses as well as great gains during the second half of the century.
"There are subtle losses and not so subtle losses," he says. "There was a time when there was more attention paid to social graces. There was a time when there was a sharper demarcation between children and adults, when the role of children and the responsibilities of adults were more clearly defined."
His own responsibilities, including his choice of roles, have always been determined by one principle. "My father was a remarkable man and I loved him a great deal. Therefore, when I started in this business I chose never to do anything that wasn't a compliment to his name. Any success that came to me was retroactively due to my dad."
Poitier stopped performing for 10 years starting in the late '70s and turned to directing, including "Stir Crazy," "Fast Forward" and "Ghost Dad."
Now, he says, he plans to continue both acting and directing. "I am working on several pieces of material that I kind of conjured up. I do a lot of daydreaming, even yet."