The Jewish waiter who helped Sidney Poitier

"He was wonderful, and a little bit of him is in everything I do."
Actors Sidney Poitier (L) and Joanna Shimkus attend the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for The Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation)

Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing actor who broke through racial barriers and was the first Black winner of the best actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field,” has died at age 94.

When Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute in 1992 he paid tribute to an unknown Jewish waiter.

“I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young Black dishwasher learn to read,” Poitier told the audience. “I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.”

In an interview with the Washington Post in 1980 he elaborated on their relationship.

“I would come out of the kitchen and sit down next to him and read articles from the front page of the Journal-American. When I ran into a word I didn’t know (and I didn’t know half of the article, because anything past a couple of syllables and I was in trouble) he explained the meaning of the word and gave me the pronunciation and then sent me back to the head of the sentence so I could grasp the word in context. He was wonderful, and a little bit of him is in everything I do.”

Poitier was married to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian film actress of Lithuanian origin who’s father was Jewish.