Sidney Portier seems like an actor with a charmed life. Film after film gave him groundbreaking roles. Yet his recent memoir, Life Beyond Measure: Letters to my Great Grandaughter, reveals that his acting career was hardly predestined. His story about how he got started in theater should teach anyone what grit is all about. During a time when it is easy to give up on the job market, or almost any aspect of marketing yourself or a new product, Portier’s style bears emulating.
A teenage Portier was looking for another dishwashing job to survive in New York when he noticed an ad for auditions at the American Negro Theater in Harlem. He had never thought about acting, but at the moment it seemed better than the dishwashing jobs that had barely helped him survive thus far. He was only 16 years old and had no formal schooling, after a childhood on the impoverished Cat Island in the Carribbean and a few years in the Bahamas when his parents emigrated there.
When he showed up at the theatrical audition, he was given a script to read. Barely literate, he still plunged ahead, but was mortified when he was cut off and admonished to leave and go look for another job as a dishwasher. Portier left, but grew angry that someone would tell him that dishwashing was all he should aspire to in life. That anger and an offer of reading lessons from a colleague at a restaurant job made him decide to go back. When he was rejected a second time, he offered free janitor services in exchange for acting classes and eventually got the breakthrough he needed with an understudy role in a play. Even then, there was no overnight success: It took years of struggle and self-education to gain the polish that led to his famous roles.
Portier credits his success to an inner sense of self-worth and stubbornness, the product of core values instilled by his parents. He believed he could do it. The next time you face rejection in any aspect of marketing your career and get discouraged, remember the odds that Portier faced and overcame with such grace. And then smile and try again.