If her goal was to erase the memory of the disgraced James Frey, Oprah Winfrey couldn’t have made a better pick for her book club than a memoir by Sidney Poitier.
Winfrey ended a year-long hiatus in her club by announcing Friday that she had chosen “The Measure of a Man,” a “spiritual autobiography” by one of Hollywood’s most admired actors — for whom the word “dignified” could practically be copyrighted — and a hero of Winfrey’s.
Published in 2000, Poitier’s book combines memories of such plays and films as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Defiant Ones” with observations about the Academy Award-winning actor’s childhood, his religious faith, his thoughts on racism and the influence of such world leaders as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
“He writes really candidly and passionately about his childhood, his family, relationships and his extraordinary career,” Winfrey said on her show, which airs from Chicago. “It (the book) really is about what makes character, what makes you be who you are. He is the measure of one of the greatest men I think who has ever been on our planet.”
Poitier didn't use ghostwriter
Poitier did not appear on the telecast. But Winfrey said she will host “a once-in-a-lifetime dinner party” with Poitier that will include members of her book club.
In a statement issued Friday by his publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, Poitier said he was “overwhelmed far beyond the point where words, alone, could fully express either my appreciation or my gratitude.”
“Meanwhile, I proudly accept this honor on behalf of the forces that brought it about: the love of my parents, the ever-present kindness of strangers, and the hidden mysteries of the universe and, of course, Oprah Winfrey,” he said.
“The Measure of a Man” spent several weeks on The New York Times’ list of best sellers, and the audio edition, narrated by Poitier, won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album. Poitier wrote a previous memoir, “This Life,” released in 1980.
Right before Winfrey announced her selection, the 56th for her book club, “The Measure of a Man” ranked 288,958 on Amazon.com — a number that quickly changed, soaring within hours to the top 5. Winfrey’s picks almost inevitably top best-seller lists.
Mark Tauber, vice president and deputy publisher of HarperSanFrancisco, an imprint of HarperCollins, declined Friday to say how many books would be printed, but did say he expects to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Tauber also said that, unlike many celebrity memoirists, Poitier did not use a ghostwriter, although the actor did have editorial “help.”
“I’m sure there’ll be speculation about Winfrey picking yet another memoir,” Tauber said. “But Poitier’s life is filled with so much integrity.”
Winfrey and Poitier have met before. During an interview in her own “O” magazine in 2000 — about the time “Measure of a Man” was released — Winfrey and Poitier discussed his life and career; the talk show host confided that she felt like a star-struck fan.
“Poitier and I are sitting across from each other at the Bel-Air hotel in Los Angeles — and I’m admiring that, at 73, this man still personifies grace, ease, strength and courage,” Winfrey wrote at the time. “He is a gentleman in every sense of the word. In my more than 25 years as an interviewer, I’ve talked to hundreds of people — yet today, I’m giddy.”
Poitier, who turns 80 on Feb. 20, became the first black performer to win the Oscar for best actor, cited in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field.” His other films include “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, With Love” and “The Blackboard Jungle.” In 2002, he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.
He should be a welcome break from the travesty of Frey, whose “A Million Little Pieces” was picked by Winfrey in fall 2005, only to have The Smoking Gun Web site reveal in January 2006 that the memoir was largely fabricated. Winfrey initially defended Frey, then changed her mind, brought him back to the show and chewed him out.
Busy concentrating on new schoolWinfrey’s next pick, Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” was announced on Jan. 16, 2006, soon after the Frey scandal broke, but had already been decided upon weeks earlier. More than 1.5 million copies of Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir were sold because of Winfrey’s selection, according to publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Winfrey acknowledged on Friday’s show that it had been a year since she had chosen a selection for her book club. But she didn’t blame Frey. Instead, she said she was busy during that time researching curriculum for her school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa, which opened earlier this month.
“So I really did not have time to devote to reading other books,” she said. “But now I do.”
Winfrey indicated the idea to feature “The Measure of a Man” came to her over the holidays while she was dining with a group of people in Africa that included Poitier.
“We were all sitting around the table, and I was asking Sidney Poitier to tell some of the life stories from his book. And let me tell you, everybody at the table was weeping,” Winfrey said. “I was sitting there thinking, I wish everybody could hear this. And then I realized, everybody can! Everybody can. I love this book.”