Sidney Poitier (1927- )

Sidney Poitier, For Love of Ivy (Palomar Pictures, 1968)
Public domain image

Award winning actor, director, and author, Sidney Poitier broke racial barriers and stereotyping in the film industry to become the leading African American male actor of the 20th Century.  In a career that spanned 57 years, Poitier was a featured performer or starred in 48 films and directed six.

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, Florida to Bahamian parents, Evelyn Outten Poitier and Reginald James Poitier who traveled from their farm on Cat Island, the Bahamas to Miami to sell their produce.  Although he was born in Florida he spent his childhood in The Bahamas on Cat Island, an island with a population of 4,000 and no electricity.  At the age of 15 Poitier was shipped off to Miami to live with his older brother.  Two years later Poitier moved to New York City, New York where without job or prospects he was arrested for vagrancy and thrown out of his apartment for not paying his rent.  After this brush with the law Poitier joined the US Army in 1945.

After two years in the Army, Poitier decided on an impulse to audition at the American Negro Theatre.  Although he was initially rejected, Poitier was now determined to become an actor.  He worked on getting rid of his Bahamian accent and improving his theatre performance for six months.  On his second audition he was accepted into the American Negro Theater Company.

Poitier’s first role was a small part in a Broadway production of Lysistrata. He received great reviews and by the end of 1949 Poitier was given the opportunity to star in films.

In 1950 Poitier made his film debut in No Way Out where he played a doctor who treated a white bigot.  In 1951 he played a South African minister and political activist in Cry, the Beloved Country.   In 1955 Poitier played a troubled teenager in Blackboard Jungle although at the time he was 27.  Three years later Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his co-starring role in The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis.

In 1961 Poitier received a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the film version of A Raisin in the Sun. In 1963, however, Poitier made history by being the first African American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his leading role in Lilies of the Field.  (James Baskett received an honorary Academy Award in 1948 for his performance as Uncle Remus in the Walt Disney production Song of the South). Poitier also won a Golden Globe Award for Lilies of the Field.

Major Hollywood roles now came quickly.  In 1965, he co-starred in The Bedford Incident and A Patch of Blue.  Two years later he starred in three major films.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which co-starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and explored the controversial subject of interracial marriage.  Later that year co-starred with actor Rod Steiger in the film, In the Heat of the Night where his character, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Detective Virgil Tibbs, was forced to assist a bigoted Mississippi Sheriff played by Steiger in solving a homicide.  Steiger won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as a Mississippi Sheriff and the film itself won an Oscar for best Picture of the year.

By the early 1970s Poitier began directing films including Stir Crazy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.  He also directed and starred in Buck and the Preacher alongside Harry Belafonte.   Poitier starred in and directed Uptown Saturday Night.  Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte led an all-star cast.

In 1950 Sidney Poitier married Juanita Hardy, a model.  They remained married for 15 years and had four children.  In 1976, he married Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian-born actress.  In 1992 Poitier received an AFI Life Achievement Award.  In 1995 he received a SAG Life Achievement Award.  In April 1997, Poitier, still a citizen of the Bahamas, served as that nation’s ambassador to Japan.  In 2001 he received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for his work on The Measure of a Man.  In 2002 Poitier received an Honorary Oscar for his achievements in acting for over a half a century, the second of his career.