Hand color tinted photo of Sidney Poitier
Sir Sidney Poitier, KBE (pronounced /ˈpwɑːtjeɪ/ or /ˈpwɑːtieɪ/; born February 20, 1927) is a Bahamian-American actor, film director, author, and diplomat. He broke through as a star in acclaimed performances in American films and plays, which, by consciously defying racial stereotyping, gave a new dramatic credibility for black actors to mainstream film audiences in the Western world.
In 1963, Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. The significance of this achievement was later bolstered in 1967 when he starred in three well-received films—To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—making him the top box office star of that year. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.
Poitier has directed a number of popular movies such as Uptown Saturday Night, and Let’s Do It Again (with friend Bill Cosby), and Stir Crazy (starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder). In 2002, 38 years after receiving the Best Actor Award, Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Honorary Award, designated “To Sidney Poitier in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”
Since 1997 he has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. On August 12, 2009, Sidney Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.
Poitier grew up with his family on remote Cat Island, in the Bahamas. However, he was born in Miami, Florida, USA, where his parents, Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, traveled to sell tomatoes and other produce from their farm on Cat Island. His birth was premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained three months in Miami to nurse him to health. Due to his stateside delivery, he automatically gained U.S. citizenship.
Poitier spent his early years on Cat Island, which had a population of 4,000 and no electricity. At the age of 10, Poitier traveled to Nassau with his family. Poitier still has family throughout the Bahamas islands. His younger brother, Carl Poitier died in December 1989. His family attended the Anglican and then the Catholic church. As he grew older, he displayed an increasing inclination toward juvenile delinquency. At the age of 15, his parents shipped him off to Miami to live with his older brother. At age 17, Poitier moved to New York City and held a string of menial jobs. During this time, he was arrested for vagrancy after being thrown out of his housing complex for not paying rent, and decided to join the United States Army. He worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater.
Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. His tone deafness made him – contrary to what was expected of black actors at the time – unable to sing or dance. Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which he received excellent reviews. By the end of 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a white bigot, was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than what most black actors of the time were being cast.
Poitier’s breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955). At age twenty-seven though, like most of the actors in the film, he was not a teenager.
Poitier was the first male black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award (for The Defiant Ones, 1958). Tony Curtis is on record as saying he had approval of Poitier as his co-star. He also said the director’s first choice for his role was Robert Mitchum, but Mitchum refused to work with a black man. Curtis made these comments on the 1999 program Private Screenings with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.
He was also the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field in 1963). (James Baskett was the first to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus in the Walt Disney production of Song of the South in 1948, while Hattie McDaniel predated them both, winning as Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1939’s Gone with the Wind).
He acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, and later starred in the film version released in 1961. He also gave memorable performances in The Bedford Incident (1965), and A Patch of Blue (1965) co-starring Elizabeth Hartman and Shelley Winters. In 1967, he was the most successful draw at the box office, the commercial peak of his career, with three successful films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night. The last film featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania detective whose subsequent career was the subject of two sequels: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).
However, Poitier began to be criticized for typecasting himself as playing overidealized black characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Poitier was aware of this pattern himself, but was conflicted on the matter; he wanted more varied roles, but also felt obliged to set a good example with his characters to defy previous stereotypes as he was the only major black actor in the American film industry at the time. For instance, Poitier, along with his producers, was able to make Virgil Tibbs a dignified and astute detective who is capable of making errors in judgment.
Poitier has directed several films, the most successful being the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy, which for years was the highest grossing film directed by a person of African descent. His feature film directorial debut was the western Buck and the Preacher in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced original director Joseph Sargent. The trio of Poitier, Cosby, and Belafonte reunited again (with Poitier again directing) in Uptown Saturday Night. Poitier also directed Cosby in Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, and Ghost Dad. Poitier also directed the first popular dance battle movie Fast Forward in 1985.
Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950 until 1965. He has been married to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian-born former actress of Lithuanian descent, since January 23, 1976. He has four daughters by his first marriage and two by his second: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Gina, Anika, Sydney Tamiia (see: actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier).
Actress Diahann Carroll has claimed in a memoir that Poitier had promised to marry her and subsequently broke his promise.
He has written three autobiographical books, This Life (1980), The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000) and Life Beyond Measure – letters to my Great-Granddaughter (2008). The second one became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Its translation in Traditional Chinese (ISBN 9570484969) was done by Fongfong Olivia Wei, and subsequently published by Triumph Publishing Company in Taipei, Taiwan in the year 2002.
In April 1997, Poitier was appointed as ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, a position he currently holds. He is also the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO. During the period of 1998 to 2003, he served as a Member of the Board of Directors of The Walt Disney Company.
In 2001, Poitier received an Academy Honorary Award for his overall contribution to American cinema.
In August 2009, Poitier received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.