Sidney Poitier

Sir Sidney Poitier
KBE (pronounced /ˈpwɑːtjeɪ/ or /ˈpwɑːti.eɪ/; born February 20, 1927) is a Bahamian American actor, film directorauthor, 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[1] for his role in Lilies of the Field.[2] The significance of this achievement was later bolstered in 1967 when he starred in three well-received films—To Sir, with LoveIn the Heat of the Night; andGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner—making him the top box office star of that year.[3] 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 A Piece of the ActionUptown 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.”[4]

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.

Early life

Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, where his Bahamian parents, Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier,[5] traveled to sell tomatoes and other produce from their farm on Cat Island.[6] His birth was premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained three months in Miami to nurse him to health along with advanced care available at the hospital in Miami.[7] Due to his stateside delivery, he automatically gained U.S. citizenship.[7]

Poitier grew up with his family on Cat Island, in The Bahamas, then a British colony. At the age of 10, Poitier moved to Nassau with his family. Poitier still has family throughout The Bahamas.[citation needed] At the age of 15 he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At age 17, Poitier moved to New York City and held a string of menial jobs. He then decided to join the United States Army after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater.[citation needed]

Acting career

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 ordance.[8] 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 those most black actors of the time were offered.

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 ateenager.

Poitier was the first male black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award (for The Defiant Ones1958). Tony Curtis is on record as saying he had approval of Poitier as his co-star.

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 Awardfor 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 DinnerTo Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night. The last film featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, aPhiladelphiaPennsylvania 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.

Directorial career

Poitier has directed several films, the most successful being the Richard PryorGene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy which for years was the highest grossing film directed by a person of African descent.[9]. His feature film directorial debut was the western Buck and the Preacher in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced original directorJoseph 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 (1975 film)A Piece of the Action, and Ghost Dad. Poitier also directed the first popular dance battle movie Fast Forward in 1985.

Personal life

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 wife and two by his second: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Gina, Anika, Sydney Tamiia.

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.

Poitier is also the subject of a full-scale biography by historian Aram Goudsouzian, entitled Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004).

Later life

In April 1997, Sir Sidney 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.[10]

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.



Year Film Role Notes
1947 Sepia Cinderella Extra uncredited
1949 From Whence Cometh My Help Himself documentary
1950 No Way Out Dr. Luther Brooks
1951 Cry, the Beloved Country Reverend Msimangu
1952 Red Ball Express Cpl. Andrew Robertson
1954 Go, Man, Go! Inman Jackson
1955 Blackboard Jungle Gregory W. Miller
1956 Good-bye, My Lady Gates Watson
1957 Edge of the City Tommy Tyler Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Something of Value Kimani Wa Karanja
Band of Angels Rau-Ru
The Mark of the Hawk Obam
1958 Virgin Island Marcus
The Defiant Ones Noah Cullen BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Berlin Film FestivalSilver Bear for Best Actor[11]
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
1959 Porgy and Bess Porgy Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1960 All the Young Men Sgt. Eddie Towler
1961 A Raisin in the Sun Walter Lee Younger Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Paris Blues Eddie Cook
1962 Pressure Point Doctor (Chief Psychiatrist)
1963 The Long Ships Aly Mansuh
Lilies of the Field Homer Smith Academy Award for Best Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Berlin Film FestivalSilver Bear for Best Actor[12]
1965 The Bedford Incident Ben Munceford
The Greatest Story Ever Told Simon of Cyrene
A Patch of Blue Gordon Ralfe Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
The Slender Thread Alan Newell
1966 Duel at Diablo Toller (contract horse dealer)
1967 To Sir, with Love Mark Thackeray
In the Heat of the Night Det. Virgil Tibbs Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Dr. John Wade Prentice
1968 For Love of Ivy Jack Parks
1969 The Lost Man Jason Higgs
1970 King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis Narrator documentary
They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! Virgil Tibbs
1971 Brother John John Kane
Not Me Boss!!
The Organization Detective Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs SFPD Homicide
1972 Buck and the Preacher Buck
1973 A Warm December Matt Younger
1974 Uptown Saturday Night Steve Jackson
1975 The Wilby Conspiracy Shack Twala
Let’s Do it Again Clyde Williams
1977 A Piece of the Action Manny Durrell
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist Narrator short subject
1988 Shoot to Kill Warren Stantin
Little Nikita* Roy Parmenter
1992 Sneakers Donald Crease
1994 A Century of Cinema Himself documentary
1996 Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick Himself documentary
1997 The Jackal FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston
2001 Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey Narrator documentary
2004 MacKenzie Himself documentary
2008 Mr. Warmth:The Don Rickles Project Himself documentary


Year Film
1972 Buck and the Preacher
1973 A Warm December
1974 Uptown Saturday Night
1975 Let’s Do it Again
1977 A Piece of the Action
1980 Stir Crazy
1982 Hanky Panky
1985 Fast Forward
1990 Ghost Dad


Year Title Role Notes
1991 Separate But Equal Thurgood Marshall Nominated — Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film
1995 Children of the Dust Gypsy Smith
1996 To Sir, with Love II Mark Thackeray
1997 Mandela and De Klerk Nelson Mandela Nominated – Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
1998 David and Lisa Dr. Jack Miller
1999 The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn Noah Dearborn
Free of Eden Will Cleamons
2001 The Last Brickmaker in America Henry Cobb

Awards and recognition