Sir Sidney Poitier, KBE (pronounced /ˈpwɑːtjeɪ/ or /ˈpwɑːti.eɪ/; 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; andGuess 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 A Piece of the Action; 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 was born in Miami, Florida, where his Bahamian 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 along with advanced care available at the hospital in Miami. Due to his stateside delivery, he automatically gained U.S. citizenship.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 Dinner; To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night. The last film featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, aPhiladelphia, 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 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.
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).
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.
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.
|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|
|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
- 1958 British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Best Foreign Actor for The Defiant Ones
- 1958 Silver Bear for Best Actor (Berlin Film Festival) for The Defiant Ones
- 1963 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lilies of the Field
- 1963 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for Lilies of the Field
- 1963 Silver Bear for Best Actor (Berlin Film Festival) for Lilies of the Field
- 1974 Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Because Poitier is a citizen of The Bahamas, a Commonwealth realm that subscribes to the British Honours System, this is a substantive (as opposed to honorary) knighthood, which entitles him to the style “Sir”. Poitier does not use the style, nor does his wife use the style “Lady Poitier”
- 1992 AFI Life Achievement Award
- 1995 SAG Life Achievement Award
- 1997 Appointed non-resident Bahamian Ambassador to Japan
- 1995 Kennedy Center Honors
- 2000 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
- 2001 NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award
- 2001 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – Rick Harris, John Runnette (producers) and Sidney Poitier for The Measure of a Man
- 2002 Honorary Oscar – “For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence”
- 2009 Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom