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Sidney Poitier

Biography: Sidney Poitier
Oscar for Best Actor

Sidney Poitier Date of birth: February 20, 1927

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Sidney Poitier was born prematurely in Miami, Florida. His parents had crossed the Florida straits in a sailboat to sell the tomatoes they raised on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Although he barely survived the first months of life, the infant Sidney returned with his parents to their farm, on a tiny island without electricity, running water, paved roads, automobiles or other modern conveniences. He spent his first ten years living close to nature, fishing and working alongside his brothers and sisters on the family farm. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, but only sporadically, and learned little.

At the time, the Bahamas, an archipelago of more than 700 islands and thousands of cays, was a colony of Great Britain. When Poitier was almost eleven, his parents moved to Nassau, the colonial capital. In Nassau, he had his first taste of industrial civilization, and saw his first movies. The Poitiers were poor, and young Sidney left school at age 12 to help support his family. Tall for his age, he found work as a laborer, but without education, his prospects in life seemed hopelessly limited.

When Sidney's best friend was sent to reform school, his father feared that Sidney too would fall into delinquency if he remained in Nassau. The elder Poitier urged his son to try his luck in the United States. An older brother had already settled in Miami, and at age 15, Sidney joined him there. His birth in Miami entitled him to U.S. citizenship, but for a young black man in the Florida of the 1940s, the rights of citizenship existed only on paper. Even a slight infraction of the traditional code of white supremacy could lead to violence. Having grown up in a virtually all-black society in the Bahamas, Poitier had never learned the deference that white Southerners expected. Although he quickly found work in Florida, he could not as easily adjust to the indignities of segregation. After a summer spent washing dishes at a mountain resort in Georgia, Poitier left the South, and set off for New York City.

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Robbed along the way, he arrived in Harlem, barely 16 years old, with only a few dollars in his pocket. Knowing no one, he slept in bus stations and on rooftops until he had earned enough money to afford a rented room. Unprepared for the rigors of a New York winter, and unable to afford warm clothing, he lied about his age and joined the army to escape the cold. As out of place in the army as he had beeen in Miami, he feigned insanity to win a medical discharge. Returning to New York, he appeared trapped in a dead-end existence. On an impulse, he tried to audition for Harlem's American Negro Theater, the foremost African American theatrical organization of its day, but the theater's director ridiculed his Caribbean accent and poor reading skills. The young Poitier took the rejection as a challenge, and resolved to become an actor, if only to prove the man wrong. For the next six months, he worked doggedly to improve his reading. Convinced that the written word held the key to a better life, he pored over newspapers between shifts as a dishwasher, struggling to learn and understand. In his rented room, he listened to the radio for hours on end, repeating every word to modify his accent.

Sidney Poitier Biography Photo
Returning to the American Negro Theater, he offered to serve as an unpaid janitor in exchange for taking classes at the theater's school. His teachers had little faith in him, but when the star of their student production, the young Harry Belafonte, was unable to appear, Poitier was allowed to substitute for him. His performance was seen by a Broadway director who offered him a small role in an all-black production of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. The personality that had failed to impress his teachers in the classroom setting proved incandescent onstage. Although he flubbed his lines on opening night, critics and audiences were charmed. Lysistrata closed quickly, but another producer offered Poitier a job with the touring company of Anna Lucasta. One of the few successful dramas of the 1940s to feature black actors, the play toured for years and brought Poitier into a small, close-knit world of African American professional actors.

Poitier made his feature film debut in 1950 in No Way Out. Although fourth-billed, Poitier appeared in the leading role, as a young doctor called upon to treat a bigoted patient in a town inflamed with racial hatred. For decades, American films had consigned black actors to the roles of servants or entertainers, often portrayed in the most demeaning light. Poitier's powerful and dignified performance was a revelation to American audiences, and created a sensation in the African American community. The film's depiction of interracial violence frightened many theater owners. It was briefly banned in Chicago and was never shown at all in most Southern cities. Word of Poitier's success quickly spread to the Bahamas. British colonial authorities banned the film, fearing its portrayal of racial violence would incite disorder, but the censorship backfired. Black Bahamians organized to protest the ban, and when the authorities relented, a movement for independence from Britain intensified.

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Poitier followed his appearance in No Way Out with Cry the Beloved Country, the screen adaptation of an acclaimed novel set in South Africa. Filming in South Africa was a frightening experience for the young actor. Experiencing firsthand the injustices of apartheid was the beginning of a greater political awakening. Although Poitier was well received in his first roles, dramatic parts for black actors were still scarce. He struggled for a number of years, alternating work in theater and films with poorly paid day jobs. Even when he needed the money, Poitier turned down roles that robbed black characters of their dignity by portraying them as powerless victims.

Dissatisfied with his work in movies, and barely making a living from his acting, Poitier joined an acting workshop led by the young director Lloyd Richards. Poitier sought not only to improve his acting skills, but to find kindred spirits in an integrated community of socially aware young artists. In 1955, the 27-year-old actor was improbably cast as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle. With its rock-and-roll soundtrack and violent portrayal of an inner city school, the film was an international sensation and brought Sidney Poitier to the attention of a vast audience for the first time.

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In the first half of the 1950s, America was preoccupied with the Cold War, and most Hollywood producers, fearful of accusations of disloyalty, sought to avoid controversy. A major exception to the prevailing conformity of 1950s Hollywood was the producer and director Stanley Kramer, who deliberately courted controversy with his politically charged stories. In the 1958 film The Defiant Ones, he cast Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts, literally chained together. Although the two despise each other, they must cooperate to achieve their freedom. A graphic metaphor for American race relations, the film was a critical and box office success and Poitier received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Poitier was now a certified movie star, a proven box office draw. The following year, he headed an all-star cast in a lavish film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess. Although he had reservations about the story, Poitier gave a passionate but measured performance in a role that could easily have been maudlin or bathetic. Opportunities for black actors were slowly improving at the end of the '50s, but Sidney Poitier was the most visible African American star of the era, the first black leading man to gain acceptance in American movies.

Back in New York, a rare artistic opportunity appeared. Poitier had received a copy of a unproduced play by an unknown playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and was determined to perform it on Broadway. Recruiting his old friend Lloyd Richards to direct, Poitier's proven appeal helped draw investors for the unlikely prospect of a play about the everyday struggles of a working-class African American family. A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959. The play, and Poitier's performance in the lead role, won an enthusiastic reception from the New York critics. Poitier stayed with the show for the first six months of its run, which lasted over a year. Raisin in the Sun has become an enduring classic of American drama. Poitier and other members of the original cast recreated their performances in an acclaimed 1961 screen adaptation.

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As the civil rights struggle intensified, Poitier felt called to balance his need for artistic fulfillment with his sense of responsibility as the most prominent African American in the film industry. While leveraging his fame and resources to promote social justice movements -- not only in the United States, but in South Africa and his native Bahamas -- he chose his film roles carefully. In the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, he played an itinerant handyman who is persuaded to build a chapel for an impoverished order of refugee nuns from East Germany. The film was an enormous popular success and brought Poitier an Oscar as Best Actor. Although actress Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar for a supporting role in Gone With the Wind, and the actor James Baskett had received a special award for his role in Song of the South, these were performances that fell well within traditional stereotypes. Poitier received his award for the leading role of a self-sufficient, independent black man, neither a servant nor a victim.

Poitier's films of the 1960s systematically eradicated a host of taboos regarding the portrayal of African Americans on film. In A Patch of Blue, his character becomes romantically involved with a blind white girl. Although an eight-second kiss was deleted when the film was shown in the South, A Patch of Blue was a success all over the country. In Atlanta, Georgia, it broke a box office record previously held by Gone With the Wind.

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The year 1967 saw the release of three of Poitier's most celebrated films. In To Sir With Love, he played a teacher assigned to a predominantly white inner city school in London. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, directed by Poitier's old friend Stanley Kramer, Poitier's character is a doctor, meeting his white fiancée's parents for the first time. In the enormously successful thriller, In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective drawn into a murder case in the Deep South, where he must find the killer while overcoming the prejudices of the townspeople and sheriff. When the script called for a white character to slap Tibbs in the face, Poitier insisted that Tibbs slap the man back, an electrifying scene in a country emerging from centuries of legally sanctioned racial discrimination. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture. When box office receipts were tallied at the end of 1968, Poitier's films were the three most successful releases of the year.

Poitier's enormous fame was a double-edged sword. His unprecedented success and popularity were a source of pride to many Americans, black and white, but they also made him a target for critics -- including some in the African American community -- who felt that the characters he portrayed were too admirable, and therefore not human enough. Understandably frustrated by this kind of criticism, Poitier gradually reduced his acting commitments at the height of his fame.

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He returned for a time to the Bahamas, where he was a prominent supporter of the independence movement. The Bahamas became an independent nation in 1973. It remains a member of the British Commonwealth, like Canada or Australia, and continues to recognize the British monarch as Head of State. In 1974, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on Sidney Poitier. Although he does not use the title in the United States, he is known in the British Commonwealth as Sir Sidney Poitier.

In the 1970s, Poitier devoted more of his time to directing, although he often starred in the films he directed. His first film as a director was the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), co-starring his old friend Harry Belafonte. While Poitier's career as an actor was long on serious drama, his output as a director has shown a marked preference for comedy. Belafonte and Bill Cosby joined Poitier in his 1974 film Uptown Saturday Night. It was the first of a trilogy of popular comedies, including Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, pairing Poitier and Cosby, all directed by Poitier.

In 1980, Sidney Poitier published an autobiography, This Life. He continued to direct feature films throughout the following decade, helming such popular comedies as Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky, Fast Forward and Ghost Dad. In the 1990s, he appeared in a number of acclaimed television films, playing historical figures including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and South African President Nelson Mandela.

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Poitier, who has maintained dual citizenship in the Bahamas and the United States, was asked to serve as the Bahamas' Ambassador to Japan in 1997. Since that time he has also served as the nation's Ambassador to the United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO. In recent years, he has devoted much of his time to writing. In 2000, he published a second book of memoirs, the bestselling The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. The following year, he received a second Oscar, a Special Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has since published another book of reflections, Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great Granddaughter (2008). In 2009, a few days before his interview with the Academy of Achievement, he was presented with the Lincoln Medal for "accomplishments exemplifying the character and lasting legacy" of President Lincoln. The medal was awarded at the gala re-opening of Ford's Theatre in Washington, attended by President Barack Obama. Later that year, President Obama selected Sidney Poitier to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sidney Poitier was inducted into the Academy of Achievement in a ceremony held in Los Angeles, California on November 6, 2014. The Gold Medal of the Academy was presented to Mr. Poitier by Miss Oprah Winfrey (Academy Class of 1989). Her remarks on that occasion, and Mr. Poitier's address to the Academy, can both be seen and heard in the video above.

This page last revised on Dec 12, 2014 13:25 EDT