Sidney Poitier (February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022) was a African-American and Bahamian-American actor, film director, and ambassador. In 1964, he was the first African American and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He also received two competitive Golden Globe Awards, a competitive British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
He fought for equality behind the scenes, demanding that at least 50% of the film crew on his 1969 movie “The Lost Man” be African American, according to his bio for The Kennedy Center, which honored him in 1995.
Poitier’s entire family lived in the Bahamas, but he was born unexpectedly in Miami while they were visiting, which granted him U.S. citizenship. As the son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Poitier’s rise began when he moved to work in Miami and later New York City as a teen before becoming the first Black male actor to win an Oscar in 1964 for his performance in the film “Lilies of the Field.”
He grew up in the Bahamas, but decided to try his hope in the then segregated United States Of America. He moved to Miami at age 15, and to New York City when he was 16. He joined the American Negro Theater, before making his film debut in 1950 in the film “No Way Out”. This at a time when leading roles for Black actors in Hollywood movies were rare, due to Jim Crow, segregation and the commonly held illogical racist views that most Americans had of their fellow African-Americans.
Landing his crossover film role as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle (1955). In 1958, Poitier starred with Tony Curtis as chained-together escaped convicts in The Defiant Ones, which received nine Academy Award nominations; both actors received nominations for Best Actor, with Poitier’s being the first for a Black actor. They both also had Best Actor nominations for the BAFTAs, with Poitier winning. In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963), playing a handyman helping a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel.
In the beginning of his career, Sidney’s landing of a high school student in the crossover film Blackboard Jungle (1955) helped spur his popularity and bank-ability. In 1958, Poitier starred with Tony Curtis as chained-together escaped convicts in The Defiant Ones, which received nine Academy Award nominations; both actors received nominations for Best Actor, with Poitier’s being the first for a Black actor. They both also had Best Actor nominations for the BAFTAs, with Poitier winning. In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963), playing a handyman helping a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel.
Poitier also received acclaim for Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and A Patch of Blue (1965). He continued to break ground in three successful 1967 films which dealt with issues of race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. He received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his performance in the last film and in a poll the next year he was voted the US’s top box-office star. Beginning in the 1970s, Poitier also directed various comedy films, including Stir Crazy (1980), starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, among other films. After nearly a decade away from acting, he returned to television and film starring in Shoot to Kill (1988) and Sneakers (1992).
Poitier was granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. From 1997 to 2007, he was the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2016, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. In 1999, he ranked 22nd among male actors on the “100 Years…100 Stars” list by the American Film Institute. In 1982, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and in 2000, he received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. In 2002, he was given an Honorary Academy Award, in recognition of his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being”.
Poitier said of his career, that his choices were less about being “first” and more about the image of his characters. He would not, he told Lesley Stahl in 2013, play someone who was immoral or cruel. “If you go through my career, you’ll find that I didn’t. I didn’t ever.”
“I did not go into the film business to be symbolized as someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier told Stahl. He said he would not take any part “that reflects negatively on my father, my mother and my values.
“My father was a tomato farmer. There is the phrase that says he or she worked their fingers to the bone, well, that’s my dad. And he was a very good man.”
The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born three months premature while his Bahamian parents were in Miami to sell tomatoes.
Uncertain whether he would survive, his dad purchased a tiny casket, while his mother consulted a palm reader.
“The lady took her hand and started speaking to my mother: ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier recalled. “And these were her words, she said: ‘He will walk with kings.'”
And it came true: “Everything she said, including walking with kings, yeah.”