Actor Sidney Poitier’s presence in film during the 1950s and 1960s opened up the possibility for bigger and better roles for African American performers.
Born on February 20, 1924, in Miami, Florida, but raised in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier was the son of Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. His father was a tomato farmer, and the family was very poor. Still, Poitier later told Frank Spotnitz in American Film that his father “had a wonderful sense of himself. Every time I took a part, from the first part, from the first day, I always said to myself, ‘This must reflect well on his name.'” The family moved from the village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, when Poitier was eleven years old, and it was there that he first experienced the magic of the movies. Poitier returned to Miami at age fifteen to live with his older brother Cyril. Poitier left for New York City at age sixteen, serving briefly in the army. He then worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Seeing an ad for actors in a newspaper, he went to a tryout at the American Negro Theater. Theater cofounder Frederick O’Neal became impatient with Poitier’s Caribbean accent and poor reading skills. “He came up on the stage, furious, and grabbed me by the scruff of my pants and my collar and marched me toward the door,” Poitier told the Los Angeles Times. Poitier, determined to succeed, continued working in the restaurant but listened to radio broadcasts in his spare time to improve his speaking. He later returned to the theater and was hired as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.
Poitier served as an understudy (one who learns a performer’s lines in case that performer is unable to perform) for actor-singer Harry Belafonte in a play called Days of Our Youth, and an appearance one night led to a small role in a production of the Greekcomedy Lysistrata. On opening night of the latter play Poitier was so nervous that he delivered the wrong lines and ran off the stage; still, his brief appearance so impressed critics that he ended up getting more work. Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, playing a doctor tormented by the racist (one who is prejudiced against other races) brother of a man whose life he could not save. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, appearing in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country, the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis play prison escapees who are chained together; their struggle helps them look past their differences and learn to respect each other. In the 1960s Poitier began to make his mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, in a role he had developed on the stage, Poitier took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in Lilies of the Field (1963). This role earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, making him the first African American to earn this honor.
Breaking down barriers
In 1967 Poitier appeared in three hit movies. In To Sir, With Love he played a schoolteacher, while in In the Heat of the Night he played Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a southern town and wins the respect of the prejudiced police chief there. In the comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, also starring Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) and Katherine Hepburn (1907–), Poitier’s character is engaged to a white woman. The film was Hollywood’s first love story between members of different races that did not end tragically. Reflecting on the feelings of filmmakers during this period, Poitier remarked to Susan Ellicott of the London Times, “I suited their need. I was clearly intelligent. I was a pretty good actor. I believed in brotherhood, in a free society. I hated racism, segregation [separation based on race]. And I was a symbol against those things.” Of course, Poitier was more than a symbol. David J. Fox reported in the Los Angeles Times that actor James Earl Jones at a tribute to Poitier hosted by the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1992, remembered, “He marched on Montgomery and Memphis with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr , who said of Poitier: ‘He’s a man who never lost his concern for the least of God’s children.'” Rosa Parks who in 1955 became a civil rights hero simply by refusing to sit in the “negro” section of a Montgomery bus, attended the tribute and praised Poitier as “a great actor and role model.”
In 1972 Poitier costarred with Belafonte in the western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After an argument with the film’s director, Poitier took over; though he and Belafonte urged Columbia to hire another director, a studio official saw footage Poitier had shot and encouraged him to finish the film himself. Poitier went on to direct three features starring comedian Bill Cosby in the 1970s: Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. They also worked together on the comedy Ghost Dad (1990), which was a disaster. Poitier also directed the hit comedy Stir Crazy (1980), as well as several other features. Poitier took only a handful of film roles in the 1980s, but in 1991 he played Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in the television film Separate but Equal. In 1992 he returned to the big screen for the comedy-drama Sneakers, which costarred Robert Redford and River Phoenix . The AFI tribute to Poitier also took place in 1992; in his speech he welcomed young filmmakers into the fold and urged them to “be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey,” reported Daily Variety.
Poitier and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, travel a great deal because they live in California and have children in New York. Poitier returned to television for 1995’s western drama Children of the Dust. He continued to star in television movies with To Sir with Love II (1996) and the Showtime drama Mandela and de Klerk (1997). The latter follows the story of Nelson Mandela’s last years in prison to his election as leader of South Africa. Both received mixed reviews. In 2000 Poitier received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. In April of that year, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (the story of his own life) was published. In February 2001 Poitier won a Grammy award for best spoken-word album for his reading of the book. Poitier was presented with the NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Hall of Fame Award in March 2001. In March 2002 Poitier was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his long, dignified career. The award was especially meaningful because it came on the same night that African Americans won both the Best Actor Denzel Washington and Best Actress Halle Berry awards.