He was renowned as a superb actor and director. More than that, he was a pioneer for persons of color in the entertainment business. Over a 71 year career he played many ground-breaking roles in many ground-breaking movies and won numerous awards. In fact, as you will see below, one might say that, especially early in his career, he was the go-to actor of color for those types of roles in those types, of movies.
Sidney L. Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, FL. At the time, his entire extended family was living in the Bahamas. His parents were tomato farmers on Cat Island, which is located in the central Bahamas. Through happenstance, they were in Miami on business when Sidney was born unexpectedly two months prematurely. So, literally through an accident of birth, he was an American citizen. At that time, medicine was not as advanced as it is now. Therefore, many, if not most, babies born prematurely did not survive, and for a while it was doubtful that Sidney would. He remained in the Miami hospital for three months, until he was healthy enough to go home.
He was the youngest of seven children. The origin of the family surname is interesting. According to family legend an ancestral branch of the Poitiers were runaway slaves who fled from Haiti to Cat Island. There they joined a “maroon” community. Such communities were not uncommon in the region. The name was used to describe runaway slaves who had fled to remote Bahamian islands and established independent communities. Often, they intermarried with indigenous peoples. The name is derived from the Spanish word, “cimarron,” which means “fierce” or “unruly.” There was a white planter on Cat Island named Charles Leonard Poitier,” so he was likely the source of the family name.
When Sidney was 10 the family moved to Nassau. He lived there until the age of 15 when he was sent to live in Miami with a brother. At age 16 he moved to New York. He held down a series of menial jobs, such as dishwasher, until 1943 when he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to work with psychiatric patients, but he became disenchanted with how the Army treated them. Consequently, he faked mental illness and managed to obtain a Section VIII discharge.
Back in NY Sidney determined to be an actor. In order to hone his craft he joined the American Negro Theatre. Like most every other aspiring entertainer he struggled for a while. At that time, due to stereotyping, producers expected Black actors to be able to sing and dance. Sidney was “tone deaf,” and could do neither, which hindered his career for a while.
Sidney’s first break came in 1950. Darryl Zanuck cast him in the movie No Way Out as a doctor who treats a Caucasian bigot (played by another up-and-comer named Richard Widmark). After a series of nondescript roles he got another big break in 1955 as a troubled teen in Blackboard Jungle starring Glen Ford. (At the time Poitier, at 28, was a bit old for the role, but he pulled it off.) Ironically, in 1967 in one of his most successful and memorable roles he would play a teacher of incorrigible children in To Sir with Love.
In my view, in Poitier’s long and storied career the following roles and productions stand out:
- The aforementioned Blackboard Jungle and To Sir with Love, which highlighted the racial and social struggles of poor, troubled, disadvantaged teens living in London to find their place in the world. I thought it was cool that Poitier’s roles in the two movies were mirror-images of each other.
- The Defiant Ones in which two escaped prisoners, a Caucasian (Tony Curtis) who hated Blacks and a Black (Poitier) who hated Caucasians, were chained to each other and had to work in concert to survive. This was a really controversial topic for 1958 when the movie was released. The movie was a critical and commercial success and earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both stars. Poitier became the first Black male actor to be so recognized.
- In 1959 Poitier starred with Ruby Dee on Broadway in the groundbreaking play, Raisin in the Sun. The play depicted how Blacks lived, which was a revelation to the predominantly white Broadway audiences. Director Lloyd Richards observed that Raisin was the “first play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn.” In 1961 Poitier starred in the film adaptation and earned a Golden Globe nomination.
- In the words of the Frank Sinatra “hit” song 1967 was a “very good year” for Poitier. At that time he was the lone actor of African descent who was being cast in leading roles in the movies. He starred in, not one, not two, but three commercially and critically successful movies – the aforementioned To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. In Dinner Poitier played a Black man in a relationship with a white woman, a very touchy subject in 1967. In 1967 interracial marriages were still illegal in many Southern states. At the time, film critic, Roger Ebert praised Poitier’s depiction of Dr. Prentice as “noble, rich, intelligent, handsome, and ethical.” In Heat Poitier played a Black policeman from Philadelphia who helps solve a murder while dealing the racial prejudices of the deep South, including a racist cop played by Rod Steiger. Due to the rousing success of these three movies in 1967 Poitier was the number one box office draw. It was the commercial peak of his career.
In addition to his acting career Poitier was a successful director and author. His most successful film as a director was the comedy Stir Crazy starring Richard Prior and Gene Wilder. For many years Crazy was the highest-grossing film to have been directed by a person of African descent.
As I said, Sidney ‘s enduring legacy is that he broke barriers. In many of his movies he played roles that had been considered taboo for Black actors. He was drawn to roles that dealt with race and social justice. These were often controversial, but movie audiences accepted him in those roles. He played his roles with grace and dignity.
He was the first AA to be nominated for an Oscar and to win an Oscar. In fact, his whole career was marked by a series of “firsts.” He was an inspiration to and a trail blazer for the legion of other actors of color who would follow in his footsteps, such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Will Smith, among many others. When Denzel won the award for Best Actor he paid special tribute to Sidney saying “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There is nothing I would rather do, sir.” I think that says it all, but if you want more, how about these samples of the many testimonials that poured in following Sidney’s passing:
- Chester Cooper – Bahamas Deputy Prime Minister – “We have lost an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.”
- Joe Biden called him a “once in a generation actor and advocate whose work carried so much dignity power and grace that it changed the world on and off the big screen.”
He won many awards including Oscars, Golden Globes and a Grammy, too many to list them all here. In 1974 he was “knighted” by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1999 he was ranked #23 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Years…100 Stars.” In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Poitier’s personal life did not exactly measure up to his professional one. He was married twice and had six children. However, during his first marriage he carried on a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll.
Sidney Poitier passed away on January 6, 2022. Rest in peace, Sidney. You entertained us for 71 years with grace and dignity, and you were an inspiration to those of your race who will follow in your huge footsteps.