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Poitier, Sidney

Poitier, Sidney

February 20, 1927

The actor, director, and filmmaker Sidney Poitier was born in Miami and reared on Cat Island in the Bahamas. The youngest of eight children, he was forced to leave school at fifteen in order to work on his parents' tomato farm. He then moved to Miami to live with his married brother Cyril. Shortly thereafter, Poitier left for New York City, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served as a physiotherapist until World War II ended in 1945. Upon his return to New York, he supported himself with a series of menial jobs while studying to become an actor. After an unsuccessful audition, he spent six months trying to rid himself of his West Indian accent and eventually became a member of the American Negro Theatre, for which he often played leading roles. He also won minor parts in the Broadway productions of Lysistrata (1946) and Anna Lucasta (1948), before trying his hand at film. In 1950 he married Juanita Hardy, a dancer, with whom he had three children; Poitier and Hardy were eventually divorced.

Poitier's big break came when he was cast as a young doctor in Twentieth Century Fox's "racial problem" film No Way Out (1950). Leading roles followed in such films as Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Go Man Go (1954), Blackboard Jungle (1955), Band of Angels, Edge of the City, and Something of Value (the last three all released in 1957). With his performance as an escaped convict in The Defiant Ones (1958), Poitier became the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar in the best actor category; he also won the New York Film Critics and Berlin Film Festival awards for best actor. The next year, Poitier took on the title role in Otto Preminger's motion picture version of Porgy and Bess (1959), for which he also won critical acclaim.

As an actor, Poitier became known for sensitive, versatile, and eloquent interpretations and powerful on-camera presence, as well as for his good looks. He was one of the first African Americans to become a major Hollywood star, and during the 1960s he played leading roles in many influential and controversial films. After originating the role of Walter Lee Younger on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Poitier was featured in such diverse films as Paris Blue (1960), Pressure Point (1961), A Patch of Blue (1965), The Bedford Incident (1965), Duel at Diablo (1966), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and To Sir, with Love (1967). In 1963 he became the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor (for his performance in Lilies of the Field ).

The late 1960s proved a transitional period for Poitier, who was accused of portraying unrealistic "noble Negro" or "ebony saint" characters by the militant black community. He confessed to feeling himself caught between the demands of white and black audiences. He attempted to diversify his roles by taking on such films as They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970), A Warm December (1973), and The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), and by applying his talents to directing. In 1968, Poitier joined with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbra Streisand to form First Artists, an independent production company. The popular Western Buck and the Preacher (1972) marked his debut as both director and star; A Warm December (1974), the hit comedy Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977) all featured him in this dual role. In 1975 he was elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and his film Let's Do It Again earned him the NAACP Image Award in 1976. That year, Poitier married the actress Joanna Shimkus, with whom he had two children.

His first autobiography, This Life, was published in 1980. Twenty years after this memoir, Poitier reopened the door on his life with The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000), a book describing his early childhood in the Bahamas and exploring the history of some of his greatest roles.

Over the next decade, Poitier concentrated on directing such works as Stir Crazy (1980), Hanky Panky (1982), Fast Forward (1985), and Ghost Dad (1990). In 1982 he became the recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe Award and the Los Angeles Urban League Whitney M. Young Award. Poitier returned to acting in 1988 for starring roles in Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita, both of which were released that year. He has continued to act in films and a number of made-for-television movies since then, appearing in Separate but Equal (1991), Sneakers (1992), Children of the Dust (1995), The Jackal (1997), and other films.

In addition to creative filmmaking, Poitier has produced a record album called Sidney Poitier Reads the Poetry of the Black Man, and he has narrated two documentaries on Paul Robeson: A Tribute to the Artist (1979) and Man of Conscience (1986). In recognition of his artistic and humanitarian accomplishments, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and the NAACP honored him with its first Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. In 2000, Sidney Poitier won the NAACP Image Award for outstanding actor in a television movie for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, as well as a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Poitier won the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award.

See also American Negro Theatre; Film


Ewers, Carolyn H. The Long Journey: A Biography of Sidney Poitier. New York: New American Library, 1969.

Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Marill, Alvin H. The Films of Sidney Poitier. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1978.

Poitier, Sidney. This Life. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

ed guerrero (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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