Poitier, Sidney (1927—)

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Poitier, Sidney (1927—)

As one of the first African-American actors to consistently appear in serious dramatic roles in American films, Sidney Poitier is acknowledged as a major catalyst for Hollywood offering more substantive roles to black performers. In 1992, the American Film Institute paid tribute to Poitier, with Denzel Washington referring to him as "a source of pride for many African Americans," and James Earl Jones saying that Poitier has "played a great role in the life of our country."

Although born in 1927 in Miami, Florida, Poitier grew up on his family's farm in the Bahamas. Despite being a poor man, Poitier has said that his father—a tomato farmer—was never a man of self-pity. As Poitier once said, "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."' His family moved from the tiny village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capitol, when Poitier was eleven years old. It was at that age that he became captivated with the cinema after watching a Western drama unfold on the screen.

After serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1940s, Poitier worked as a dishwasher and janitor until he landed a backstage position with the American Negro Theater. Because his West Indian accent was unintelligible, Poitier developed a more professional voice by listening to radio commercials and imitating the announcers. After perfecting his voice, he was cast in several American Negro Theater productions during the 1940s, including Days of Our Youth, Lysistrata,Anna Lucasta, and A Raisin in the Sun. Poitier understudied for actor-singer Harry Belafonte in Days of Our Youth, and he impressed critics with his work in Lysistrata, despite being so nervous on the play's opening night that he delivered the wrong lines and ran off stage.

Poitier's film career began in 1950 in the feature No Way Out, playing a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he could not save. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, most notably in the South African story Cry, the Beloved Country, the urban classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played prison escapees whose mutual struggle helped them to gain respect for each other despite their racial divisions.

It was in the 1960s, however, that Poitier produced his most impressive body of work that simultaneously helped to reduce the barriers faced by African-American actors and dispel racial stereotypes on the screen. He appeared in the 1960 film adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun, in which he played the role he had created on the Broadway stage in 1959. Following that film, Poitier accepted the role of an American serviceman in Germany, in the 1963 production Lilies of the Field, which earned him the Academy Award for best actor. He was the first African-American actor to win this award.

Poitier continued throughout the 1960s to break down racial barriers in American film. In 1967, Poitier played a charismatic school teacher in To Sir, with Love, and that same year costarred with Rod Steiger in the film In the Heat of the Night. In this latter role, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, an African-American detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a small Southern town with the assistance of a racist police chief. Poitier's role as Virgil Tibbs spawned two sequels and a television series, although Poitier did not appear in the TV project. The actor concluded the watershed year of 1967 by working with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner —an important work because it was Hollywood's first interracial love story that did not end in tragedy. Poitier has acknowledged that he suited the needs of filmmakers during this period who wanted to deliver an antiracist message. "I was a pretty good actor," he said. "I believed in brotherhood, in a free society. I hated racism, segregation. And I was a symbol against those things." However, Poitier's involvement in civil rights was more than just symbolic; the actor participated in demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1972, Poitier costarred with Harry Belafonte in the revisionist Western Buck and the Preacher. It was on this picture that Poitier made his debut as a film director when the original director resigned because of creative differences. Although Poitier and Belafonte wanted Columbia Pictures to hire another director, studio officials liked some of Poitier's own footage so much that they asked him to finish the film himself. His other directorial credits include A Warm December (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), Stir Crazy (1980), Hanky-Panky (1982), Fast Forward (1985), and Ghost Dad (1990).

In the 1980s, Poitier took only a handful of film roles, primarily Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita, both action thrillers released in 1988. However, the 1990s produced an upswing in Poitier's film activity, starting with playing Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the television film Separate but Equal. In 1992, he returned to the big screen costarring with Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Aykroyd in the espionage comedy-drama Sneakers. That same year, the American Film Institute presented Poitier with a Lifetime Achievement Award, with the veteran actor humbly remarking in his acceptance speech: "I enter my golden years with nothing profound to say and no advice to leave, but I thank you for paying me this great honor while I still have hair, and my stomach still has not obscured my view of my shoe tops." In 1995, Poitier returned to television for a role in the Western drama Children of the Dust.

With more than thirty film credits to his name, coupled with his work as a director and civil rights activist, Poitier has emerged from a childhood of poverty to the status of an American icon. Actor Michael Moriarty summed up what Poitier represents both on and off the screen by saying, "You see a face that you've grown up with and admired, someone who was … a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday … work of doing movies, he is everything he symbolizes on screen."

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Ceyser, Lester J. The Cinema of Sidney Poitier. San Diego, A. S. Barnes, 1980.

Hoffman, William. Sidney. New York, Lyle Stuart, 1971.

Marill, Alvin H. The Films of Sidney Poitier. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1978.

Poitier, Sydney. This Life. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.