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Poitier, Sidney 1927–

Sidney Poitier 1927

Actor, director

At a Glance

Thrown Out of First Audition

First Black Actor to Win Academy Award

Key Activist for Civil Rights

Selected filmography

Sources

At a 1992 banquet sponsored by the American Film Institute (AFI), a bevy of actors, filmmakers, and others gathered to pay tribute to Sidney Poitier. Superstar Denzel Washington called the veteran actor and director a source of pride for many African Americans, the Los Angeles Times reported, while acting luminary James Earl Jones ventured that his colleague had played a great role in the life of our country. Poitier himself was typically humble in the face of such praise, but he has acknowledged that his presence on film screens in the 1950s and 1960s did much to open up larger and more nuanced roles for black performers. I was selected almost by history itself, he averred to Susan Ellicott of the London Times.

After gracing dozens of films with his dignified, passionately intelligent presence, Poitier began to focus increasingly on directing; a constant in his life, however, has been his work on behalf of charitable causes. And he has continued to voice the need for film projects that, as he expressed it to Los Angeles Times writer Charles Champlin, have a commonality with the universal human condition.

Born in Miami, Florida, but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier experienced severe poverty as a boy. His father, a tomato farmer, was the poorest man in the village, the actor recalled in an interview with Frank Spotnitz for American Film. My father was never a man of self-pity, he continued, adding that the elder Poitier 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 tiny village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, when Poitier was 11 years old, and it was there that he first experienced the magic of cinema.

After watching, rapt, as a western drama transpired on the screen, Poitier ran to the back of the theater to watch the cowboys and their horses come out. After watching the feature a second time, he again went out to wait for the figures from the screen to emerge. Poited told the Los Angeles Times, And when I told my friends what had happened, they laughed and they laughed and they said to me, Everything you saw was on film. And they explained to me what film was. And I said, Go on.

At a Glance

Born in 1927 (some sources say 1924) in Miami, FL; son of Reginald (a tomato farmer) and Evelyn Poitier; married Juanita Hardy, 1950 (divorced 1965) married Joanna Shimkus (an actress), c. 1976; children: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Gina (with Hardy); Anika, Sydney (with Shimkus). Military Service: Served briefly in U.S. Army.

Career: Worked as dishwasher and as janitor at American Negro Theater, New York City, early 1940s; stage appearances include Days of Our Youth, Lysistrata, Anna Lucasta, and A Raisin in the Sun; appeared in numerous films; wrote screenplay, For Love of Ivy, 1965; Free of Eden, executive producer, 1999; wrote autobiography, This Life, 1981; wrote second memoir, The Measure of A Man, 2000; named Bahamas ambassador to Japan, 1997-.

Memberships: Named to board of directors of Walt Disney Corporation, 1994-.

Awards: Academy Award, best actor, for Lilies of the Field, 1964, honorary award, 2002; American Film Institute, Life Achievement Award, 1992, named one of 50 greatest screen legends, 1999; New Yorks Associated Black Charities, Black History Maker Award, 1997; Screen Actors Guild, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000; NAACP, Hall of Fame Award, 2001; Grammy, Best Spoken Word Album, 2001.

Addresses: Home Los Angeles, CA. Office Bahamas Foreign Ministry, Ambassador to Japan, East Hill St, PO Box N-3746, Nassau, Bahamas.

Thrown Out of First Audition

Poitier made his way to New York at age 16, serving for a short time in the Army. He has often told the story of his earliest foray into acting, elaborating on different strands of the tale from one recitation to the next. He was a teenager, working as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. I didnt study in high school, he told American Films Spotnitz. I never got that far. I had no intentions of becoming an actor. Seeing an ad for actors in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper, he went to an audition at the American Negro Theater. I walked in and there was a man therebig strapping guy. He gave me a script.

The man was Frederick ONeal, a cofounder of the theater; impatient with young Poitiers Caribbean accent and shaky reading skills, ONeal lost his temper: 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, the actor remembered to Los Angeles Times writer Champlin. Just before he threw me out he said, Stop wasting peoples time! Why dont you get yourself a job as a dishwasher. Stunned that ONeal could perceive his lowly status, Poitier knew he had to prove his antagonist wrong. I have, and had, a terrible fierce pride, Poitier told the audience at the American Film Institute fête, as reported by Daily Variety. I determined right then I was going to be an actor.

Poitier continued in his dishwashing job; in his spare time he listened assiduously to radio broadcasts, he noted to Champlin, trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns. He had some help in one aspect of his informal education, however: Daily Variety quoted his speech at the AFI banquet, in which he thanked an elderly Jewish waiter in New York who took the time to teach a young black dishwasher how to read, persisting over many months. Ultimately, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theater, persuading its directors to hire him as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.

Poitier understudied 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 Greek comedy Lysistrata. Poitier, uncontrollably nervous on the latter plays opening night, delivered the wrong lines and ran off the stage; yet his brief appearance so delighted critics, most of whom otherwise hated the production, that he ended up getting more work. I set out after that to dimensionalize my understanding of my craft, he told Champlin.

Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, portraying a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he couldnt save. Director Joseph Mankiewicz had identified Poitiers potential, and the film bore out the filmmakers instincts. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, notably in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country, the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and the taut The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played prison escapees manacled together; their mutual struggle helps them look past racism and learn to respect each other. Poitier also appeared in the film version of George Gershwins modern opera Porgy and Bess.

First Black Actor to Win Academy Award

It was in the 1960s, howeverwith the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others gathering momentumthat Poitier began to make his biggest mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberrys play, A Raisin in the Sun, in a role hed developed on the stage, he took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in the 1963 production Lilies of the Field. This role earned him a best actor statuette at the Academy Awards, making him the first black actor to earn this honor.

Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue, Poitier reflected to Ellicott of the London Times. I didnt understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix.

The mix was more potent than might have been anticipated, in fact; by 1967 Poitier was helping to break down filmic barriers that hitherto had seemed impenetrable. In To Sir, With Love Poitier played a charismatic schoolteacher, while In the Heat of the Night saw him portray Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a sleepy southern town and wins the grudging respect of the racist police chief there. Responding to the derisive labels flung at him, Poitiers character glowers, They call me Mister Tibbs. The films volatile mixture of suspense and racial politics eventually spawned two sequels starring Poitier and a television series (Poitier did not appear in the small screen version).

Even more stunning, Poitier wooed a white woman in the comedy Guess Whos Coming to Dinner; his fiancées parents were played by screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film was considered a watershed because it was Hollywoods first interracial love story that didnt end tragically. Poitiers compelling presencearticulate, compassionate, softspoken, yet demanding respect from even the most hostilehelped make this possible. Reflecting on the anti-racist agenda of filmmakers during this period, Poitier remarked to Ellicott, 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. And I was a symbol against those things.

Key Activist for Civil Rights

Of course, Poitier was more than a symbol. At the AFI banquet, reported David J. Fox in the Los Angeles Times, James Earl Jones praised his friends work on behalf of the civil rights struggle, declaring, He marched on Montgomery [Alabama] and Memphis [Tennessee] with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said of Sidney: Hes a man who never lost his concern for the least of Gods children. Indeed, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 touched off a crucial battle for desegregation simply by refusing to sit in the negro section of a Montgomery bus, attended the tribute and lauded Poitier as a great actor and role model.

In 1972 Poitier took a co-starring role with Belafonte in the revisionist western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After a falling out with the director of the picture, Poitier took over; though he and Belafonte urged Columbia to hire another director, a studio representative saw footage Poitier had shot and encouraged him to finish the film himself. And thats how I became a director, he told Los Angeles Times contributor Champlin.

Poitier is best known for helming comedic features co-starring his friend and comedian Bill Cosby; in addition to the trilogy of caper comedies of the 1970s Uptown Saturday Night, Lets Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action they collaborated on the ill-fated 1990 fantasy-comedy Ghost Dad, which was poorly received by both critics and moviegoers. Poitier also directed the hit 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, which starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, 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. James Earl Jones described the performance as a landmark actor portraying a landmark figure, in one of the landmark moments of our history. And in 1992 he returned to the big screen for the espionage comedy-drama Sneakers, which co-starred Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Aykroyd. It was a wonderful, breezy opportunity to play nothing heavy, he noted to Bary Koltnow of the Orange County Register. It was simple, and I didnt have to carry the weight. I havent done that in a while, and it was refreshing.

That year also saw the AFI tribute gala for Poitier, during which the actor welcomed young filmmakers into the fold and enjoined them to be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey, reported Daily Variety. I fully expected to be wise by now, Poitier noted in his speech, but Ive come to this place in my life armed only with the knowledge of how little I know. 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 shoetops.

Poitier observed to Champlin that during this golden age the demands of art had taken a back seat to domestic concerns to a large degree. Its very important, but its not the nerve center, he insisted. There is the family, and there is music and there is literature as well as political issues. Poitier noted that he and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, travel a great deal since they reside in California and have children in New York, and, as the actor put it, I live in the world.

Poitier returned to the small screen for 1995s western drama Children of the Dust. As a presence, reported Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, its apparent that hes viewed with respect, even awe, by virtually everyone on the set. He continued to work periodically, including working with his daughter, Sydneyalso an actressand was also the subject of an American Masters documentary, Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light. He also re-created the role of Mark Thackery in a sequel to To Sir With Love.

Poitier, who has a dual American-Bahamian citizenship, was appointed as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. He also wrote his second memoir, The Measure of A Man. The audiobook version, which he narrated, won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album. He has also received many honors and awards. In 2002 he received an honorary Oscar for a career that, according to Variety, signaled a turning point for African Americans in film. He was also on hand to witness the second African-American male to win an Oscar for Best Actor, and to see the first African-American female to win for Best Actress.

Poitier has received many awards and honors for both his tremendous body of work in film and his humanitarian efforts. He was named one of the AHs fifty greatest screen legends. He was presented with the NAACPs Hall of Fame Award for his constant depiction of positive screen images. He was also honored by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) with a lifetime achievement award. Costar Michael Moriarty observed that Poitier lived up to his legendary status: You see a face that youve grown up with and admired, someone who was an icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that he is everything he symbolizes on screen. Poitier commented to Parade magazinequoted by Jet I was the only person. It took an awful long time for there to be enough flexibility in attitudes in this business for there to be room for others. He also stated in Jet, Ive been at this game for 52 years. I would only like to continue if whats ahead of me complements whats behind me.

Selected filmography

Films

No Way Out, 1949.

Cry, the Beloved Country, 1952.

The Blackboard Jungle, 1955.

Edge of the City, 1957.

Something of Value, 1957.

The Defiant Ones, 1958.

Porgy and Bess, 1959.

All the Young Men, 1960.

A Raisin in the Sun, 1961.

Lilies of the Field, 1963.

The Long Ships, 1964.

The Bedford Incident, 1965.

The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965.

A Patch of Blue, 1965.

The Slender Thread, 1965.

Guess Whos Coming to Dinner, 1967.

In the Heat of the Night, 1967.

To Sir, With Love, 1967.

For Love of Ivy, 1968.

The Lost Man, 1969.

They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, 1970.

Buck and the Preacher, 1972.

A Warm December, 1973.

Uptown Saturday Night, 1974.

Lets Do It Again, 1975.

A Piece of the Action, 1977.

Shoot to Kill, 1988.

Little Nikita, 1988.

Sneakers, 1992.

The Jackal, 1997.

Television

Separate but Equal, 1991.

Children of the Dust, 1995.

To Sir With Love 2, 1996.

Mandela and de Klerk, Showtime, 1997.

Free of Eden, Showtime, 1999.

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, 1999.

Last Brickmaker in America, 2001.

As Director

Buck and the Preacher, 1972.

A Warm December, 1973.

Uptown Saturday Night, 1974.

Lets Do It Again, 1975.

A Piece of the Action, 1977.

Stir Crazy, 1980.

Hanky-Panky, 1982.

Fast Forward, 1985.

Ghost Dad, 1990.

Sources

Books

Whos Who Among African Americans, 14th Edition, Gale, 2001.

Periodicals

American Film, September 1991, pp. 18-21, 49.

Daily Variety, March 16, 1992, p. 18.

Jet, February 17, 1997, p. 63; March 3, 1997, pp. 52-53; March 27, 2000, p. 54; March 19, 2001, p. 54.

Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service, April 13, 2001; March 22, 2002.

Library Journal, May 15, 2001, p. 182. Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1992 (Calendar), p. 8; March 14, 1992, pp. F1, F4; February 26, 1995 (Television Times), pp. 5-6.

Orange County Register, September 11, 1992, p. P6.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2000, p. 63.

Time, April 28, 1997, p. 83; September 22, 1997, p. 103.

Times (London), November 8, 1992.

Variety, March 4, 2002, p. S20.

On-line

Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com

Simon Glickman and Ashyia N. Henderson

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Poitier, Sidney 1927–

POITIER, Sidney 1927


PERSONAL


Born February 20, 1927, in Miami, FL; raised in Nassau, Bahamas; son of Reginald James (a tomato farmer) and Evelyn (a tomato farmer; maiden name, Outten) Poitier; married Juanita Hardy (a dancer), April 29, 1950 (divorced, 1965); married Joanna Shimkus (an actress), January 23, 1976; children: (first marriage) Beverly Poitier Henderson, Pamela, Sherri, Gina; (second marriage) Anika, Sydney Tamiia (an actress). Education: Studied acting with American Negro Theatre, New York City, beginning 1945; trained for the stage with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards. Avocational Interests: Reading, music, golf, football, tennis, gardening, travel.


Addresses: Agent Martin Baum, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.


Career: Actor, director, producer, and executive. First Artists (film production company), founder (with Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, and Dustin Hoffman), 1969; Walt Disney Co., member of board of directors, 1998. Center Theatre Group, member. Appointed ambassador to Japan from the Bahamas, 1997. University of Southern California, member of board of councilors, School of Cinema and Television. American Museum of the Moving Image, member of board of trustees; also member of Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Charles Drew Medical Group, and Los Angeles Olympic Committee. Worked as a janitor, dishwasher, construction worker, messenger, and longshoreman. Military service: U.S. Army, physiotherapist, 194145.


Member: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, American Film Institute (founding trustee; first vice president), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (life member).


Awards, Honors: Georgio Cini Award, Venice Film Festival, 1958, for Something of Value; Film Award nomination, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1958, for Edge of the City; Silver Berlin Bear, best actor, Berlin International Film Festival, New York Film Critics Award, best actor, and Film Award, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, all 1958, Academy Award nomination, best actor, Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actor in a drama, and nomination for Golden Laurel Award, top male dramatic performance, all 1959, all for The Defiant Ones; nomination for Golden Laurel Award, top male new personality, 1959; Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actor in a musical or comedy, 1960, for Porgy and Bess; Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best actor in a drama, 1960, for A Raisin in the Sun; Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actor in a drama, and Film Award nomination, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, both 1962, for A Raisin in the Sun; Silver Berlin Bear, best actor, 1963, Academy Award, best actor, 1964, Golden Globe Award, best actor in a drama, 1964, nomination for Golden Laurel Award, top male dramatic performance, 1964, and Film Award nomination, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1965, all for Lilies of the Field; William J. German Human Relations Award, American Jewish Congress, 1966; Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actor in a drama, 1966, nomination for Golden Laurel Award, male dramatic performance, 1966, and Film Award nomination, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1967, all for A Patch of Blue; Golden Apple Star of the Year Award, Hollywood Women's Press Club, 1967; nomination for Golden Laurel Award, outstanding action performance, 1967, for Ralph Nelson's Duel at Diablo; Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actor in a drama, Film Award, best foreign actor, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and nomination for Golden Laurel Award, male dramatic performance, all 1968, for In the Heat of the Night; Star of the Year Award, National Association of Theatre Owners, 1968; nomination for Golden Laurel Award, outstanding male star, 1968; Prize San Sebastian, best actor, San Sebastian International Film Festival Award, 1968, for For Love of Ivy; Golden Globe Award, male world film favorite, 1969; nomination for Golden Laurel Award, outstanding male star, 1970; decorated knight commander, Order of the British Empire, 1974; Coretta Scott King Book Award, Social Responsibilities Round Table, American Library Association, 1981, for This Life; Cecil B. De Mille Award, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1982; Emmy Award nomination, best actor in a miniseries or special, 1991, and Golden Globe Award nomination, best actor in a miniseries or television movie, 1992, both for Separate But Equal; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1992; Thurgood Marshall Award, 1993; Career Achievement Award, National Board of Review, 1994; Kennedy Center Honor, 1995; Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or drama special, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1996, for Children of the Dust; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or special, 1997, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a male actor in a television movie or miniseries, 1998, Golden Satellite Award nomination, best actor in a miniseries or television movie, International Press Academy, 1998, and Image Award, outstanding lead actor in a television movie, miniseries or drama special, 1998, all for Mandela and de Klerk; Blockbuster Entertainment Award nomination, favorite supporting actor in a suspense movie, 1998, for The Jackal; Image Award, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, 2000, for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn; Life Achievement Award, Screen Actors Guild, 2000; inducted into Hall of Fame, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Grammy Award, best spokenword album, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 2001, for The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography; Honorary Academy Award, 2002; Living Legend Award, Trumpet Awards, 2002; also received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.


CREDITS


Film Appearances:

From Whom Cometh My Help (documentary short film), U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1949.

Dr. Luther Brooks, No Way Out, Twentieth CenturyFox, 1950.

Reverend Msimangu, Cry, the Beloved Country (also known as African Fury ), Lopert, 1952.

Corporal Andrew Robertson, Red Ball Express, Universal, 1952.

Inman Jackson, Go, Man, Go!, United Artists, 1954.

Gregory W. Miller, The Blackboard Jungle, MetroGoldwynMayer, 1955.

Gates, Goodbye, My Lady (also known as The Boy and the Laughing Dog ), Warner Bros., 1956.

Tommy Tyler, Edge of the City (also known as A Man Is Ten Feet Tall ), MetroGoldwynMayer, 1957.

Kimani Wa Karanja, Something of Value (also known as Africa Ablaze ), MetroGoldwynMayer, 1957.

RauRu, Band of Angels, Warner Bros., 1957.

Noah Cullen, The Defiant Ones, United Artists, 1958.

Oban, The Mark of the Hawk (also known as Accused ), Universal, 1958.

Porgy, Porgy and Bess, Columbia, 1959.

Sergeant Eddie Towler, All the Young Men, Columbia, 1960.

Marcus, Virgin Island (also known as Our Virgin Island ), FilmsaroundtheWorld, 1960.

Eddie Cook, Paris Blues, United Artists, 1961.

Walter Lee Younger, A Raisin in the Sun, Columbia, 1961.

Doctor, Pressure Point, United Artists, 1962.

Homer Smith, Lilies of the Field, United Artists, 1963.

Aly Mansuh, The Long Ships (also known as Dugi brodovi ), Columbia, 1964.

Ben Munceford, The Bedford Incident, Columbia, 1965.

Simon of Cyrene, The Greatest Story Ever Told (also known as George Stevens Presents the Greatest Story Ever Told ), United Artists, 1965.

Gordon Ralfe, A Patch of Blue, MetroGoldwynMayer, 1965.

Alan Newell, The Slender Thread, Paramount, 1965.

Toller, Ralph Nelson's Duel at Diablo (also known as Duel at Diablo ), United Artists, 1966.

John Wade Prentice, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Columbia, 1967.

Detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, United Artists, 1967.

Mark Thackeray, To Sir, with Love, Columbia, 1967.

Jack Parks, For Love of Ivy, Cinerama, 1968.

Jason Higgs, The Lost Man, Universal, 1969.

Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, United Artists, 1970.

Narrator, King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis, Marion, 1970.

John Kane, Brother John, Columbia, 1971.

Detective Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs, The Organization, United Artists, 1971.

Buck, Buck and the Preacher, Columbia, 1972.

Dr. Matt Younger, A Warm December, National General, 1973.

Steve Jackson, Uptown Saturday Night, Warner Bros., 1974.

Clyde Williams, Let's Do It Again, Warner Bros., 1975.

Shack Twala, The Wilby Conspiracy, United Artists, 1975.

Manny Durrell, A Piece of the Action, Warner Bros., 1977.

Narrator, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (also known as Paul Robeson: A Film Tribute ), 1979.

Warren Stantin, Shoot to Kill (also known as Deadly Pursuit ), Buena Vista, 1988.

Roy Parmenter, Little Nikita (also known as The Sleepers ), Columbia, 1988.

Donald Crease, Sneakers, Universal, 1992.

World Beat, 1993.

Himself, A Century of Cinema, 1994.

Himself, Wild Bill, Hollywood Maverick: The Life and Times of William A. Wellman, Wild Bill Pictures, 1995.

Carter Preston, The Jackal (also known as Le chacal and Der Schakal ), Universal, 1997.

Reverend Msimangu (in archive footage), Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist, 1998.

Film Director:

Buck and the Preacher, Columbia, 1972.

A Warm December, National General, 1973.

Uptown Saturday Night, Warner Bros., 1974.

Let's Do It Again, Warner Bros., 1975.

A Piece of the Action, Warner Bros., 1977.

Stir Crazy, Columbia, 1980.

Hanky Panky, Columbia, 1982.

Fast Forward, Columbia, 1985.

Ghost Dad, Universal, 1990.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Thurgood Marshall, Separate But Equal, ABC, 1991.

Gypsy Smith, Children of the Dust (also known as A Good Day to Die ), CBS, 1995.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Mark Thackeray, To Sir, with Love 2, CBS, 1996.

Nelson Mandela, Mandela and de Klerk, Showtime, 1997.

Dr. Jack Miller, Oprah Winfrey Presents: David and Lisa, ABC, 1998.

Will Cleamons, Free of Eden, Showtime, 1999.

Title role, The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, CBS, 1999.

Henry Cobb, The Last Brickmaker in America, CBS, 2001.

Narrator, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, PBS, 2001.

Television Appearances; Specials:

The American Film Institute Tenth Anniversary Special, CBS, 1977.

The Night of 100 Stars II, ABC, 1985.

The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn, PBS, 1986.

Narrator, Bopha!, PBS, 1987.

The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1989.

Host, Voyager: Rendezvous with Neptune, TBS, 1989.

The American Film Institute Salute to Gregory Peck, 1989.

Sinatra 75: The Best Is Yet to Come (also known as Frank Sinatra: 75th Birthday Celebration ), CBS, 1990.

Celebrate the Soul of American Music, syndicated, 1991.

Back to School '92 (also known as Education First! ), CBS, 1992.

The American Film Institute Salute to Sidney Poitier (also known as The 20th Annual American Film Institute Life Achievement Award ), NBC, 1992.

The 19th Annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, syndicated, 1992.

The American Film Institute Salute to Elizabeth Taylor, ABC, 1993.

An American Reunion: New Beginnings, Renewed Hope (also known as An American Reunion: The People's Inaugural Celebration ), HBO, 1993.

Hollywood Stars: A Century of Cinema, The Disney Channel, 1995.

Interviewee, James Earl Jones, Arts and Entertainment, 1995.

The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, 1995.

The Kennedy Center Honors, CBS, 1997.

(In archive footage) Small Steps, Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood, AMC, 1998.

League of Legends, 1998.

An Evening of Stars: A Celebration of the Educational Excellence Benefiting the Negro College Fund, syndicated, 1999.

"Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light," American Masters, PBS, 2000.

Interviewee, Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters, Arts and Entertainment, 2000.

The BBC and the BAFTA Tribute to Michael Caine, 2000.

(In archive footage) Playboy: The Party Continues, 2000.

Interviewee, Quincy Jones: In the Pocket, PBS, 2001.

A Tribute to Barbra Streisand (also known as The 29th American Film Institute Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Barbra Streisand ), Fox, 2001.

Muhammad Ali's AllStar 60th Birthday Celebration!, CBS, 2002.

(Uncredited; in archive footage) Inside the Playboy Mansion, Arts and Entertainment, 2002.

Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:

The 36th Annual Academy Awards, 1964.

Presenter, The 37th Annual Academy Awards, 1965.

Presenter, The 40th Annual Academy Awards, 1968.

Presenter, The 41st Annual Academy Awards, 1969.

The 22nd Annual NAACP Image Awards, NBC, 1990.

Presenter, The 43rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, 1991.

The Great Ones: The National Sports Awards, NBC, 1993.

The 1997 ESPY Awards, ABC and ESPN, 1997.

The 70th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 1998.

The 6th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, TNT, 2000.

The 32nd Annual NAACP Image Awards, Fox, 2001.

The 74th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 2002.

The 10th Annual Trumpet Awards, TBS, 2002.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

"Parole Chief," Philco Television Playhouse, NBC, 1952.

Tommy Tyler, "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall," Philco Television Playhouse, NBC, 1955.

"The Fascinating Stranger," Ponds Theatre (also known as Kraft Television Theatre ), ABC, 1955.

"A Tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt on Her Diamond Jubilee," Sunday Showcase, NBC, 1959.

Himself, Cinepanorama, 1961.

The Strolling '20s, CBS, 1966.

"A Time for Laughter," ABC Stage '67, ABC, 1967.

The New Bill Cosby Show, CBS, 1972.

Himself and MechaPoitier, "Mecha Streisand," South Park, Comedy Central, 1998.

Guest, The Oprah Winfrey Show, syndicated, 2000.

Guest on the series Changing Stages, PBS.

Television Work; Movies:

Executive producer, Free of Eden, Showtime, 1999.

Stage Appearances:

(Stage debut) Days of Our Youth, American Negro Theatre Playhouse, New York City, 1945.

(Broadway debut) Polydorus, Lysistrata, Belasco Theatre, 1946.

On Striver's Row, American National Theatre Playhouse, New York City, 1946.

Lester, Anna Lucasta, National Theatre, New York City, 1947.

Walter Lee Younger, A Raisin in the Sun, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City, 1959.

The Night of 100 Stars II, Radio City Music Hall, New York City, 1985.

Also appeared in productions of The Fisherman, Freight, Hidden Horizon, Rain, Riders to the Sea, Sepia Cinderella, and You Can't Take It with You, all with American Negro Theatre.

Major Tours:

Lester, Anna Lucasta, U.S. cities, 1948.

Stage Work:

Director, Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, John Golden Theatre, New York City, 1968.


RECORDINGS


Audio Books:

Narrator, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Sidney Poitier, HarperAudio, 2000.


Videos:

The Directors: Norman Jewison, 1997.

The Making of "Changing Lanes, " 2002.


WRITINGS


Books:

This Life (autobiography), Knopf (New York City), 1980.

(With Carol Bergman) The Films of Sidney Poitier, Chelsea House, 1988.

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, Harper San Francisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.


ADAPTATIONS


The screenplay For Love of Ivy, released by Cinerama in 1968, was based on an original story by Poitier.

OTHER SOURCES


Books:

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 36, Gale, 2002.

Ewers, Catharine, The Long Journey, Signet, 1969.

Keyser, Lester J., and Andre H. Ruszkowski, The Cinema of Sidney Poitier, A. S. Barnes, 1980.

Marill, Alvin H., The Films of Sidney Poitier, Citadel, 1978.

Paige, David, Sidney Poitier, Creative Education, 1976.

Poitier, Sidney, This Life, Knopf, 1980.

Poitier, Sidney, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, Harper San Francisco, 2001.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press, 2000.

Periodicals:

American Film, SeptemberOctober, 1991, p. 18.

Entertainment Weekly, fall, 1996, p. 70; February 22, 2002, p. 110.

Jet, December 18, 1995, p. 61; March 3, 1997, April 14, 1997, p 19; May 5, 1997, p. 6.

Parade, November 1, 1998, p. 18; June 4, 2000, p. 21.

Time, September 22, 1997, p. 103.

Other:

"Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light" (television special), American Masters, PBS, 2000.

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Poitier, Sidney 1927-

Sidney Poitier 1927-

Actor, director

At a Glance

Thrown Out of First Audition

First Black Actor to Win Academy Award

Key Activist for Civil Rights

Sources

At a 1992 banquet sponsored by the august American Film Institute (AFI), a bevy of actors, filmmakers, and others gathered to pay tribute to Sidney Poitier. Superstar Denzel Washington called the veteran actor and directora source of pride for many African Americans, the Los Angeles Times reported, while acting luminary James Earl Jones ventured that his colleague hadplayed a great role in the life of our country. Poitier himself was typically humble in the face of such praise, but he has acknowledged that his presence on film screens in the 1950s and 1960s did much to open up larger and more nuanced roles for black performers.I was selected almost by history itself, he averred to Susan Ellicott of the LondonTimes.

After gracing dozens of films with his dignified, passionately intelligent presence, Poitier began to focus increasingly on directing; a constant in his life, however, has been his work on behalf of charitable causes. And he has continued to voice the need for film projects that, as he expressed it toLos Angeles Times writer Charles Champlin,have a commonality with the universal human condition.

Born in Miami, Florida, but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier experienced severe poverty as a boy. His father, a tomato farmer,was the poorest man in the village, the actor recalled in an interview with Frank Spotnitz for American Film.My father was never a man of self-pity, he continued, adding that the elder Poitierhad 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 tiny village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, when Poitier was 11 years old, and it was there that he first experienced the magic of cinema.

After watching rapt as a western drama transpired on the screen, Poitier recollected gleefully to Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, he ran to the back of the theater to watch the cowboys and their horses come out. After watching the feature a second time, he again went out to wait for the figures from the screen to emerge.And when I told my friends what had happened, they laughed and they laughed and they said to me, Everything you saw was on film. And they explained to me what film was. And I said, Go on.

At a Glance

Born in 1927 (some sources say 1924) in Miami, FL; son of Reginald (a tomato farmer) and Evelyn poitier; married second wife, Joanna Shimkus (an actress), c. 1976; children: two.

Served briefly in U .S. Army; worked as dishwasher and as janitor at American Negro Theater, New York City, early 1940s Stage appearances include Days of Our Youth, Lysistrata, Anna Lucasta, and A Raisin in the Sun. Film appearances includeNo Way Out, 1949,Cry, the Beloved Country, 1952, The Blackboard Jungle, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Something of Value, 1957, The Defiant Ones, 1958, Porgy and Bess, 1959, All the Young Men, 1960, A Raisin in the Sun, 1961, Lilies of the Field, 1963, The Long Ships, 1964, The Bedford Incident, 1965, The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965,A Patch of Blue, 1965, The Slender Thread, 1965, Guess Whos Coming to Dinner, 1967, In the Heat of the Night, 1967, To Sir, With Love, 1967, For Love of Ivy, 1968, The Lost Man, 1969, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, 1970, Buck and the Preacher, 1972, A Warm December, 1973, Uptown Saturday Night, 1974, lets Do It Again, 1975,A Piece of the Action, 1977 Shoot to Kill 1988, Little Nikita, 1988, Separate but Equal(television film), 1991, Sneakers, 1992, and Children of the Dust (television film), 1995, White Mans Burden, 1995. Directed Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, Uptown Saturday Night, Lets Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, Stir Crazy, 1980, Hanky-Panky, 1982, Fast Forward, 1985, and Ghost Dad, 1990, Named to board of directors of Walt Disney Corporation, 1994.

Awards: Academy Award for best actor, 1964, for Lilies of the Field; Life Achievement Award, American Film institute, 1992.

Addresses: HomeLos Angeles, CA.

Thrown Out of First Audition

Poitier made his way to New York at age 16, serving for a short time in the Army. He has often told the story of his earliest foray into acting, elaborating on different strands of the tale from one recitation to the next. He was a teenager, working as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant.I didnt study in high school, he told American Filmjs Spotnitz.I never got that far. I had no intentions of becoming an actor. Seeing an ad for actors in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper, he went to an audition at the American Negro Theater.I walked in and there was a man therebig strapping guy. He gave me a script.

The man was Frederick ONeal, a cofounder of the theater; impatient with young Poitiers Caribbean accent and shaky reading skills, ONeal lost his temper: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, the actor remembered to Los Angeles Times writer Champlin.Just before he threw me out he said, Stop wasting peoples time! Why dont you get yourself a job as a dishwasher. Stunned that ONeal could perceive his lowly status, Poitier knew he had to prove his antagonist wrong.I have, and had, a terrible fierce pride, Poitier told the audience at the American Film Institute fête, as reported by Daily Variety.I determined right then I was going to be an actor.

Poitier continued in his dishwashing job; in his spare time he listened assiduously to radio broadcasts, he noted to Champlin,trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns. He had some help in one aspect of his informal education, however: Daily Variety quoted his speech at the AFI banquet, in which he thankedan elderly Jewish waiter in New York who took the time to teach a young black dishwasher how to read, persisting over many months. Ultimately, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theater, persuading its directors to hire him as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.

Poitier understudied 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 Greek comedy Lysistrata.Poitier, uncontrollably nervous on the latter plays opening night, delivered the wrong lines and ran off the stage; yet his brief appearance so delighted critics, most of whom otherwise hated the production, that he ended up getting more work.I set out after that to dimensionalize my understanding of my craft, he told Champlin.

Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, portraying a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he couldnt save. Director Joseph Mankiewicz had identified Poitiers potential, and the film bore out the filmmakers instincts. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, notably in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country, the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and the taut The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played prison escapees manacled together; their mutual struggle helps them look past racism and learn to respect each other. Poitier also appeared in the film version of George Gershwins modern opera Porgynd Bess.

First Black Actor to Win Academy Award

It was in the 1960s, howeverwith the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others gathering momentumthat Poitier began to make his biggest mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberrys play A Raisin in the Sun,, in a role hed developed on the stage, he took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in the 1963 production Lilies of the Field.This role earned him a best actor statuette at the Academy Awards, making him the first black actor to earn this honor.

Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue, Poitier reflected to Ellicott of the London Times.I didnt understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix.

The mix was more potent than might have been anticipated, in fact; by 1967 Poitier was helping to break down filmic barriers that hitherto had seemed impenetrable. In To Sir, With Love Poitier played a charismatic schoolteacher, while In the Heat of the Night saw him portray Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a sleepy southern town and wins the grudging respect of the racist police chief there. Responding to the derisive labels flung at him, Poitiers character glowers, They call me Mister Tibbs. The films volatile mixture of suspense and racial politics eventually spawned two sequels starring Poitier and a television series (Poitier did not appear in the small screen version).

Even more stunning, Poitier wooed a white woman in the comedy Guess Whos Coming to Dinner; his fiancées parents were played by screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film was considered a watershed because it was Hollywoods first interracial love story that didnt end tragically. Poitiers compelling presencearticulate, compassionate, soft-spoken, yet demanding respect from even the most hostilehelped make this possible. Reflecting on the anti-racist agenda of filmmakers during this period, Poitier remarked to Ellicott, 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. And I was a symbol against those things.

Key Activist for Civil Rights

Of course, Poitier was more than a symbol. At the AFI banquet, reported David J. Fox in the Los Angeles Times, James Earl Jones praised his friends work on behalf of the civil right struggle, declaring, He marched on Montgomery [Alabama] and Memphis [Tennessee] with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said of Sidney: Hes a man who never lost his concern for the least of Gods children. Indeed, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 touched off a crucial battle for desegregation simply by refusing to sit in the negro section of a Montgomery bus, attended the tribute and lauded Poitier as a great actor and role model.

In 1972 Poitier took a co-starring role with Belafonte in the revisionist western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After a falling out with the director of the picture, Poitier took over; though he and Belafonte urged Columbia to hire another director, a studio representative saw footage Poitier had shot and encouraged him to finish the film himself. And thats how I became a director, he toldLos Angeles Times contributor Champlin.

Poitier is best known for helming comedie features co-starring his friend comedian Bill Cosby; in addition to the trilogy of caper comedies of the 1970s Uptown Saturday Night, Lets Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action they collaborated on the ill-fated 1990 fantasy-comedy Ghost Dad,which was poorly received by both critics and moviegoers. Poitier also directed the hit 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, which starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, 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.James Earl Jones described the performance as a landmark actor portraying a landmark figure, in one of the landmark moments of our history. And in 1992 he returned to the big screen for the espionage comedy-drama Sneakers, which co-starred Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Aykroyd. It was a wonderful, breezy opportunity to play nothing heavy, he noted to Bary Koltnow of the Orange County Register.It was simple, and I didnt have to carry the weight. I havent done that in a while, and it was refreshing.

That year also saw the gala AFI tribute to Poitier, during which the actor welcomed young filmmakers into the fold and enjoined them to be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey, reported Daily Variety.I fully expected to be wise by now, Poitier noted in his speech, but Ive come to this place in my life armed only with the knowledge of how little I know. 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 myshoetops.

Poitier observed to Champlin that during this golden age the demands of art had taken a back seat to domestic concerns to a large degree. Its very important, but its not the nerve center, he insisted.There is the family, and there is music and there is literature as well as political issues. Poitier noted that he and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, travel a great deal since they reside in California and have children in New York, and, as the actor put it, I live in the world.

Poitier returned to the small screen for 1995s western drama Children of the Dust.As a presence, reported Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, its apparent that hes viewed with respect, even awe, by virtually everyone on the set. Costar Michael Moriarty observed that Poitier lived up to his legendary status: You see a face that youve grown up with and admired, someone who was an icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday, workaday work of doing movies, he is everything he symbolizes on screen.

For Poitier, the challenge of doing meaningful work involves transcending the racial and social barriers he helped tumble with his early film appearances. He has insisted that large budgets are not necessary to make a mark and that violence too often seems the only way to resolve conflicts on the screen. We suffer pain, we hang tight to hope, we nurture expectations, we are plagued occasionally by fears, we are haunted by defeats and unrealized hopes, he said of humans in general in his interview with Champlin, adding thatwhen you make drama of that condition, its almost as if words are not necessary. It has its own language spoken everywhere, understood everywhere.

Sources

American Film, September 1991, pp. 18-21, 49.

Daily Variety, March 16, 1992, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1992 (Calendar), p. 8; March 14, 1992, pp. FI, F4; February 26, 1995 (Television Times), pp. 5-6.

Orange County Register, September 11, 1992, p. P6.

Times (London), November 8, 1992.

Simon Glickman

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Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier

Actor Sidney Poitier's (born 1924) presence in film during the 1950s and 1960s opened up the possibility for bigger and better roles for black performers.

At a 1992 banquet sponsored by the august American Film Institute (AFI), a bevy of actors, filmmakers, and others gathered to pay tribute to Sidney Poitier. Superstar Denzel Washington called the veteran actor and director "a source of pride for many African Americans, " the Los Angeles Times reported, while acting luminary James Earl Jones ventured that his colleague had "played a great role in the life of our country." Poitier himself was typically humble in the face of such praise, but he has acknowledged that his presence on film screens in the 1950s and 1960s did much to open up larger and more nuanced roles for black performers. "I was selected almost by history itself, " he averred to Susan Ellicott of the London Times.

After gracing dozens of films with his dignified, passionately intelligent presence, Poitier began to focus increasingly on directing; a constant in his life, however, has been his work on behalf of charitable causes. And he has continued to voice the need for film projects that, as he expressed it to Los Angeles Times writer Charles Champlin, "have a commonality with the universal human condition."

Born in 1924 in Miami, Florida, but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier experienced severe poverty as a boy. His father, a tomato farmer, "was the poorest man in the village, " the actor recalled in an interview with Frank Spotnitz for American Film. "My father was never a man of self-pity, " he continued, adding that the elder Poitier "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 tiny village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, when Poitier was 11 years old, and it was there that he first experienced the magic of cinema.

After watching rapt as a western drama transpired on the screen, Poitier recollected gleefully to Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, he ran to the back of the theater to watch the cowboys and their horses come out. After watching the feature a second time, he again went out to wait for the figures from the screen to emerge. "And when I told my friends what had happened, they laughed and they laughed and they said to me, 'Everything you saw was on film.' And they explained to me what film was. And I said, 'Go on."'

Thrown Out of First Audition

Poitier made his way to New York at age 16, serving for a short time in the Army. He has often told the story of his earliest foray into acting, elaborating on different strands of the tale from one recitation to the next. He was a teenager, working as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. "I didn't study in high school, " he told American Film's Spotnitz. "I never got that far. I had no intentions of becoming an actor." Seeing an ad for actors in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper, he went to an audition at the American Negro Theater. "I walked in and there was a man there—big strapping guy. He gave me a script."

The man was Frederick O'Neal, a cofounder of the theater; impatient with young Poitier's Caribbean accent and shaky reading skills, O'Neal lost his temper: "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, " the actor remembered to Los Angeles Times writer Champlin. "Just before he threw me out he said, 'Stop wasting people's time! Why don't you get yourself a job as a dishwasher."' Stunned that O'Neal could perceive his lowly status, Poitier knew he had to prove his antagonist wrong. "I have, and had, a terrible fierce pride, " Poitier told the audience at the American Film Institute fête, as reported by Daily Variety. "I determined right then I was going to be an actor."

Poitier continued in his dishwashing job; in his spare time he listened assiduously to radio broadcasts, he noted to Champlin, "trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns." He had some help in one aspect of his informal education, however: Daily Variety quoted his speech at the AFI banquet, in which he thanked "an elderly Jewish waiter in New York who took the time to teach a young black dishwasher how to read, persisting over many months." Ultimately, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theater, persuading its directors to hire him as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.

Poitier understudied 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 Greek comedy Lysistrata. Poitier, uncontrollably nervous on the latter play's opening night, delivered the wrong lines and ran off the stage; yet his brief appearance so delighted critics, most of whom otherwise hated the production, that he ended up getting more work. "I set out after that to dimensionalize my understanding of my craft, " he told Champlin.

Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, portraying a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he could not save. Director Joseph Mankiewicz had identified Poitier's potential, and the film bore out the filmmaker's instincts. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, notably in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country, the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and the taut The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played prison escapees manacled together; their mutual struggle helps them look past racism and learn to respect each other. Poitier also appeared in the film version of George Gershwin's modern opera Porgy and Bess.

First Black Actor to Win Academy Award

It was in the 1960s, however—with the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others gathering momentum—that Poitier began to make his biggest mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, in a role he'd developed on the stage, he took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in the 1963 production Lilies of the Field. This role earned him a best actor statuette at the Academy Awards, making him the first black actor to earn this honor.

"Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue, " Poitier reflected to Ellicott of the London Times. "I didn't understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix."

The mix was more potent than might have been anticipated, in fact; by 1967 Poitier was helping to break down filmic barriers that hitherto had seemed impenetrable. In To Sir, With Love Poitier played a charismatic schoolteacher, while In the Heat of the Night saw him portray Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a sleepy southern town and wins the grudging respect of the racist police chief there. Responding to the derisive labels flung at him, Poitier's character glowers, "They call me Mister Tibbs." The film's volatile mixture of suspense and racial politics eventually spawned two sequels starring Poitier and a television series (Poitier did not appear in the small screen version).

Even more stunning, Poitier wooed a white woman in the comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; his fiancée's parents were played by screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film was considered a watershed because it was Hollywood's first interracial love story that did not end tragically. Poitier's compelling presence—articulate, compassionate, soft-spoken, yet demanding respect from even the most hostile—helped make this possible. Reflecting on the anti-racist agenda of filmmakers during this period, Poitier remarked to Ellicott, "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. And I was a symbol against those things."

Key Activist for Civil Rights

Of course, Poitier was more than a symbol. At the AFI banquet, reported David J. Fox in the Los Angeles Times, James Earl Jones praised his friend's work on behalf of the civil right struggle, declaring, "He marched on Montgomery [Alabama] and Memphis [Tennessee] with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said of Sidney: 'He's a man who never lost his concern for the least of God's children."' Indeed, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 touched off a crucial battle for desegregation simply by refusing to sit in the "negro" section of a Montgomery bus, attended the tribute and lauded Poitier as "a great actor and role model."

In 1972 Poitier took a co-starring role with Belafonte in the revisionist western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After a falling out with the director of the picture, Poitier took over; though he and Belafonte urged Columbia to hire another director, a studio representative saw footage Poitier had shot and encouraged him to finish the film himself. "And that's how I became a director, " he told Los Angeles Times contributor Champlin.

Poitier is best known for helming comedic features co-starring his friend comedian Bill Cosby; in addition to the trilogy of caper comedies of the 1970s—Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action—they collaborated on the ill-fated 1990 fantasy-comedy Ghost Dad, which was poorly received by both critics and moviegoers. Poitier also directed the hit 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, which starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, 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. James Earl Jones described the performance as "a landmark actor portraying a landmark figure, in one of the landmark moments of our history." And in 1992 he returned to the big screen for the espionage comedy-drama Sneakers, which co-starred Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Aykroyd. "It was a wonderful, breezy opportunity to play nothing heavy, " he noted to Bary Koltnow of the Orange County Register. "It was simple, and I didn't have to carry the weight. I haven't done that in a while, and it was refreshing."

That year also saw the gala AFI tribute to Poitier, during which the actor welcomed young filmmakers into the fold and enjoined them to "be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey, " reported Daily Variety. "I fully expected to be wise by now, " Poitier noted in his speech, "but I've come to this place in my life armed only with the knowledge of how little I know. 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 shoetops."

Poitier observed to Champlin that during this "golden age" the demands of art had taken a back seat to domestic concerns to a large degree. "It's very important, but it's not the nerve center, " he insisted. "There is the family, and there is music and there is literature" as well as political issues. Poitier noted that he and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, travel a great deal since they reside in California and have children in New York, and, as the actor put it, "I live in the world."

Poitier returned to the small screen for 1995's western drama Children of the Dust. As a presence, reported Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, "it's apparent that he's viewed with respect, even awe, by virtually everyone on the set." Costar Michael Moriarty observed that Poitier lived up to his legendary status: "You see a face that you've grown up with and admired, someone who was an icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday, workaday work of doing movies, he is everything he symbolizes on screen."

Poitier continued to star in television movies with 1996's To Sir With Love II (directed by Peter Bogdanovich) and the 1997 Showtime docudrama Mandela and de Klerk. The latter tells the story of Nelson Mandela's last years in prison to his election as leader of South Africa. Both received mixed reviews.

For Poitier, the challenge of doing meaningful work involves transcending the racial and social barriers he helped tumble with his early film appearances. He has insisted that large budgets are not necessary to make a mark and that violence too often seems the only way to resolve conflicts on the screen. "We suffer pain, we hang tight to hope, we nurture expectations, we are plagued occasionally by fears, we are haunted by defeats and unrealized hopes, " he said of humans in general in his interview with Champlin, adding that "when you make drama of that condition, it's almost as if words are not necessary. It has its own language—spoken everywhere, understood everywhere."

Further Reading

American Film, September 1991, pp. 18-21, 49.

Daily Variety, March 16, 1992, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1992 (Calendar), p. 8; March 14, 1992, pp. F1, F4; February 26, 1995 (Television Times), pp. 5-6.

New York Times, April 6, 1996, p. A20; February 15, 1997, p. A15.

Orange County Register, September 11, 1992, p. P6.

Times (London), November 8, 1992. □

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Poitier, Sidney

POITIER, Sidney



Nationality: American. Born: Miami, Florida, 20 February 1924 (some sources say 1927), grew up in the Bahamas. Education: Attended Western Senior High School and Governor's High School, both in Nassau. Family: Married 1) Juanita Hardy, 1950, daughters: Beverly, Pamela, Sherry, Gina; 2) the actress Joanna Shimkus, 1976, two children. Career: 1942–45—served in the U.S. Army as a physiotherapist; member of the American Negro Theater: in Days of Our Youth and other plays; 1946—Broadway debut in Lysistrata in all-black production; 1948—toured with play Anna Lucasta; 1949—film debut in Signal Corps documentary From Whom Cometh My Help; 1950—fiction film debut in No Way Out; 1959—in stage play A Raisin in the Sun, and in film version, 1961; 1968—directed Broadway play Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights; 1969—co-founder, with Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, First Artists Productions; 1972—first directed film, Buck and the Preacher. Awards: Best Actor, Berlin Festival, and Best Foreign Actor, British Academy, for The Defiant Ones, 1958; Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, Berlin Festival, for Lilies of the Field, 1963; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1992; Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000. Address: c/o Verdon Productions, 9350 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.


Films as Actor:

1949

From Whom Cometh My Help (Signal Corps doc)

1950

No Way Out (Mankiewicz) (as Dr. Luther Brooks)

1952

Cry, the Beloved Country (Korda) (as Reverend Msimangu);Red Ball Express (Boetticher) (as Corporal Andrew Robertson)

1954

Go, Man, Go! (Howe) (as Inman Jackson)

1955

Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks) (as Gregory Miller)

1956

Goodbye, My Lady (Wellman) (as Gates)

1957

Edge of the City (Ritt) (as Tommy Tyler); Something of Value(Richard Brooks) (as Kimani); Band of Angels (Walsh)(as Rau-ru)

1958

Mark of the Hawk (Audley) (as Obam); The Defiant Ones(Kramer) (as Noah Cullen); The Virgin Island (Jackson)(as Marcus)

1959

Porgy and Bess (Preminger) (as Porgy)

1960

All the Young Men (Bartlett) (as Towler)

1961

A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie) (as Walter Lee Younger); Paris Blue (Ritt) (as Eddie Cook)

1962

Pressure Point (Cornfield) (as Doctor)

1963

Lilies of the Field (Nelson) (as Homer Smith)

1964

The Long Ships (Cardiff) (as Ali Mansuh)

1965

The Greatest Story Ever Told (Stevens) (as Simon of Cyrene);The Bedford Incident (Harris) (as Ben Munceford); A Patch of Blue (Green) (as Gordon Ralfe)

1966

The Slender Thread (Pollack) (as Alan Newell); Duel at Diablo (Nelson) (as Toller)

1967

To Sir with Love (Clavell) (as Mark Thackeray); In the Heat of the Night (Jewison) (as Virgil Tibbs); Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Kramer) (as John Prentice)

1968

For Love of Ivy (Daniel Mann) (as Jack Parks)

1969

The Lost Man (Arthur) (as Jason Higgs)

1970

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (Douglas) (title role)

1971

The Organization (Medford) (as Virgil Tibbs); Brother John(Goldstone) (as John Kane)

1975

The Wilby Conspiracy (Nelson) (as Shack Twala)

1988

Shoot to Kill (Deadly Pursuit) (Spottiswoode) (as Warren Stantin); Little Nikita (The Sleeper) (Benjamin) (as Roy Parmenter)

1991

Separate but Equal (Stevens Jr.—for TV) (as Thurgood Marshall; Children of the Dust (David Greene—for TV) (as Gypsy Smith)

1992

Sneakers (Robinson) (as Donald Crease)

1996

Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (Robinson); To Sir With Love 2 (Bogdanovich—for TV) (as Mark Thackeray)

1997

Mandela and de Klerk (Sargent—for TV) (as Nelson Mandela);The Jackal (Caton-Jones) (as Preston)

1998

David and Lisa (Kramer?—for TV) (as Dr. Jack Miller)

1999

Free of Eden (Ichaso) (as Will Cleamons + exec pr); The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (Champion—for TV) (as Noah Dearborn)




Films as Director:

1972

Buck and the Preacher (+ ro as Buck)

1973

A Warm December (+ ro as Matt Younger)

1974

Uptown Saturday Night (+ ro as Steve Jackson)

1975

Let's Do It Again (+ ro as Clyde Williams)

1977

A Piece of the Action (+ ro as Manny Durrell)

1980

Stir Crazy

1982

Hanky Panky

1984

Shootout

1985

Fast Forward

1990

Ghost Dad




Publications


By POITIER: books—


Sidney Poitier: an American Film Institute Seminar On His Work, 1976. This Life, New York, 1980.


By POITIER: articles—

"They Call Me a Do-It-Yourself Man," in Films and Filming (London), September 1959.

"Talking of Corruption," in Films and Filming (London), August 1961.

"Entertainment, Politics, and the Movie Business," interview with G. Noble, in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1977–78.

"Walking the Hollywood Color Line," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1980.

Interview with Frank Spotnitz, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September/October 1991.


On POITIER: books—

Rollins, Charlemae, Famous Negro Entertainers of Stage, Screen, and TV, New York, 1967.

Newquist, Roy, A Special Kind of Magic, New York, 1967.

Ewers, Carolyn H., Sidney Poiter: The Long Journey, New York, 1969.

Hoffman, William, Sidney, New York, 1971.

Null, Gary, Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1975.

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

Keyser, Lester, and Andre Ruszkowski, The Cinema of Sidney Poitier: The Black Man's Changing Role on the American Screen, San Diego, 1980.

Kelley, Samuel L., The Evolution of Character Portrayals in the Films of Sidney Poitier, 1950–78, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1983.

Bergman, Carol, Sidney Poitier, Los Angeles, 1990.


On POITIER: articles—

Current Biography 1959, New York, 1959.

Cripps, Thomas, "Death of Rastus: Negro in American Films since 1945," in Phylon, Fall 1967.

Mason, Clifford, "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?," in the New York Times, 10 September 1967.

Sanders, Charles L., "Sidney Poitier: Man behind the Superman," in Ebony (Chicago), April 1968.

Hall, D. J., "Pride without Prejudice," in Films and Filming (London), December 1971 and January 1972.

Kael, Pauline, "Sidney Poitier," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Kelley, Samuel, "Sidney Poitier: héros intégrationiste," in CinémAction (Paris), January 1988.

American Film, September-October 1991.

Everschor, Franz, "Keine Angst vor Schwarzen," in Film-dienst (Frankfurt/Main), 7 April 1992.

Radio Times (London), 23 April 1994.

Norman, Barry, "Liberty, Equality, and Sidney Poitier," in Radio Times (London), 16 August 1997.


* * *

As the Hollywood film industry ended the twentieth century, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, and Denzel Washington could be counted as major movie stars. But they owe a major part of their success to Sidney Poitier's pioneering efforts three decades earlier. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s Poitier singlehandedly transformed the Hollywood movie's image of the black man from the racist "coon" to the positive hero.

During the 1960s Poitier was the symbol of the liberal Hollywood, a black actor with dignity. But this had not been achieved "overnight," without struggle. During the early 1950s he took what parts he could land, from Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out, where he played an educated, bright, and dedicated doctor caught in a heated racial situation, to James Wong Howe's sole credit as a director, the creaky portrait of the Harlem Globetrotters' basketball enterprise, Go, Man, Go! Richard Brooks's somewhat sanitized portrait of inner-city America, Blackboard Jungle, made Poitier a star. Thereafter his presence became a symbol to the rising consciousness about racial segregation in the United States. Noted producers cast him in roles designed for his new image. Most self-conscious was Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, with black and white chained together trying to escape from a brutal Southern prison camp. Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess was the director's homage to black life in the South, while in Lilies of the Field Poitier assisted a group of nuns, a "feel good" classic.

During this period he was much honored, winning many awards, from prizes from the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals to a New York Film Critics Award for best actor to the William J. German Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Congress. He won a much-deserved Oscar for Lilies of the Field, and so became a top box-office draw for A Patch of Blue, To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? In 1967 Poitier was rated number seven on a list of top moneymaking stars; the following year he ranked first.

By 1969 he had done so well he was able, with Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, and Dustin Hoffman to create the First Artists Film Production Company. He had decided then to work within the Hollywood system and become a director, but Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, and Uptown Saturday Night made precious little money. He returned to acting, with little success. Little Nikita ended his career as a leading man.

Poitier had become a member of the establishment, penning a celebrated autobiography in 1980. His black detective from the North made so famous with In the Heat of the Night was considered radical in the late 1960s. Two decades later no one commented on his roles as an FBI agent. In 1989 he was elected to the Board of Trustees for the American Museum of the Moving Image. In 1992 he was honored with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, in 1994 he earned the National Board of Review Career Achievement Award, and in 1995 he was honored with the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award.

—Douglas Gomery

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Poitier, Sidney

Sidney Poitier

Born: February 20, 1924
Miami, Florida

African American actor

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.

Poor childhood

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.

Acting career picks up

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 (1927) in a play called Days of Our Youth, and an appearance one night led to a small role in a production of the Greek comedy 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 (1925) 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 (19001967) 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 (1931), 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. [19291968], who said of Poitier: 'He's a man who never lost his concern for the least of God's children.'" Rosa Parks (1913), 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."

Begins directing

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 (1937) 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 (19081993) in the television film Separate but Equal. In 1992 he returned to the big screen for the comedy-drama Sneakers, which costarred Robert Redford (1937) and River Phoenix (19701993). 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.

Later years

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 (1918) 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.

For More Information

Bergman, Carol. Sidney Poitier. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Biography. San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco, 2000.

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

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Poitier, Sir Sidney

Sir Sidney Poitier, 1927–, Bahamian-American actor, b. Miami, raised in the Bahamas, returned to the United States at 15. The first African-American actor to achieve leading man status in Hollywood films, Poitier combines attractiveness and poise with an innate projection of dignity and self-assurance. Many of his plays and films have directly addressed issues of race, including his Broadway triumph, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959, film 1961), and such films as the pioneering No Way Out (1950), his movie debut; the internationally acclaimed Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), after Alan Paton's novel; The Defiant Ones (1957), the film that established Poitier's reputation; Lilies of the Field (1963; Academy Award); Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), which treated the subject of interracial marriage; and In the Heat of the Night (1967). He turned to directing in 1971; among his films are Buck and the Preacher (1972), A Patch of Blue (1973), and Stir Crazy (1980). In 1991 he portrayed Thurgood Marshall in the Emmy-winning television film Separate but Equal. Knighted in 1968, he was appointed the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan in 1997.

See his autobiographical works, This Life (1980), The Measure of a Man (2000), and Life beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-granddaughter (2008); biography by A. Goudsouzian (2004).

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Poitier, Sidney

Poitier, Sidney (1927– ) US actor and director. His first major role was in No Way Out (1950). Poitier received an Oscar nomination for best actor in The Defiant Ones (1958). He was the first black actor to win a best actor Academy Award, for Lilies of the Field (1963). Other films include Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (all 1967). The films he directed include Stir Crazy (1980).

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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

Bibliography

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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Poitier, Sidney

Sidney Poitier





Personal

Born February 20, 1927, in Miami, FL; son of Reginald James (a tomato farmer) and Evelyn (a tomato farmer; maiden name, Outten) Poitier; married Juanita Hardy (a dancer), April 29, 1950 (divorced, 1965); married Joanna Shimkus (an actress), January 23, 1976; children: (first marriage) Beverly Poitier Mould, Pamela, Sherri, Gina; (second marriage) Anika, Sydney (daughters). Education: Attended school in Nassau, British West Indies (now Commonwealth of the Bahamas). Hobbies and other interests: Reading, music, golf, football, tennis, gardening, travel.



Addresses

Office—c/o Verdon Productions, 9350 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 310, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Agent—Martin Baum, 1888 Century Pk. W., No. 1400, Los Angeles, CA 90067.



Career

Actor, director, and author. American Negro Theatre, New York, NY, dishwasher and janitor, c. early 1940s; First Artists Productions (film production company), Hollywood, CA, cofounder, 1969—. Actor in stage productions, including Days of Our Youth; (Broadway debut) Lysistrata, 1946; Anna Lucasta (touring production), 1948; A Raisin in the Sun, 1959; Striver's Row; You Can't Take It with You; Rain; Freight; The Fisherman; Hidden Horizon; Sepia Cinderella; and Riders to the Sea. Actor in television productions, including "Parole Chief," Philco Television Playhouse, 1952; "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall," Philco Television Playhouse, 1955; "Fascinating Stranger," Kraft Television Theatre, 1955; The New Bill Cosby Show, 1972; Separate but Equal (movie), 1988; Children of the Dust (movie), 1995; To Sir with Love II (movie), 1996; Mandela and de Klerk (movie), 1997; David and Lisa (movie), 1998; Free of Eden (movie), 1999; The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (movie), 1999; and The Last Brickmaker in America (movie), 2001. Actor in films, including as Signal Corps Doctor, From Whom Cometh My Help, 1949; Dr. Luther Brooks, No Way Out, 1950; Reverend Msimangu, Cry, the Beloved Country, 1952; Corporal Andrew Robertson, Red Ball Express, 1952; Inman Jackson, Go, Man, Go!, 1954; Gregory Miller, The Blackboard Jungle, 1955; Gates, Goodbye, My Lady, 1956; Tommy Tyler, Edge of the City, 1957; Kimani, Something of Value, 1957; Rau-ru, Band of Angels, 1958; Noah Cullen, The Defiant Ones, 1958; Obam, The Mark of the Hawk, 1958; Porgy, Porgy and Bess, 1959; Marcus, The Virgin Island, 1960; Towler, All the Young Men, 1960; Walter Lee Younger, A Raisin in the Sun, 1961; Eddie Cook, Paris Blues, 1961; Doctor, Pressure Point, 1962; Homer Smith, Lilies of the Field, 1963; Ali Mansuh, The Long Ships, 1964; Ben Munceford, The Bedford Incident, 1965; Simon of Cyrene, The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965; Gordon Ralfe, A Patch of Blue, 1965; Alan Newell,The Slender Thread, 1965; Toller, Duel at Diablo, 1966; John Prentice, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967; Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, 1967; Mark Thackeray, To Sir, with Love, 1967; Jack Parks, For Love of Ivy, 1968; Jason Higgs, The Lost Man, 1969; King: A Filmed Record . . . from Montgomery to Memphis, 1970; Virgil Tibbs, They Call Me Mister Tibbs, 1970; John Kane, Brother John, 1971; Virgil Tibbs, The Organization, 1971; Buck, Buck and the Preacher, 1972; Matt Younger, A Warm December, 1973; Steve Jackson, Uptown Saturday Night, 1974; Shack Twala, The Wilby Conspiracy, 1975; Clyde Williams, Let's Do It Again, 1976; Manny Durrell, A Piece of the Action, 1977; Warren Stantin, Shoot to Kill (also known as Deadly Pursuit), 1988; Roy Parmenter, Little Nikita, 1988; Donald Crease, Sneakers, 1992; and Carter Preston, The Jackal, 1997. Director of play Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, 1968, and of films, including Buck and the Preacher, 1972; A Warm December, 1973; Uptown Saturday Night, 1974; Let's Do It Again, 1976; A Piece of the Action, 1977; Stir Crazy, 1980; Traces, 1981; Hanky Panky, 1982; Fast Forward, 1985; and Ghost Dad. Member, board of trustees, American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989; member of board of directors, Walt Disney Co., 1994. Appointed Bahamanian Ambassador to Japan, 1997. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-45; served as physiotherapist.




Member


American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Film Institute, Directors Guild of America, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (life member), Writers Guild of America, Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change.




Awards, Honors


Academy Award nomination for best actor, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Silver Berlin Bear Award for best actor, Berlin International Film Festival, and Golden Globe nomination for actor in a leading role, all 1958, all for The Defiant Ones; Georgio Cini award, Venice Film Festival, 1958, for Something of Value; Golden Globe nomination for actor in a musical, 1959, for Porgy and Bess; Golden Globe Award nomination for best actor in a leading role, 1961, for A Raisin in the Sun, 1965, for A Patch of Blue, 1967, for In the Heat of the Night, and 1991, for Separate but Equal; Academy Award for best actor, and Golden Globe Award for actor in a leading role, both 1963; both for Lilies of the Field; San Sebastian Prize for best actor, San Sebastian International Film Festival, 1968, for For the Love of Ivy; Golden Globe Henrietta Award, 1968; named Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1974; Cecil B. De Mille Award, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1981; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1992; Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995; Lifetime Achievement Award, Screen Actor's Guild, 1999; Grammy Award for best spoken-word album, 2001, for The Measure of a Man; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Hall of Fame award, 2001; honorary award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2002; Trumpet Awards Living Legend honor, 2002.




Writings


(Author of original story) For the Love of Ivy, Palomar Pictures International, 1968.

This Life (autobiography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, HarperCollins (San Francisco, CA), 2000.



Adaptations


The Measure of a Man was recorded on audiocassette, with narration by Poitier, 2001.




Sidelights


American actor and sometime director Sidney Poitier is hailed as the first black actor to appear in major dramatic roles in mainstream Hollywood films, and earned the first best-actor Academy Award ever awarded to a person of color. "Celebrated as the first black actor to break through the stereotyping and racism of Hollywood," according to Patricia Bosworth in the Washington Post Book World, Poitier "has individualized and humanized the black experience with powerful performances." Preferring to depict dignified, educated, professional characters on film, Poitier's early life stands in stark contrast to his cinematic portraits. His professionalism and uncompromising approach to his career have served as a symbol to generations of blacks, both in and out of the film industry. In a 1992 tribute to the actor, colleague Denzel Washington referred to Poitier as "a source of pride for many African Americans."



Bahamian Childhood


The son of Bahamian tomato farmer Reginald Poitier and his wife, Evelyn, Sidney Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, in February of 1927. From the very beginning he showed determination; born prematurely while his parents were traveling into Miami to market the family's tomato crop, Poitier weighed only three pounds. The sight of the helpless newborn moved his father to search for a shoebox in which to bury him. Amazingly, the infant survived, and was brought back to the family home in the Bahamas after the tomato crop was sold.


One of eight children, Poitier spent his early childhood fishing, swimming, and catching turtles near the family's home in the small village of Cat Island, and attended island schools for four years. When the Florida legislature, acting on the wishes of local farmers, put an embargo on Bahamian tomatoes, Poitier's parents saw their livelihood disappear overnight. Forced to sell their home, they moved to Nassau, and everyone in the family was required to work. Reginald Poitier sold cigars in bars, while Evelyn got a job crushing rocks for a gravel manufacturer. Despite their poverty, the family maintained their pride and dignity and, through the example of Reginald Poitier, never indulged in self-pity. Noting that his father "had a wonderful sense of himself," Poitier would later explain to American Film interviewer Frank Spotnitz: "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.'"


Life in the large city of Nassau gave young Poitier exposure to the magic of movies for the first time, and he was immediately captivated by the silver screen, particularly Westerns. Far less exciting to Poitier was the time he spent in school, and he left as soon as he was legally able. At age sixteen he moved to his older brother 's home in Miami, Florida, where he experienced racial prejudice for the first time in his life. After a three-year stint as a physiotherapist in the U.S. Army when he came of age, Poitier moved to New York City, where he subsisted on restaurant jobs until he spotted a newspaper advertisement looking for actors. Knowing nothing about acting, except that it would be a change from dishwashing, he decided to audition for the American Negro Theatre. His strong West Indian accent and his limited reading ability lost him the audition, but he overcame both obstacles, learning by mimicking radio broadcasters and reading the newspaper with the help of an elderly Jewish waiter who worked in the same restaurant. Although his second audition with the same troupe was also unsuccessful, he stayed on as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.

Discriminating in Choice of Roles


With continued practice, Poitier eventually perfected his speaking voice, and was chosen as Harry Belafonte's understudy in a production of Days of Our Youth. When this performance was noted, he was cast in several American Negro Theatre productions, among them Lysistrata, Anna Lucasta, and A Raisin in the Sun. His first taste of critical acclaim came in response to his somewhat uneven performance in Lysistrata: despite the fact that he was so nervous that he mixed up his lines and fled off the stage in a panic, critics fortunate enough to attend the fledgling actor's inauspicious Broadway debut commented positively on Poitier's acting potential.

A role in the Signal Corps documentary From Whom Cometh My Help in 1949 brought Poitier to the attention of Hollywood, and he landed his first major screen role in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 "message movie" No Way Out. A token black doctor in an otherwise all-white hospital, Poitier's character can be viewed as a prototype of the sterotype-breaking roles he would perform throughout the coming decade: a black man who could do—better—anything a white man could. Poitier's Dr. Brooks—a dedicated physician who is accused of murdering one of his white patients by the patient's racist brother—maintains a "calm dignity," wrote New York Times critic Thomas M. Pryor. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted in the New York Times, Poitier gained a reputation for refusing "scripts that failed to satisfy his image of black Americans."

In his next few films Poitier expanded his acting repertoire to include a priest, a truck driver, and a basketball player. His 1955 success in the Richard Brooks-directed Blackboard Jungle followed up a critically acclaimed performance in Cry, the Beloved Country to firmly establish him as a dramatic actor. In Blackboard Jungle he portrays an unruly young man in an undisciplined, dangerous city school who eventually sides with authority during a violent standoff between a gang leader and a teacher.

His 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, earned Poitier an Academy Award nomination for his role as an escaped convict who is chained at the wrist to a racist white convict (played by Tony Curtis). In this film by director Stanley Kramer, the two convicts hate each other at first, but during the course of the film their shared hardships as fugitives from a brutal prison camp in a Southern backwater forge an intangible link of humanity that binds them together as strongly as the chain. Poitier's performance was characterized as "intensely dynamic" by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, the critic adding that the actor projects "a deep and powerful strain of underlying compassion."

Moving back to the New York stage the following year, Poitier won acclaim for his performance on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. The drama of a poor black family trying to improve their lives, the play and the subsequent film version starred Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, the ambitious young husband who wants to open a business with insurance benefits from his father's death. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson deemed Poitier "a remarkable actor with enormous power that is always under control," and he commended the thirty-two-year-old actor's versatility. Poitier is "as eloquent when he has nothing to say as when he has a pungent line to speak," Atkinson remarked, adding that "he can convey devious processes of thought as graphically as he can clown and dance."

Honored with Academy Award


Poitier's reprise of his stage role in the film version of A Raisin in the Sun marked the start of a new era in films, as the change in attitudes due to the civil rights era began to emerge in American popular culture. As partial acknowledgment of that change, in 1963 Poitier was honored as the first black to win the Academy Award for best actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. As Homer Smith, an unemployed
construction worker traveling through southwestern Arizona who is challenged by a group of nuns into building a chapel, Poitier brings to his character a need to prove not only himself but also the potential of his race. Said Poitier after accepting a rousing ovation by Academy Awards presentation audiences upon receiving his award, "It has been a long journey to this moment." For Poitier his journey had extended further than Hollywood; he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



"They Call Me Mister Tibbs"


By the mid-1960s Poitier had become a bankable Hollywood commodity, and in 1967 he gave three of the most outstanding performances of his career. In To Sir, with Love, which was popular with teen audiences due to its theme song sung by film co-star Lulu, he portrays Mr. Thackeray, a charismatic high-school teacher who tames a belligerent class; in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night he stars as a sophisticated, city-trained police detective solving a mysterious murder in a rural, racist community; and in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, playing opposite Hollywood greats Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, he takes on the role of an eminent scientist who has fallen in love with and plans to marry a white woman. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner echos the interracial theme of A Patch of Blue, in which Poitier had starred two years before. Although after 1957 a black person was allowed to embrace a white person on screen, interracial marriages were still illegal in many states when these films reached theatres; while American audiences might have thought themselves open-minded about close relationships between the races—especially a black man with a white woman—these films forced many to visibly confront hidden prejudices. For its part in advancing race relations, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was the first film about an interracial relationship that did not end in tragedy.


Poitier's role opposite Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night is especially significant among Poitier's fans. In one scene, the small-town redneck sheriff played by Steiger asks Detective Virgil Tibbs "What do they call you, boy?," and Poitier's black detective responds, confrontatively, "They call me Mister Tibbs." This line resonated among black viewers in particular, as a demand for respect based on their accomplishments. The film was equally powerful; it spawned two film sequels starring Poitier—1970's They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and the following year's The Organization—as well as a popular 1980s television program that featured Howard Rollins as Virgil Tibbs.




Remarking on the groundbreaking path of his career during the 1960s, Poitier has remained modest, preferring to view himself as a black actor who simply was in the right place at the right time. Calling that tumultuous decade "one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue," he told Peter Ellicott in the London Times: "I didn't understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix."



Crossover Actor a Victim of Changing Times


Poitier's dignified image often won him comparison to suave actor Cary Grant, bolstering his popularity with white as well as black audiences. In fact, in 1967 he ranked in the top ten in a tally of the most highly paid stars in Hollywood, and the next year he moved up to the top of the list. His status as a "crossover" star, while fueling his career during the 1960s, would prove detrimental a decade later, as the new "blaxploitation" film became popular. Promoting a black-power image at odds with Poitier's gentlemanly one, such films attracted a younger, more radicalized audience. Writers soon began to criticize Poitier's "bleached-out roles," recounted Patricia Bosworth, citing a particularly scathing review that was published in the hallowed New York Times. The actor "took an inordinate amount of flack from both black and liberal white critics," agreed Thomas Cripps in American Film, because "his high visibility made him an easy target for critics in search of a heavy on whom to lay blame for the long history of Hollywood's contempt for blacks." Some detractors held that Poitier was merely "a pretty black face that Hollywood could exploit without having to acknowledge black culture," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt explained. Poitier recognized that "the few black faces passing across the silver screen were not anywhere near enough to assuage the frustrations our people felt," but "however inadequate my steps appeared, it was important that we make it." For his own part, Poitier "maneuvered himself into a position to make the films he wanted to whether Hollywood likes it or not," observed Lehmann-Haupt.



Don's Director's Hat


In 1969, still riding the crest of a successful decade, Poitier had joined with actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbra Streisand to form First Artists Productions, hoping that through this company he could eventually move into other aspects of filmmaking. Now, three years later, on the set of Buck and the Preacher, opportunity knocked and he was ready to answer. The film, a revisionist take on the traditional Western genre—the heroes are black and the bad guys are white—had begun filming under Joseph Sargent's direction, but when creative differences prompted Sargent to leave the Columbia Pictures production, Poitier offered to finish the film. He produced some sample footage that he had directed, and impressed the studio's powers-that-be so much that he was hired to complete the picture. While Vincent Canby noted in the New York Times that Poitier's acting was unspectacular, he was quick to add that "with what I suspect is the complete cooperation of Poitier, the film is stolen almost immediately by Harry Belafonte." Rolling Stone contributor Joseph McBridge praised the film for its "creative use of the conventions it turns inside out" and noted that "it mocks [the conventions] at the same time it allows black audiences . . . the pleasure of usurping the mythology which the Western has long used to keep minorities in their place."


Poitier went on to direct several other films during the 1970s, building his skills behind the camera with A Warm December (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977). Uptown Saturday Night boasts an acting lineup that includes Poitier, Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor. Dubbed an "exuberant black joke" by Canby, the film satirizes the gangster film of the 1930s, its humor fueled by over-the-top expressions of fear and sham courage. According to Penelope Gilliatt, who reviewed the film for the New Yorker, "any white who had made [such a film as this] would have been run out of town for prolonging Uncle Tom stereotypes." Canby enjoyed the film, noting that it "has the effect of liberating all of us from our hangups"; Uptown Saturday Night, he added, is "so full of good humor and . . . high spirits that it reduces movie criticism to the status of a most nonessential craft."

The 1980s was Poitier's decade to direct rather than act in films. He started off with a bang, producing the off-beat comedy hit Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Although several critics found the comedy low-brow—Canby dismissed it as "improvised, badly" in his New York Times review, while a Newsweek reviewer blamed scriptwriter Bruce Jay Friedman—the film proved to be one of the biggest box-office hits to date. Poitier, as director, survived the reviews unscathed, with the Newsweek critic noting that he "serves his leading men well."

While Poitier was busy with a spate of directing projects that included Hanky-Panky (1982), Fast Forward (1985), and the 1988 action-adventure films Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita, he also turned his hand to writing. He chronicled his long and varied career in the 1980 autobiography This Life. According to Poitier, the book was written in the hope of leaving "a truer accounting" of himself to the public and his children. As he told People interviewer Lois Armstrong, "My years had been so full I wanted to itemize them while I was still lucid."


Like his other creative endeavors, Poitier's efforts at writing were met enthusiastically by many reviewers. New Republic critic James Wolcott remarked that, "Sassed-up with obscenity and street slang, This Life has the smack, humor, and vigor of an all-night rap session," while in the Washington Post Book World Patricia Bosworth applauded it as a "large-spirited, informative autobiography, one of the best additions to the small library of books on the black artist in films." Thomas Cripps praised the memoir in his American Film review for its "smooth writing, honest detail, and clear story line," while Mel Watkins summed up This Life in the New York Times Book Review, writing: "Without pretentiousness and with considerable charm it relates the story of one man's gritty struggle to reach the top in his profession and thereby open doors that had previously been denied his race."


After devoting himself primarily to directing for a decade, Poitier ultimately called it quits after 1990's Ghost Dad, a Bill Cosby vehicle that floundered at the box office. Moving once again in front of the camera lens, he took on several substantial roles, primarily for the growing cable television market. In the 1991 television film Separate but Equal, he gave an acclaimed performance as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first African American to sit on the high court. The 1992 film Sneakers found him co-starring with Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Ackroyd, in a comedy/spy film about a group of security experts who think they are working for the government until they realize that they have become ensnared in a masterful plot to penetrate security systems around the world. Returning to television, in 1995 he starred as Oklahoma bounty hunter Gypsy Smith in the historical drama Children of the Dust, and two years later starred in the made-for-television film Mandela and DeKlerk, in which he played Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist who was finally released from prison in 1990. The 1997 hit The Jackal featured Poitier alongside actors Richard Gere and Bruce Willis in the role of an FBI deputy director who is forced to hire one deadly assassin to rid the world of another.

Reaps Well-deserved Honors


In 1992 the American Film Institute honored Poitier with an award for lifetime achievement, a fitting tribute to an actor who, over the course of over four decades and almost forty films, had, like the many characters he played, proved that, from the perspective of race, a black American could indeed accomplish as much—and often much more—than any white. Accepting the award Poitier was characteristically humble but not self-deprecating when he said: "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." Similar awards quickly followed, including the National Board of Review Career Achievement Award in 1994, the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, and a special Academy Award in 2002. At each of these events he was lauded with respect by those he has mentored and with whom he has worked: James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Michael Moriarty, and Carroll O'Connor among them. Noted civil rights activist Rosa Parks also appeared to honor Poitier, calling him "a great actor and role model" during her appearance at the American Film Institute honors.




If you enjoy the works of Sidney Poitier

If you enjoy the works of Sidney Poitier, you may also want to check out the following:


To Kill a Mockingbird, an Academy Award-winning film, 1961.

Dead Poets Society, a film starring Robin Williams, 1989.

Driving Miss Daisy, a film starring Morgan Freeman, 1989.




While his career remained solid, Poitier's life outside Hollywood had its ups and downs during the 1990s. In 1993 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a situation that made the actor reevaluate his life. With several of his five daughters living on the east coast, Poitier and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, decided to invest more time away from their California home, with family or traveling. Traveling became even more of a factor in Poitier's life when, in 1997, he was cast in the real-life political role of ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas and was received by Japanese Emperor Akihito. In 2000 the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series American Masters aired a biography of Poitier, "Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light," directed by Lee Grant, who starred opposite Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.


In 2000, twenty years after his first memoir, Poitier reopened the door on his life with The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. The book describes his early childhood in the Bahamas, as well as some of his greatest roles, such as in the major Broadway hit, A Raisin in the Sun, and the films The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. In The Measure of a Man he also honors his parents' ability to hold onto their values in the face of life's challenges. Michael Moriarty commented to Los Angeles Times contributor Chris Dafoe of his co-star in Children of the Dust: "You see a face that you've grown up with and admired, someone who was an icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday, workaday world of doing movies, he is everything he symbolized on screen."




Biographical and Critical Sources


BOOKS


Bergman, Carol, Sidney Poitier, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1988.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Ewers, Carolyn E., Sidney Poitier: The Long Journey, New American Library (New York, NY), 1981.

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

Hoffman, William, Sidney, Lyle Stuart (New York, NY), 1971.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Kelley, Samuel L., The Evolution of Character Portrayals in the Films of Sidney Poitier, 1950-1978, University of North Carolina Press (Jefferson, NC), 1983.

Keyser, Lester J., The Cinema of Sidney Poitier: TheBlack Man's Changing Role on the American Screen, A.S. Barnes (San Diego, CA), 1980.

Marill, Alvin H., The Films of Sidney Poitier, Citadel Press (Secaucus, NJ), 1978.

Null, Gary, Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures, Citadel Press (Secaucus, NJ), 1978.

Poitier, Sidney, This Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

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

Zinman, David, Fifty from the Fifties, Arlington, 1979.


PERIODICALS


American Film, September-October, 1991, Frank Spotnitz, interview with Poitier, pp. 18-21, 49.

Black Issues Book Review, July, 2000, Robert Fleming, review of The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 53.

Booklist, March 15, 2000, Ted Leventhal, review of The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 1290.

Cineaste, winter, 1977-78, G. Noble, "Entertainment, Politics, and the Movie Business" (interview).

Ebony, August, 2000, review of The Measure of a Man:A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 20.

Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Rosellen Brewer, review of The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 116.

New York Times, May 28, 2000, Nora Sayre, "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2000, review of The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 63.

Times (London, England), November 8, 1992, Peter Ellicott, interview with Poitier.



ONLINE


Public Broadcasting Service,http://www.pbs.org/ (July 8, 2004), "American Masters: Sidney Poitier."*

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Poitier, Sidney

POITIER, Sidney

(b. 20 February 1927 [some sources say 1927] in Miami, Florida), actor, civil rights activist, and motion picture director who in the 1960s became the first African-American film star in Hollywood history.

A native of Cat Island in the Bahamas, Poitier was born in Miami during a stopover by his parents, Reginald James and Evelyn (Outten) Poitier, who secured U.S. citizenship for him but little else. He was raised dirt poor with his seven siblings in Nassau, where his father barely made a living as a tomato farmer and his mother broke rocks to make gravel. In 1943, after a brief stay in Miami with his older brother, Poitier ran off to New York City. While Poitier, who had virtually no formal schooling, struggled to support himself by working as a dishwasher and tried to improve his reading skills, he strove to lose his Caribbean accent by listening to the radio. After an unhappy tour of duty in the army, he was discharged in December 1944, entered the American Negro Theater School, and began the daunting task of breaking the color line on the American stage. On 29 April 1950 Poitier married Juanita Hardy, a dancer; the couple raised four daughters.

A Hollywood screen test earned Poitier his first feature role as a doctor, not an orderly, who treats a racist patient in the film No Way Out (1950). Despite garnering good notices for his center-stage performances in No Way Out and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), a tragedy set in South Africa, Poitier still had to hustle for supporting roles in other film projects and in live television drama. With The Blackboard Jungle (1955), where he played the most salvageable student in a rowdy classroom of urban delinquents, his luck changed for good. From the tense urban melodrama of Edge of the City (1957) to the songs and dances of Porgy and Bess (1959), he worked steadily throughout the 1950s, perhaps most memorably in The Defiant Ones (1958). In the latter film he and Tony Curtis portrayed escaped prisoners who must learn to put their prejudices aside to achieve liberation. Poitier and Curtis each earned Academy Award nominations as best actor for their culturally resonant face-offs (though neither of them won).

The civil rights revolution of the 1960s expanded Poitier's options and repertoire, even though the motion pictures tended to retread familiar screen territory rather than break new ground. In the Korean War film All the Young Men (1960), Poitier personifies the tensions of interracial command as a sergeant reluctant to assume leadership. More interesting and daring is Paris Blues (1961), which cast him against type as a moody expatriate jazzman performing in Paris to escape American racism and finally paired him with an African-American leading lady, Diahann Carroll. Personally if not professionally, the most meaningful film for Poitier during this period was the 1961 version of Lorraine Hansberry's searing play Raisin in the Sun (1959). Variety praised Poitier's "striking, commanding performance" as the son of a Chicago family fighting discriminatory housing patterns and oedipal pressures. The article went on to say, "There is a poetry in the very expression of his body movements … [which] convey physically but clearly the inner turmoil, the years of denial that the character has had to seal within himself."

In Lilies of the Field (1963), Poitier's quietly authoritative and immensely engaging performance as a handyman for a group of German nuns won him the Oscar as best actor. At the Academy Awards ceremony, a boisterous ovation greeted the reading of his name, recognition not only of the actor but also of the representative value of the occasion. "It has been a long journey to this moment," said a somber Poitier with typical understatement. Backstage that same evening, Poitier found himself instantly anointed as a spokesperson for black America. "The reporters feel that because I won an Academy Award, I'm some kind of political expert," he said at the time. "I'm what I always wanted to be—an actor. Why don't they ask me some questions about acting?"

The Oscar win catapulted Poitier to the Hollywood A-list, but whether in cold war thrillers (as a reporter aboard a submarine in The Bedford Incident, 1965) or schmaltzy interracial romances (as a tutor to a blind girl in A Patch of Blue, 1965), Poitier's erotic energy was kept in neutral. Not until his discreet clinch with the actress Abby Lincoln in For Love of Ivy (1968) did a popular Hollywood film feature a love scene between two African-American stars. Ironically, perhaps Poitier's most culturally significant role in the mid-1960s was his cameo appearance as Simon Peter in the biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), which verified an African-American presence in the heretofore blue-eyed regions of the Hollywood Holy Land.

Poitier's golden year was 1967, when the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called him "the most conspicuous and respected exponent of the American Negro on the screen." Astonishingly, three of his films—To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?—were the top box-office hits that year. In To Sir with Love, he stood on the other side of the blackboard jungle as a hip teacher ministering to London slum kids; the pop singer Lulu's plaintive title tune made achingly clear the romantic longing of a white girl for a black man.

Poitier's next two performances neatly expressed the African-American impulses to anger and assimilation during the 1960s. In In the Heat of the Night, he played the Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who, while traveling through a Dixie backwater, becomes first the suspect and then the solution to a local murder. The contrast of an aberrant, racist, Neanderthal South with an open-minded, idealistic, and integrationist North may have been a Hollywood conceit. When the redneck sheriff condescendingly addresses the detective as "Virgil" one too many times, however, an enraged Poitier spits out a rebuke that incited raucous cheers from audiences of all shades, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!"

In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Stanley Kramer's then controversial treatment of interracial marriage, Poitier appears as a model future son-in-law except for one slight problem—his color. Tendentious and preachy in rhetoric and modest and discreet in imagery, the film was nonetheless a landmark in its time. Perhaps, too, compared with the ill-scrubbed, ill-mannered swains some daughters were bringing home to meet the folks, not a few 1960s parents would have been thrilled to have the accomplished and gentlemanly Poitier come to dinner.

Off-screen in the 1960s, Poitier positioned himself squarely in the mainstream of the civil rights movement; he marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and lent his emblematic presence to a number of progressive causes. Yet he never succumbed to the extremes of black militancy in either separatist rhetoric or personal style. As for his own contribution to the struggle for racial equality, he attributed his screen success to "being at the right place at the right time, one in that series of perfect accidents from which Fate fashions her grand design."

In the 1970s Poitier moved behind the camera to direct a series of highly successful comedy, caper, and genre films, including Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), and the blockbuster Stir Crazy (1980). After playing so many of what he called "saintly unreal" blacks, Poitier the auteur seemed to luxuriate in lighthearted fare featuring lovable rogues. "I wanted to make fun movies in which black people could sit in a theater and laugh at themselves without restraint—and feel good about it," Poitier recalled. After divorcing his first wife in 1965, Poitier married the actress Johanna Shimkus on 23 January 1976; they had two daughters.

Poitier's talent as an actor was inseparable from his color: he was a black man who played black men, and often black men who had been created by white screenwriters. As such, later generations of African-American activists came to see Poitier as too much the "good Negro" of the white liberal imagination: well spoken, well behaved, and white featured. Especially in the 1960s, when phrases like "a credit to his race" and "role model" became epithets, not compliments, Poitier was derided as a "paradigm of tokenism" and sneered at as an Uncle Tom by certain blacker-than-thou elements of the African-American community.

Over time, however, as tempers cooled and the shadings of Poitier's rich portrait gallery endured, the immensity of his artistic achievements was recognized and honored. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Poitier was presented with an Oscar for lifetime achievement, an apt tribute to an artist whose pioneering legacy extended far beyond the motion picture screen.

Poitier is the author of two memoirs, This Life (1980) and The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000). Critical studies of his work include Lester J. Keyser, The Cinema of Sidney Poitier: The Black Man's Changing Role on the American Screen (1980), and Samuel L. Kelley, The Evolution of Character Portrayals in the Films of Sidney Poitier (1983).

Thomas Doherty

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