Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

sidney poitier
Sidney Poitier
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Sidney Poitier was an internationally renowned actor, film director, humanitarian and diplomat. He was an immensely inspirational figure, not just for his cinematic achievements but also as a man who helped to build bridges and open doors for others to follow. He became an icon, a man who came from a humble farming family in The Bahamas and who worked his way up to a position of immense respect.

In 1963, he became the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Homer Smith, an American serviceman in Germany, in 'Lilies of the Field'. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974 which gave him the right, (which he did not use), to be called Sir Sidney Poitier.

The American Film Institute named him at number 22 on their list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends. In 2002, Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Honorary Award, designated "To Sidney Poitier in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being."

In 2009 Sidney Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America's highest civilian honor, by President Obama.


Born in Florida on February 20, 1927, during a stateside visit by his Bahamian parents, Sidney Poitier grew up in poverty, the son of a tomato farmer. By the age of fifteen, with little education and a bent toward delinquency, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. Confrontation with the U.S. racial caste system and a string of menial jobs eventually led him to New York. After a brief WWII stint in the army serving as a medical assistant, he returned to Harlem.

Early Acting Career

After demob he worked as a dishwasher and he entered acting after impulsively auditioning for a role and being emphatically rejected. He was forced to reconsider himself and he began to consciously refine his broad Bahamian accent and to educate himself. Overcoming his limitations, he eventually earned acceptance into the American Negro Theatre, where his talents led to more high-profile work on Broadway.

After a period as understudy to Harry Belafonte, Sidney was given a small role in the Greek comedy 'Lysistrata'. He got impressive reviews and he continued to perform for the company, appearing in ten more productions and a national tour. It brought him to the attention of Hollywood and at the end of 1949 he took a role in the movie 'No Way Out' opposite Richard Widmark for which he received much praise from the critics.

Hollywood Actor

Film offers began to pour in but Poitier was always careful to choose his roles carefully, keeping in mind his career and the role itself. In 1951 he got excellent reviews for his performance in 'Cry, The Beloved Country' and he made his real breakthrough into stardom with 'The Blackboard Jungle' in 1955 followed by 'The Defiant Ones' in 1957 with Tony Curtis. For this role he received an Academy nomination for Best Actor, the first for a black performer.

He was now a nationally known actor and he also became an important figure in the Civil Rights movement with a string of roles that perfectly positioned him between differing points of view about how to represent American blackness. His popularity with all sections of society, both black and white, increased with his lead performance in 'Porgy and Bess' in 1959, in which he represented a proud and aspirational black person but a non-threatening one.

Poitier next continued his run of success on the stage with a moving performance about black family life in 'A Raisin in the Sun', the first play by a black playwright to be produced on Broadway. He later successfully starred in the film version released in 1961. Two years later he gave an unforgettable performance in 'Lilies of the Field' as a US serviceman in Germany and he became the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Hollywood Star

Poitier was now a top-drawer Hollywood superstar and he continued to give memorable performances in such films as 'The Bedford Incident', and 'A Patch of Blue' in 1965. The peak of his career as a movie actor came in 1967 when he was the year's most successful box-office attraction with three movies: 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', which was the first Hollywood movie to show interracial romance which did not end in tragedy; 'To Sir, with Love'; and 'In the Heat of the Night', which featured his most successful characterisation, Virgil Tibbs, a detective whom Poitier also played in two sequels: 'They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!' in 1970 and 'The Organization' in 1971.

Poitier made his directorial debut in 1972 with the Western 'Buck and the Preacher' in which he also co-starred with Harry Belafonte. He continued his new career with a series of successful movies during the mid 1970's with Bill Cosby - 'Uptown Saturday Night', 'Let's Do It Again', and 'A Piece of the Action'. He went on to direct the hugely successful comedy 'Stir Crazy' in 1980, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder following it in 1985 with the popular dance battle movie 'Fast Forward'.

After a 10-year absence from appearing in front of the camera Poitier returned to acting in 'Shoot to Kill' and 'Little Nikita' in 1988, 'Sneakers' in 1992, and 'One Man, One Vote' in 1997.


Poitier wrote three books about his life, firstly in 1980 'This Life', then in 2000 'The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography' and then 'Life Beyond Measure - letters to my Great-Granddaughter' in 2008.

He was married twice, firstly to Juanita Hardy for 15 years from 1950 until 1965 and then from 1976 to the present to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian-born former actress. He had six daughters from his marriages.

Poitier latterly held the position of ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan,and he was also the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO.

Poitier became an increasingly important international figure, not just as a very fine actor, but also as a social pioneer and as a representation of positive change in society. It should be remembered, that before Poitier there really weren't any black Hollywood leads. His example has led the way for such performers as Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Denzel Washington, each of whom can trace a connection to Poitier's work in the 1950's and 1960's. It was a long journey for a once poverty-stricken Bahamian immigrant, but he has made the journey and in so doing has shown the way for hundreds of others.

Sidney Poitier Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Lilies of the Field (1963)

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... The Defiant Ones (1958)
Honorary Award 2002: "For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence."


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Sidney Poitier Filmography

Sepia Cinderella (uncredited)
No Way Out
Cry, the Beloved Country
Red Ball Express
Go, Man, Go!
Blackboard Jungle
Good-bye, My Lady
A Man Is Ten Feet Tall
Something of Value
Band of Angels
The Mark of the Hawk
Virgin Island
The Defiant Ones
Porgy and Bess
All the Young Men
A Raisin in the Sun
Paris Blues
Pressure Point
Lilies of the Field
The Long Ships
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Bedford Incident
A Patch of Blue
The Slender Thread
Duel at Diablo
To Sir, with Love
In the Heat of the Night
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
For Love of Ivy
The Lost Man