Influential Black Leaders - Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier KBE (/ˈpwɑːtieɪ/; born February 20, 1927) is a Bahamian-American actor, film director, and ambassador. In 1964 Poitier became the first black male and Afro-Bahamian actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, having been nominated for the award twice. He is the oldest living and earliest surviving Best Actor Academy Award winner.
In addition, he was nominated six times for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor (four times under Motion Picture Drama, and once for both Miniseries or Television Film, and Motion Picture Musical or Comedy) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA) for Best Foreign Actor, winning each once. From 1997 to 2007, he served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.
His entire family lived in the Bahamas, then still a British colony, but Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while they were visiting for the weekend, which automatically granted him American citizenship. He grew up in the Bahamas, but moved to New York when he was 16. He joined the North American Negro Theatre, landing his breakthrough film role as an incorrigible high school student in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.
In 1958, Poitier starred with Tony Curtis in the critically acclaimed The Defiant Ones as chained-together convicts who escape and must cooperate. Each received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor, with Poitier's being the first for a black actor, as well as nominations for the BAFTAs, which Poitier won. In 1964, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963) in which he played a handyman who stays with and helps a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel. Poitier also received critical acclaim for A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and A Patch of Blue (1965).
He continued to break ground in three successful 1967 films, each dealing with issues of race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, making him the top box-office star of that year. He received nominations for the Golden Globes and BAFTAs for the latter film, but not for the Oscars, likely due to vote splitting between his roles. After twice reprising his Virgil Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night and acting in a variety of other films, including the thriller The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), with Michael Caine, Poitier turned to acting/directing with the action-comedies Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1978), all co-starring Bill Cosby. During a decade away from acting, he directed the successful Stir Crazy (1980) starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, among other films. He returned to acting in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a few thrillers and television roles.
Poitier was made an honourary Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. (The knighthood was honorary as he was no longer a British Subject at the time, the Bahamas having become independent in 1973; so he can use the postnominal letters "KBE" but he is not called "Sir Sidney.") In 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.
In 2016, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Poitier 22nd on their list of Greatest Male Stars of classic Hollywood cinema. He is one of only two living actors on the AFI list, the other being Italian actress Sophia Loren. In 2002, Poitier was chosen to receive an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his "remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being."
Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of black actors at the time, Poitier's tone deafness made him unable to sing. Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which, though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta.
By late 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot (played by Richard Widmark), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most African-American actors of the time were offered. In 1951, he traveled to South Africa with the African-American actor Canada Lee to star in the film version of Cry, the Beloved Country. Poitier's breakout role was as Gregory W. Miller, a member of an incorrigible high-school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).
In 1958 he starred alongside Tony Curtis in director Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. Poitier and Curtis play prisoners chained-together who escape custody when the truck transporting them crashes and to avoid re-capture they must work cooperatively despite their mutual dislike. The film was a critical and commercial success with the performances of both Poitier and Curtis being praised. The film landed eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor nominations for both stars, making Poitier the first black male actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award as best actor. Both actors received the same nomination at the Golden Globes, but probably due to vote splitting between the two of them, neither won either award. Poitier did win the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Foreign Actor and the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear Award.
He was also the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field in 1963). (James Baskett was the first African-American male to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus in the Walt Disney production of Song of the South in 1948, while Hattie McDaniel predated them both, winning as Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1939's Gone with the Wind, making her the first black person to be nominated for and receive an Oscar). His satisfaction at this honor was undermined by his concerns that this award was more of the industry congratulating itself for having him as a token and it would inhibit him from asking for more substantive considerations afterward. Poitier worked relatively little over the following year; he remained the only major actor of African descent and the roles offered were predominantly typecast as a soft-spoken appeaser.
Poitier (left) at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston
He acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, and later starred in the film version released in 1961. He also gave memorable performances in The Bedford Incident (1965), and A Patch of Blue (1965) co-starring Elizabeth Hartman and Shelley Winters. In 1967, he was the most successful draw at the box office, the commercial peak of his career, with three popular films, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night. The last film featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, detective whose subsequent career was the subject of two sequels: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). Many of the films in which Poitier starred during the 1960s would later be cited as social thrillers by both filmmakers and critics.
Poitier began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized African-American characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. Poitier was aware of this pattern himself, but was conflicted on the matter. He wanted more varied roles; but he also felt obliged to set an example with his characters, by challenging old stereotypes as he was the only major actor of African descent being cast in leading roles in the American film industry, at that time. For instance, in 1966, he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC television production of Othello with that spirit in mind.
In 2002, Poitier received the 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. Later in the ceremony, Denzel Washington won the award for Best Actor for his performance in Training Day becoming the second black actor to win the award. In his victory speech Washington saluted Poitier by saying "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir."
With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, he became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor. On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards, to present the Best Director Award. He was given a standing ovation. Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating "we are in your debt". Poitier gave a brief acceptance speech, telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to warm applause.