Oscar Actors: Poitier, Sidney–Background, Career, Awards

November 1, 2020
Sidney Poitier Career Summary:

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Sidney Poitier KBE (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[3][a] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6][7][8][9] In 2009 Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.[10]

In 2016, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film.[9] 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.”[11]

Sidney Poitier was the youngest of seven children,[12] born to Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island. The family would travel to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald also worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas.[13] Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while his parents were visiting. His birth was two months premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained in Miami for three months to nurse him to health.[14] Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British Crown colony. Owing to his unplanned birth in the United States, he was automatically entitled to American citizenship.

Poitier’s uncle believed that the Poitier ancestors on his father’s side had migrated from Haiti,[15] and were probably among the runaway slaves who established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He noted that Poitier is a French name, and that there were no white Poitiers from the Bahamas.[16] However, there had been a white Poitier on Cat Island; the name came from planter Charles Leonard Poitier, who had immigrated from Jamaica in the early 1800s. In 1834, his wife’s estate on Cat Island had 86 slaves, who kept the name Poitier, a name that had been introduced into the Anglosphere since the Norman conquest in the 11th century.[17]

Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was 10, when they moved to Nassau. There he was exposed to the modern world, where he saw his first automobile, first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and motion pictures.[18][19] He was raised a Roman Catholic[20] but later became an agnostic[21] with views closer to deism.[22]

At age 15, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother’s large family.

At 16, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. A waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper.

During World War II, in November 1943, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Northport, New York, and was trained to work with psychiatric patients. Poitier became upset with how the hospital treated its patients, and feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge. Poitier confessed to a psychiatrist that he was faking his condition, but the doctor was sympathetic and granted his discharge under Section VIII of Army regulation 615-360 in December 1944.[25]

After leaving the Army he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater.

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 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.[30] Poitier’s breakout role was as Gregory W. Miller, a member of an incorrigible high-school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).[31]

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.[32][33] 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.[34] 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.

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.[40]

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.”[41]

With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, he became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor.[42] 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.

Directing
Poitier directed several films, the most successful being the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy, which for many years was the highest-grossing film directed by a person of African descent.[43] His feature film directorial debut was the Western, Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced the original director, Joseph Sargent. The trio of Poitier, Cosby, and Belafonte reunited, with Poitier again directing, in Uptown Saturday Night. He directed Cosby in Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, and Ghost Dad. Poitier directed, Fast Forward, in 1985.

Recording
Poitier recorded an album with the composer Fred Katz called Poitier Meets Plato, in which Poitier recites passages from Plato’s writings.[44]

Business

Poitier in 1968
From 1995 to 2003, Poitier served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.[45]

Diplomatic service
In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held until 2007. From 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO.[2]

Personal life

Sidney Poitier’s house in Stuyvesant, New York
Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. They raised their family in Stuyvesant, New York, in a house on the Hudson River.[46] In 1959, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll.[47] He has been married to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian former actress, since January 23, 1976. He has four daughters with his first wife (Beverly,[48][49] Pamela,[50] Sherri,[51] and Gina[52]) and two with his second (Anika[53] and Sydney Tamiia[54]).

In addition to his 6 daughters, Poitier has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, Poitier’s family had 23 missing relatives.

Honors and awards

1958: British Academy Film Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Defiant Ones
1958: Silver Bear for Best Actor (Berlin Film Festival) for The Defiant Ones[57]
1963: Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for Lilies of the Field
1963: Silver Bear for Best Actor (Berlin Film Festival) for Lilies of the Field[58]
1964: Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lilies of the Field
1974: Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE)[6][7][8]
1982: Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award[59]
1992: AFI Life Achievement Award
1995: Kennedy Center Honors
1997: Appointed non-resident Bahamian Ambassador to Japan
1999: SAG Life Achievement Award
2000: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
2001: NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award
2001 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – Rick Harris, John Runnette (producers) and Sidney Poitier for The Measure of a Man
2002: Honorary Oscar – “For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence”
2009: Presidential Medal of Freedom[60]
2011: Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute[61] honoring his life and careers
2014: Golden Plate Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement,[62] presented by Awards Council member Oprah Winfrey[63]
2016: BAFTA Fellowship
Filmography
Actor
Year Title Role Notes
1947 Sepia Cinderella Extra Uncredited
1949 From Whence Cometh My Help Himself Documentary
1950 No Way Out Dr. Luther Brooks
1951 Cry, the Beloved Country Reverend Msimangu
1952 Red Ball Express Cpl. Andrew Robertson
1954 Go, Man, Go! Inman Jackson
1955 Blackboard Jungle Gregory W. Miller
1956 Good-bye, My Lady Gates Watson
1957 Edge of the City Tommy Tyler Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1957 Something of Value Kimani Wa Karanja
1957 Band of Angels Rau-Ru Ponce de Leon
1957 The Mark of the Hawk Obam
1958 Virgin Island Marcus
1958 The Defiant Ones Noah Cullen BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Silver Bear for Best Actor[57]
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1959 Porgy and Bess Porgy Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1960 All the Young Men Sgt. Eddie Towler
1961 A Raisin in the Sun Walter Lee Younger Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
1961 Paris Blues Eddie Cook
1962 Pressure Point Doctor (Chief Psychiatrist)
1963 The Long Ships Aly Mansuh
1963 Lilies of the Field Homer Smith Academy Award for Best Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Silver Bear for Best Actor[58]
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1965 The Bedford Incident Ben Munceford
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told Simon of Cyrene
1965 A Patch of Blue Gordon Ralfe Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1965 The Slender Thread Alan Newell
1966 Duel at Diablo Toller (contract horse dealer) Nominated—Laurel Award for Top Male Action Performance
1967 To Sir, with Love Mark Thackeray
1967 In the Heat of the Night Det. Virgil Tibbs Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Dr. John Wade Prentice Fotogramas de Plata Award for Best Foreign Performer
1968 For Love of Ivy Jack Parks Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor
1969 The Lost Man Jason Higgs
1970 King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis Narrator Documentary
1970 They Call Me Mister Tibbs! Lt. Virgil Tibbs
1971 Brother John John Kane
1971 The Organization Lt. Virgil Tibbs
1972 Buck and the Preacher Buck
1973 A Warm December Matt Younger
1974 Uptown Saturday Night Steve Jackson
1975 The Wilby Conspiracy Shack Twala
1975 Let’s Do it Again Clyde Williams NAACP Image Award for Best Director
1977 A Piece of the Action Manny Durrell
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist Narrator Short subject
1988 Shoot to Kill Warren Stantin
1988 Little Nikita Roy Parmenter
1992 Sneakers Donald Crease Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
1994 A Century of Cinema Himself Documentary
1996 Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick Himself Documentary
1997 The Jackal FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actor – Suspense
2001 Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey Narrator Documentary
2004 Tell Them Who You Are Himself Documentary
2008 Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project Himself Documentary
2008 “Last Bricklayer in America” Henry Cobb Film
Director
Year Title
1972 Buck and the Preacher
1973 A Warm December
1974 Uptown Saturday Night
1975 Let’s Do it Again
1977 A Piece of the Action
1980 Stir Crazy
1982 Hanky Panky
1985 Fast Forward
1990 Ghost Dad
Television
Year Title Role Notes
1962 The Jack Paar Tonight Show Himself 1 episode
1969 The Mike Douglas Show Himself 1 episode
1972 The Dick Cavett Show Himself 1 episode
1972 The New Bill Cosby Show Himself 1 episode
1975 The Merv Griffin Show Himself 1 episode
1979 The Mike Douglas Show Himself 1 episode
1991 Separate but Equal Thurgood Marshall Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film
1995 Children of the Dust Gypsy Smith Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
1996 To Sir, with Love II Mark Thackeray
1997 Mandela and de Klerk Nelson Mandela Nominated—CableACE Award for Best Actor in a Movie or Miniseries
Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie
1998 David and Lisa Dr. Jack Miller
1999 The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn Noah Dearborn NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Nominated—Black Reel Award for Best Actor: T.V. Movie/Cable
1999 Free of Eden Will Cleamons
2000-2007 The Oprah Winfrey Show Himself 5 episodes
2001 The Last Brickmaker in America Henry Cobb
2008 Larry King Live Himself 1 episode
Works about Poitier
Autobiographies
Poitier has written three autobiographical books:

This Life (1980)
The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000)
Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008, an Oprah’s Book Club selection)
Poitier is also the subject of the biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004) by historian Aram Goudsouzian.[64]

Poitier wrote the novel Montaro Caine, released in May 2013.

Films about Poitier
Sidney Poitier, an Outsider in Hollywood (Sidney Poitier, an outsider à Hollywood). Documentary film by Catherine Arnaud. Arte, France, 2008, 70 minutes.
Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light. American Masters, PBS. USA, 2000. 60 minutes.[65]
See also
David Hampton, an impostor who posed as Poitier’s son “David” in 1983, which inspired a play and a film, Six Degrees of Separation
John Stewart (comics), a superhero whose design was based on Poitier
List of earliest surviving Academy Award winners