The first African-American performer to achieve major Hollywood stardom, this Oscar-winning actor brought his integrity and intensity to a number of watershed roles through the ’50s and ’60s. Born in Miami in 1927 when his dirt farmer Bahamian parents were on a produce delivery run, Sidney Poitier spent his childhood in the Bahamas and was sent back to Florida to live with his older brother during an adolescence marked by delinquency. By his late teens, he had drifted to New York and signed on with the Army, and ultimately, after working a series of menial jobs in New York, found his career path following a successful audition with the American Negro Theater.
By the end of the ‘40s, he was obtaining positive notices on Broadway and took an offer from Daryl Zanuck to make his (billed) screen debut in 1950 with No Way Out, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ gripping hospital drama starring Richard Widmark playing a psychotic, bigoted hoodlum who blames intern Poitier for his brother’s death. He admitted later he lied to Mankiewicz about his age but he desperately wanted the chance to appear in the movie. British producer/director Zoltan Korda then tapped Sidney for a small but key role as a village priest in his 1951 drama Cry, the Beloved Country, a bold look at life in Apartheid-era South Africa.
As the decade progressed, Poitier continued to impress in supporting opportunities uncommon to black actors of the era, such as the WWII drama Red Ball Express (1952), which followed the exploits of an integrated U.S. Army Transportation Corps unit, and the hit Blackboard Jungle (1955), a gritty look at life inside an inner-city high school. In 1956, he accepted a minor role with John Wayne’s Batjac production company in Good-Bye, My Lady, a tale set in the Mississippi swamps and centering around a young boy (Brandon de Wilde) who finds a lost African Basenji pup and raises it to hunt birds.
Poitier took a big step to stardom in Edge of the City (1957), which chronicled the friendship that develops between two New York City longshoremen, idealistic Poitier and army deserter John Cassavetes. In the same year, Poitier and Rock Hudson starred in Something of Value, as two childhood friends in colonial Kenya who find themselves on opposite sides during that country’s violent Mau Mau Rebellion.
Also from ’57 were Band of Angels, a Civil War story that has Poitier as a former slave who has joined the Union Army, threatening slave owner Clark Gable; and The Mark of the Hawk, as a newly elected political leader in a colonial Africa nation torn between his long-standing stance against violence and his insurgent brother’s attempts to drag him into rebellion. His turn opposite Tony Curtis as mutually contemptuous chain-gang members in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and gave him unprecedented status as an A-list commodity. In 1959, he starred with Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr. in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s controversial film version of the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess.It was Goldwyn’s last personal project, which he pulled from distribution very quickly after its release, and–due to ongoing contention between the Goldwyn and Gershwin estates–the film hasn’t been on TV in decades and has never been released on home video in the U.S. It was shown, in its entirety, in New York’s Ziegfeld Theater briefly in 2007.
Reflecting on his late ’50s career years later, Sidney remembered how when he was approached by Kramer about doing The Defiant Ones, he was also being courted by Goldwyn for his upcoming Porgy and Bess. The actor figured Kramer’s film might make him a bigger star, but admitted he was fearful of turning down Goldwyn, a man with a lot of Hollywood power, because it might have ruined his chances for years to come. It turned out that The Defiant Ones came in earlier and it all worked out. Of course, the rest is history — and all of it good for Poitier.
The ‘60s found him at the height of his powers, as when he starred in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun, recreating his Tony-nominated Broadway performance in the groundbreaking tale of a black Chicago family’s attempt to get out of the slums and build a better life for themselves; and when he became the first African-American recipient of the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963), as an amiable wanderer discovering how spiritually fulfilling it is to help a group of nuns build a farmhouse.
Other notable efforts from the mid-’60s included The Long Ships (1964), where Poitier took to the high seas as a Moorish prince leading his men into battle Viking brothers Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn while searching for a priceless golden bell; the intriguing Cold War drama The Bedford Incident (1965), pairing him with Widmark again, about an encounter between a Navy destroyer on patrol and a Soviet submarine; The Slender Thread (’65), with crisis hotline worker Sidney racing to locate a suicidal caller (Anne Bancroft) who has taken a fatal dose of barbiturates; and A Patch of Blue (’65), where he teamed with Oscar-winner Shelley Winters and nominee Elizabeth Hartman as the love interest of an abused blind girl who doesn’t know he is black. He was among the long list of featured players in George Steven’s Bible epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. In 1966, in the Western drama Duel at Diablo, he was caught between flaring tempers and boiling hatreds in an Army caravan making their way through treacherous Apache territory.
Poitier was on fire in 1967, with three major films to his credit and the distinction of becoming the first black actor to embed his hands in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. His trio of winners were To Sir, with Love, one of his most endearing films, about a first-year London teacher trying to teach unruly students from a tough East End neighborhood; Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning social drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a tale of interracial romance which teamed Sidney with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who died 17 days after filming was completed); and the winner of the year’s Best Picture Academy Award, In The Heat of the Night, which found Poitier’s Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs matching wits with small-town Mississippi lawman (and best Actor Oscar winner) Rod Steiger as they try to solve a murder in a racially charged climate. In 1968’s For Love of Ivy, Sidney and Abbey Lincoln turn in touching performances in a heartfelt romance about love and deception.
The ‘70s found him reprising his role of no-nonsense plainclothesman Tibbs, with another murder to solve–this time in San Francisco–in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970), and in The Organization (1971),where he gets involved with street vigilantes trying to break a ring of drug smugglers. Around that period, Poitier began getting opportunities to direct, starting with the funny and exciting Buck and the Preacher (1972), where he also starred as a former Civil War soldier roaming the frontier with con-man “minister” Harry Belafonte, leading a group of ex-slaves to homestead sites while dealing with hostile whites — and each other. A Warm December (1973) is a tender romance directed by and starring Poitier as an American doctor practicing in England who falls in love with an African ambassador’s niece (Esther Anderson), unaware she’s suffering from a fatal illness.
Poitier got to subvert his own “too-good-to-be-true” screen persona when he directed and co-starred with Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night (1974), a rollicking urban comedy which also featured Belafonte, Richard Pyror and Flip Wilson. The on-screen chemistry between Sidney and “Cos” was evident here and in two unrelated follow-up romps, Let’s Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977). It was back to drama with The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), as South African activist Poitier must flee from the law while chained to engineer Michael Caine, in a taut thriller that blended the antagonism of The Defiant Ones with an unflinching look at apartheid.
His career behind the camera reached its zenith with the hit prison farce Stir Crazy (1981), starring Pryor and Gene Wilder, which for 20 years was the highest grossing film ever directed by an African-American filmmaker, a record that was eventually broken by Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie. Poitier took a hiatus from performing on-screen for over a decade, resurfacing in 1988 for Shoot to Kill, a rustic “reluctant buddy” actioner where big city FBI agent Poitier teams up with gruff woodland guide Tom Berenger to track down a sadistic killer holed up in the mountains. The same year, he appeared in the Richard Benjamin-directed suspense thriller, Little Nikita, as another FBI agent trying to locate River Phoenix’s Russian spy parents.
Although his name was not appearing on theater marquees the early ’80s, it was in the headlines after a con artist named David Hampton maneuvered his way into wealthy New Yorkers’ homes by masquerading as Poitier’s son. The true crime story caught the attention of author John Guare, who wrote a popular Broadway play, Six Degrees of Separation, based on Hampton’s deceptions. The comedy/drama’s success spawned a 1993 movie version starring Will Smith.
The ‘90s brought Sidney back to the big screen in Sneakers (1992), co-starring Robert Redford, about a group of computer hackers along and shady government agents in a security-breaking scheme. And a 1996 made-for-TV movie had him reprising the role of of teacher Mark Thackeray, returning to Chicago after decades in London, in the sequel To Sir, with Love II. He was the Deputy Director of the FBI in The Jackal (1997), a remake of 1973’s The Day of the Jackal, trying to stop a crack assassin; and Poitier finished the decade with more telefilms, including his portrayal of imprisoned South African activist Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk (1997); The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (1999), a powerful drama playing a reclusive farmer/craftsman in a small Georgia town whose sheltered life is thrown into turmoil when a real estate developer attempts to have him evicted from his land; and The Last Brickmaker in America (2001), as an aging brickmaker troubled by the recent loss of his wife and the rapid decline of his family business whose passion for life is renewed by helping a troubled teenager.
Away from the cameras, Poitier found time to write several books, among them the 2000 New York Times best seller The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography and 2008’s Life Beyond Measure: Letters to my Great-Granddaughter, and he proudly received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Obama.
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