Poitier’s Oscar for best actor, as a traveling handyman who helped fix an Arizona nunnery in “Lilies of the Field” (1963), made him a respected figure in Hollywood and beyond.
James Earl Jones, Robert Townsend, and Quincy Jones were among those who cited him as inspiration. Poitier was the first African-American artist to win the award for a leading role.
“Since you appeared on our screens more than 60 years ago, your talent and integrity have broken barriers and inspired audiences everywhere,” said actress Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards in March 2014, when she and Poitier presented the trophy for the best director.
Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier embodied dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer. It also opened the doors to a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to her family and legion of fans. pic.twitter.com/zkYKFSxfKA
– Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 7, 2022
Poitier was first acclaimed chained to Tony Curtis as a chained fugitive in “The Defiant Ones” (1958). Curtis insisted that Poitier receive the same billing. Both were nominated for an Oscar for best actor, splitting the votes, and David Niven took the award for “Separate Tables.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) features Poitier and Katharine Houghton as an interracial couple trying to persuade their reluctant parents to bless their plans to marry. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and Katharine Hepburn, playing Houghton’s mother, won the Oscar for best actress.
Two other films helped make 1967 an eventful year for Poitier.
He played a teacher dealing with unruly students in the British production “To Sir, With Love.” As a Philadelphia detective on a murder case in the Deep South in “In the Heat of the Night,” he uttered the phrase “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs,” which became the title of a sequel.
Stanley Kramer, who directed Poitier in “The Defiant Ones” and produced “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” said Poitier is “the only actor I’ve worked with who has the range of Marlon Brando, from pathos to great. can”.
Poitier’s acting career waned in the 1970s. Fewer roles were presented to him after a 1967 New York Times article asked, “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so much?”
Using a racial epithet, Clifford Mason, an African-American playwright, accused Poitier of agreeing to be a symbolic black face that Hollywood could exploit.
“He remains unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic and one-dimensional hero,” Mason wrote.
The article was “the most devastating and unfair piece of journalism I have ever seen,” Poitier said in his 1980 autobiography, “This Life.”
He said that the film industry was to blame “for the symbolism of my presence.”
“Hollywood had not kept a secret that it was not interested in providing blacks with a variety of positive images,” he said.
In 1995, the Kennedy Center in Washington honored Poitier as “the first black man to become a hero to the black and white public” and for helping to change “stubborn racial attitudes that have persisted in this country for centuries.”
Growing tomatoes in the Bahamas
The son of tomato growers in the Bahamas, Poitier was born prematurely in Miami on February 20, 1927. His parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, had come to Florida to sell tomatoes grown on their farm. Poitier returned to the Bahamas with his parents a few months later.
After storms from the Caribbean washed away their crops, the family moved to Nassau about 10 years later. Poitier said it was the first time he had seen cars or electricity and ate ice cream.
On his own account, in his teens he fell into a misdemeanor and was arrested for robbery. After a friend was sent to a reformatory for stealing a bicycle, Poitier’s parents sent him at 15 to Miami to live with an older brother.
Coming from a black rural background, Florida came as “a shock,” he said in a 2008 interview. “I was introduced to a system that had no room for me.”
“There was racism, there was a separation of people on grounds of color,” he said. “I discovered in my first days there that I couldn’t go to certain places.”
After clashes with white cops, he took a job near Atlanta and within six weeks won a bus ticket to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and lived in Harlem.
At 16, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was sent to a medical unit on Long Island, New York, and was discharged after a year for unfit for duty.
He responded to an advertisement for actors in 1945 from the American Negro Theater. His audition was a disaster. The theater’s co-director, Frederick O’Neal, said he couldn’t read or pronounce his lines and kicked him out, telling him to look for work as a dishwasher.
Poitier got a radio and for months he imitated the announcers and other people he listened to. He took a job in a restaurant, as a dishwasher, where he said that an old Jewish waiter, seeing him struggle with a newspaper, helped him learn to read.
Substitute for Belafonte
He returned for a second audition at the American Negro Theater and was accepted as an apprentice, after he offered to work as a janitor.
As a stand-in for Harry Belafonte, he was rehearsing a play the day a Broadway director walked in. He won Poitier a Broadway role in an all-black version of the classic Greek drama “Lysistrata.”
Poitier earned good notices and joined a touring company for the all-black version of “Anna Lucasta.” Then came a gloomy period without a job, followed by two conflicting offers: one for a Broadway play and the other, a movie contract that pays seven times as much money. His agent insisted that he accept the latter: a role as a doctor in “No Way Out” (1950).
Poitier said he realized the “sorry” conditions blacks face in South Africa when he appeared in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951), which was filmed there.
Among other things, he and other African-American actors were denied hotel rooms and had to find housing in a private home.
As compensation for co-starring in “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, Poitier agreed to play the lead role in “Porgy and Bess” (1959) at the insistence of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn.
Days after filming for the George Gershwin musical began, “I realized he was unusually interested” in his co-star Diahann Carroll, he later wrote. “In the middle of the picture, we fell in love.”
When Poitier told his wife, the former Juanita Hardy, with whom he had four daughters, she was so distraught that she did not seek a separation.
Poitier returned to the stage in 1959, starring in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play about the dashed hopes of a black family in Chicago. He earned a Tony nomination and reprized the role in the 1961 film.
Martin Luther King Jr, a ‘soul brother’
He joined his friend Belafonte in the 1963 march on Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The civil rights leader called Poitier a “soul brother” for having supported him throughout the years.
After his Oscar victory, announced by Anne Bancroft during the Academy Awards on April 13, 1964, Poitier said he was so shocked that he “jumped six feet from my seat,” reported the New York Times.
Even in the immediate glow of his victory, Poitier said he did not believe his Oscar would be “some kind of magic wand that would remove restrictions on job opportunities for black actors,” the Times said.
He was the second Black artist to win an Academy Award; Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in “Gone with the Wind,” released in 1939.
He directed such films as “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he and Belafonte starred, and “Stir Crazy,” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
Poitier and his wife divorced in 1965, after his affair with Carroll ended. In 1976 he married Joanna Shimkus, a former model and actress, with whom he had two daughters.