Sidney Poitier became the first black Academy Award winner for Best Actor in 1964, receiving the honor for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He arrived two and a half months prematurely while his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. As soon as he was strong enough, Poitier left the United States with his parents for the Bahamas. There Poitier spent his early years on his father's tomato farm on Cat Island. After the farm failed, the family moved to Nassau when Poitier was around the age of 10.
In Nassau, Poitier seemed to have a knack for getting himself into trouble. His father decided to send the teenager to the United States for his own good. Poitier went to live with a brother when he was in his mid-teens. In New York City, he first worked menial jobs, such as dishwashing, to support himself before he found his life's passion.
Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York City to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He eventually made his way to the ANT stage, filling in for Harry Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth.
In 1946, Poitier appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. For years, Poitier worked as a stage actor. He made his Hollywood debut in 1950 in No Way Out. He also appeared in Cry, the Beloved Country, a drama set in South Africa during the time of apatheid.
Cast mainly in supporting roles, Poitier had a career breakthrough with Blackboard Jungle (1955). He scored his first Academy Award nomination for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis. The following year, Poitier lit up the screen as a leading man in the musical Porgy and Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge. This film and his impressive turn in 1961's A Raisin in the Sun helped make a top star.
In 1964, Poitier won an Academy Award (best actor) for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963)–marking the first Oscar win by an African-American actor. This accolade helped make Poitier cinema's first Caribbean-American superstar, one who consciously defied racial stereotyping.
Handsome and unassuming, Poitier brought dignity to the portrayal of noble and intelligent characters. In 1967, he gave two very different yet equally strong performances. He played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama In the Heat of the Night, and in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, he played a black man engaged to a white woman in this groundbreaking look at interracial marriage. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play his fiancée's parents in the film.
While he helped break down the color barrier in film, Poitier found himself under fire for not being more politically radical in the late 1960s. He was especially upset by a harsh article about him in The New York Times and decided to step out of the spotlight for a time. Poitier lived in the Bahamas before making his return to Hollywood.
Poitier teamed up with friend Harry Belafonte for the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), which also marked Poitier's directorial debut. The pair appeared in the comedy Uptown Saturday Night with Bill Cosby in 1974. In 1980, Poitier directed the successful Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy.
After roughly 10-year absence from the big screen as an actor, Poitier returned with a pair of dramas in 1988–Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. Other notable later films include Sneakers (1992), and One Man, One Vote (1997).
On the small screen, Poitier earned accolades for portraying some of history's famous men. He played U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Separate but Equal in 1991 and South African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela and De Klerk in 1997.
Retired from acting, Poitier has turned his attention to sharing his many personal experiences. He penned The Measure of a Man, which was billed as a spiritual autobiography and published in 2000. That same year, Poitier picked up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for the audio version of the book. He shared his years of wisdom for future generations with 2008's Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.
Poitier has received numerous honors during his legendary career. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Poitier was also feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2011, earning the organization's Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Poitier was married to Juanita Hardy from 1950 to 1965, and together they had four children: Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier and Gina Poitier. He is currently married to Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus, and they have two children, Anika Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
Poitier was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, which entitles him to use the title “sir,” though he chooses not to do so. He has also served as non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
February 20, 1927
- Lying about his age, he joined the Army at age 16. He feigned insanity to obtain a discharge after nine months, and later admitted the ruse in his book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.
- A heavy Bahamian accent and limited reading ability cost him an acting job at Harlem's American Negro Theater. He overcame the accent by imitating radio announcers and improved his reading skills by studying newspapers.
- In 1964, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. He is the first African-American to win for Best Actor and only the second to ever win an Academy Award. Hattie McDaniel was the first; she won Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind.
- In 1983, nineteen-year-old David Hampton pretends to be Poitier's son and convinces wealthy New Yorkers to provide him with food, clothing, money and a place to stay. Hampton is charged with grand larceny when his lies are discovered. Six Degrees of Separation, a stage play in 1990 and a movie in 1993, is based on the story.
- In 2002, he received an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”
- In 2006, he received the Marian Anderson Award in recognition of his humanitarian and diplomatic work and the Cunard Britannia Award for Lifetime Contribution to International film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.