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Happy Birthday, Sidney Poitier, Pioneering African-American Actor

February 20, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Sidney Poitier was the child of tomato farmers in the Bahamas. He moved to New York as a teenager and worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater. The 1949 film “No Way Out” launched his groundbreaking cinematic career. Poitier was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for a lead role. Throughout his life, Poitier has worked to bridge racial gaps both on and offscreen. 

Sidney Poitier's Early Days

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Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. His parents were natives of Cat Island in the Bahamas and were visiting the United States when their son was born.

Poitier spent his childhood on his father’s tomato farm with six older siblings. When the United States put an embargo on tomatoes from the region, Mr. Poitier moved the family to Nassau.

By the age of 13, Poitier worked full-time to help support the family. Mr. Poitier, concerned about the influence of street life on his young son, sent young Sidney to Miami to live with his older brother. Shortly thereafter, the boy made his way to New York.

To survive, Poitier took menial jobs and temporarily slept in a bus terminal toilet. When winter struck, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army, hoping for a ticket away from Manhattan’s cold climate.

After a brief period of service, Poitier returned to Manhattan and took a job as a dishwasher. In the meantime, he discovered an ad calling for actors and auditioned for the American Negro Theatre. Barely able to read, Poitier was tremendously unprepared and humiliated off the stage. But he was determined: Six months later he returned to the same stage and got a role.

Poitier’s first part was as an understudy in “Days of Our Youth. ” The role led to 10 more productions with the company, including a national tour of “Anna Lucasta” in 1944. Five years later, Poitier’s career took off when he made his first film, “No Way Out.” He was 22 years old. 

Notable Accomplishments

Poitier’s performance in his first film earned him considerable acclaim and recognition. He continued to get parts that were far better than most of the roles offered to black actors at the time, including “Cry, the Beloved Country,” and “Blackboard Jungle.” Nevertheless, he was still in the shadows of his white colleagues.

After several years, Poitier was offered a part that would change the trajectory of his career—and permanently alter the role of black actors. Poitier’s performance in “The Defiant Ones” (1958) earned the actor his first Academy Award nomination. The story about two convicts (one black, one white) who find themselves chained together is a tale of racial reconciliation—a theme that would characterize the projects Poitier accepted throughout his career.

Five years later, Poitier was nominated again and won the Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” (1963). He was the first black actor to win for a leading role. After receiving an Academy Award, Poitier found himself in a position to pick his own parts. The films he chose, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) and “To Sir, With Love” (1967), dealt directly with the topic of breaking down racial and social barriers.

In addition to making widely recognized and sympathetic black characters, Poitier transformed the public’s perception of the entertainment industry. He was among the first blacks to appear in mixed race films, let alone star in them: In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most black actors were relegated to projects with strictly African-American casts.

By the 1970s, after starring in other popular films including "For Love of Ivy," "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Organization," Poitier felt fulfilled by his acting career and decided to try directing. His directing credits include "Buck and the Preacher," “A Piece of the Action,” "Uptown Saturday Night” and the 1980 comedy, “Stir Crazy.”

The Rest of the Story

In 2000 Poitier published “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.” That same year he was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. 

A year later, Poitier was awarded a Grammy for best spoken-word album for his reading of the autobiography. Also in 2001, he was presented with the NAACP's Hall of Fame Award. In 2002, Poitier was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his lifetime of work.

Poitier has been honored outside the entertainment community as well. He currently serves as the Bahamas’ Ambassador to Japan and as the Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Poitier also serves on the jury for The Purpose Prize

In a 2008 interview with Tavis Smiley, Poitier explained his responsibility as a black actor and public figure. “I represent a community, and the community asks of me the kind of representation that they've never had,” Poitier said. “So I tried my best to step up to it…it was my obligation at least to try.”
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