Sidney Poitier needs no introduction, as generations of upcoming actors have idolized him throughout his long-lived Hollywood career, willfully threading the path he solely carved over decades.
Bahamian accent, black skin, wooly hair, and zero formal education weren’t exactly the features of the ideal Hollywood star in the making in the forties. But that was all Sidney Poitier had to offer at a glance when he first auditioned for a movie role.
Unsurprisingly, the coordinators gave their verdict accordingly at first glance, ruling him out as someone more deserving of becoming a dishwasher than an actor.
But the resilient man proved them wrong. He returned to the scenes months later, more equipped to stand beside his white contenders, star in up to 53 movies, direct a handful, author three bestselling books, tip the Hollywood status quo, and snag the status of Hollywood’s ultimate man.
Who’s Sidney Poitier?
Sidney Poitier was an African-American actor and film director who achieved several firsts throughout his Hollywood career. The Bahamian entertainer is famously lauded as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best actor in 1964.
He also has a handful of other awards and accolades including the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, and the Grammy Awards.
In addition to his acting and directional ventures, the icon has held several diplomatic positions. He once served as Bahamas’ Ambassador to Japan for ten years, as well as the country’s Ambassador to UNESCO.
Today, he is best known for movies such as “No Way Out,” “The Defiant Ones,” “Lilies Of The Field,” “To Sir, With Love,” and “Sneakers,” among others.
Sidney Poitier’s Uncertain Beginnings
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, three months premature and weighing just about three pounds.
Convinced the newborn would not survive, his dad Reginald James Poitier went to a funeral home to make the necessary arrangements, even returning with a shoe box as a make-do coffin.
However, Poitier’s mom Evelyn refused to leave him for dead. She visited a local soothsayer who put her worst fears to rest by reassuring her the newborn would survive and was destined to walk with kings. The star’s parents spent the next three months nursing him to health.
He grew up healthy afterward, the last of seven children and an American by birth. At fifteen, his parents sent him off to Miami to live with his brother. There he encountered his first taste of racism and found it difficult to cope.
He left barely a year later. Unbeknownst to him, his experience in Miami was only the highlight of the world that awaited him as a black kid in America.
In Pursuit Of Happiness
As a teenager, Poitier already knew his happiness lay in acting. Hence, he moved to New York at sixteen, hoping to find career fulfillment while doing odd jobs in the meantime.
However, reality struck when he made his first attempt at landing an acting gig. The legend recalled seeing two job ads in a newspaper. One called for actors while the other called for dishwashers.
Seizing his chance, he went for the acting audition at the American Negro Theatre and flunked woefully while reading his lines as someone with only two years of formal education. The acting coach threw him out immediately, advising him to get a job as a dishwasher.
The legend decided at that moment to become an actor at all cost, just to prove to the acting coach that he could pull it off irrespective of his demeaning perception of him.
The Laborious Journey
Poitier took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant afterward, hitting a stroke of luck when he encountered an elderly waiter willing to coach him.
The waiter spent several nights teaching him how to read, observe punctuations and improve his grammar.
Following nights of hard work, an unhappy stint in the US army during World War II, and loads of odd jobs, he returned to the American Negro Theatre for another audition.
While his reading was so much better, the then-teenager auditioned by reading from manuscript instead of a drafted script. He got in anyway, but not as an actor, but as a janitor working hours in exchange for free acting lessons.
During that time, he also worked tirelessly to soften his Bahamian accent and groom himself into the ideal figure of a superstar. His efforts paid off and months later, he landed a role in a stage play, eventually making it to the big screen.
Poitier’s Big Break
After performing in several stage plays, Poitier finally landed his first Hollywood role as Dr. Luther Brooks in “No Way Out.”
His flawless rendition of the African-American doctor confronted with a racist and bigot patient paved the way for more starring roles.
Eventually, Poitier made his big break, starring as teenager Gregory Miller in “Blackboard Jungle,” plunging him into fame.
He remained in the movie scenes in the years that followed, with 1967 easily marking his busiest year. In what many describe as Poitier’s blockbuster year, the legend starred in the three highest-grossing films: “In The Heat Of The night,” “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” and “To Sir, with Love.”
The triple conquest made Poitier into the most sought-after actor, ultimately increasing his paycheck, so much that many production companies feared they could not afford him.
That led to the innovation of a special contracted paying system now widely adopted in the entertainment industry.
Sidney Poitier went on to star in more movies, tried his hands at directing, and mentored upcoming creatives, all the while striving to set an example of the ideal black man with his movie roles and impeccable character.
In 2001, he retired from acting, leaving the world with one final hit with his performance in the television film, “The Last Brickmaker In America.”
Poitier’s Guiding Principles
Notably, Poitier’s ability to land leading roles in movies, a feat no black actor ever attained before him contributed to making him a legend.
Not only was the world not used to seeing a black man performing as the star of the production, but black audiences also got to see themselves in a different light, even daring to dream, thanks to him.
Remarkably, Poitier was only able to make such an impact because he remained true to himself and his decision to only accept roles that edified him and the black race.
At the onset of his career, he made a conscious decision to never accept roles that defied his values or portrayed his race in a negative light. That decision earned him criticism for being type-casted as a symbol of the “noble black man.” Many even tagged him as a sellout.
But he didn’t mind. The star knew all along his goals lay ahead, targeted towards a whole generation of black entertainers yet to be born.
How Did Sidney Poitier Change The World?
Throughout his career, Poitier achieved several major firsts, breaking world records those before him could only dream of.
He became the first black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1955 and the first African-American to win the Award years later for his role in “Lilies Of The Field.”
He scaled another barrier in the 1965 film, “A Patch Of Blue,” becoming a participant in cinema’s first inter-racial kiss.
These and many other feats proved to African-Americans and the rest of the world that black actors could snag major roles that were not negligible.
In addition to his numerous wins for his movie performances, Poitier has snagged some honorary titles.
In 2009, President Barack Obama bestowed on him the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his works in the industry, artistic excellence, and contribution to America’s progress and unity.
Decades earlier, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the knighthood on him, also in recognition of his artistic and diplomatic excellence.
Sidney Poitier’s Personal Life
Poitier also kept busy in his personal life. The “Elder” star tied the knot twice, first to Juanita Hardy in 1950. The duo went their separate ways for good after fifteen years and four kids together.
In 1976, he married Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus. Sidney Poitier and his second wife had two kids together and remained married until the actor’s death in 2022.
How Did Sidney Poitier Die?
Sidney Poitier passed away on January 6, 2022, in his Los Angeles home. He was 94.
Following his demise, several celebrities took to various platforms to pay him tribute. Among them were several black men and women who would forever be indebted to the legend for opening previously-shut doors for them in the world of showbiz.