Sidney Poitier

Last updated
Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier 1968.jpg
Poitier in 1968
Bahamian ambassador to Japan
In office
1997–2007 [1]
Personal details
Born (1927-02-20) February 20, 1927 (age 94)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
CitizenshipBahamian, American
    Juanita Hardy
    (m. 1950;div. 1965)
Domestic partner Diahann Carroll (1959-1968)
Children6, including Sydney Tamiia Poitier
  • Actor
  • director
  • ambassador

Sidney L. Poitier KBE ( /ˈpwɑːti/ ; born February 20, 1927) is a Bahamian-American retired actor, film director, activist, and ambassador. In 1964, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor becoming the first black male and Bahamian actor to win the award. [2] Upon the death of Kirk Douglas in 2020, Poitier became one of the last surviving major stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, and the oldest living and earliest surviving Best Actor Oscar-winner. From 1997 to 2007, Poitier served as Bahamian Ambassador to Japan. [3]


His entire family lived in the Bahamas, then still a British colony, but Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while they were visiting for the weekend, which automatically granted him American citizenship. He grew up in the Bahamas, but moved back to Miami aged 15, and to New York when he was 16. He joined the North American Negro Theatre, landing his breakthrough film role as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle (1955).

In 1958, Poitier starred with Tony Curtis as chained-together escaped convicts in The Defiant Ones , which received nine Academy Award nominations. Both actors received a nomination for Best Actor, with Poitier's being the first for a black actor, as well as a nomination for a BAFTA, which Poitier won. In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor [4] [lower-alpha 1] for Lilies of the Field (1963) playing a handyman helping a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel. [5] Poitier also received acclaim for Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and A Patch of Blue (1965). He continued to break ground in three successful 1967 films which dealt with issues of race and race relations: To Sir, with Love ; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner , and In the Heat of the Night . He was the top box-office star of the year. [6] He received Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nominations for his performance in the latter film. Poitier continued acting in film and television as well as directing various comedy films including Stir Crazy (1980) starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, among other films. 1992 he starred in Sneakers. Poitier was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. [7] [8] [9] [10] In 1995, Poitier received the Kennedy Center Honor. In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor. [11] In 2016, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. [10] In 1999, Poitier was ranked 22nd among the male actors on the "100 Years...100 Stars" list by the American Film Institute. He is one of only two living actors on the list, the other being Sophia Loren. Poitier is also the recipient of a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. [12] In 1982, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and in 2000, he received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. [13] [14] In 2002, Poitier was chosen to receive an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his "remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being." [15]

Poitier's list of award nominations includes 2 Academy Award nominations, 10 Golden Globes nominations, 2 Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, 6 BAFTA nominations, 8 Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination.

Early life

Sidney L. Poitier was the youngest of seven children, [16] born to Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island. The family would travel to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald also worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas. [17] Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while his parents were visiting. His birth was two months premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained in Miami for three months to nurse him to health. [18] Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British Crown colony. Owing to his unplanned birth in the United States, he was automatically entitled to American citizenship. [18]

Poitier's uncle believed that the Poitier ancestors on his father's side had migrated from Haiti, [19] and were probably among the runaway slaves who established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He noted that Poitier is a French name, and that there were no white Poitiers from the Bahamas. [20] However, there had been a white Poitier on Cat Island; the name came from planter Charles Leonard Poitier, who had immigrated from Jamaica in the early 1800s. In 1834, his wife's estate on Cat Island had 86 slaves, who kept the name Poitier, a name that had been introduced into the Anglosphere since the Norman conquest in the 11th century. [21]

Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was 10, when they moved to Nassau. There he was exposed to the modern world, where he saw his first automobile, first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and motion pictures. [22] [23] He was raised Catholic [24] but later became an agnostic [25] with views closer to deism. [26]

At age 15, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother's large family. At 16, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. [27] A waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper. [28] During World War II, in November 1943, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to a Veteran's Administration hospital in Northport, New York, and was trained to work with psychiatric patients. Poitier became upset with how the hospital treated its patients, and feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge. Poitier confessed to a psychiatrist that he was faking his condition, but the doctor was sympathetic and granted his discharge under Section VIII of Army regulation 615-360 in December 1944. [29]

After leaving the Army, he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater. [30] [31]


Early work

A scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun. From left: Louis Gossett Jr. as George Murchison, Ruby Dee as Ruth Younger and Poitier as Walter Younger. A Raisin in the Sun 1959 2.JPG
A scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun . From left: Louis Gossett Jr. as George Murchison, Ruby Dee as Ruth Younger and Poitier as Walter Younger.

Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of black actors at the time, Poitier's tone deafness made him unable to sing. [32] Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata , for which, though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta. [33]


By late 1949, Poitier had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot (played by Richard Widmark), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most African-American actors of the time were offered. In 1951, he traveled to South Africa with the African-American actor Canada Lee to star in the film version of Cry, the Beloved Country. [34] Poitier's breakout role was as Gregory W. Miller, a member of an incorrigible high-school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955). [35]

Poitier enjoyed working for director William Wellman on Good-bye, My Lady (1956). “Wellman was a big name. He’d directed the famous Roxie Hart (1942) with Ginger Rogers and Magic Town (1947) with James Stewart. What Poitier remembers indelibly is the wonderful humanity in this talented director. Wellman had a sensitivity that Poitier thought was profound, which Wellman felt he needed to hide.” [36] Poitier later praised Wellman for inspiring his thoughtful approach to directing when he found himself taking the helm from Joseph Sargent on Buck and the Preacher in 1971.

In 1958 he starred alongside Tony Curtis in director Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones . Poitier and Curtis play prisoners chained-together who escape custody when the truck transporting them crashes and to avoid re-capture they must work cooperatively despite their mutual dislike. The film was a critical and commercial success with the performances of both Poitier and Curtis being praised. [37] [38] The film landed eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor nominations for both stars, making Poitier the first black male actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award as best actor. Both actors received the same nomination at the Golden Globes, but probably due to vote splitting between the two of them, neither won either award. Poitier did win the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Foreign Actor and the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear Award.


Poitier (left) at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston Poitier Belafonte Heston Civil Rights March 1963.jpg
Poitier (left) at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston

He acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun alongside Ruby Dee on the Broadway stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards. The play introduced details of Black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, while director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn. [39] The play was a groundbreaking piece of American theatre with Frank Rich, critic from The New York Times writing in 1983, that A Raisin in the Sun "changed American theater forever". [40] That same year Poitier would star in the film adaptation of Porgy and Bess (1959) alongside Dorthy Dandridge. For his performance Poitier received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

In 1961, Poitier starred in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun where he received another Golden Globe Award nomination. Also in 1961, Poitier starred in Paris Blues alongside Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Louis Armstrong, and Diahann Carroll. The film dealt with American racism of the time contrasted with Paris's open acceptance of black people. In 1963 he starred in Lilies of the Field a film about an African American itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns, who believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel. He was also the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field in 1963). (James Baskett was the first African-American male to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus in the Walt Disney production of Song of the South in 1948, while Hattie McDaniel predated them both, winning as Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1939's Gone with the Wind , making her the first black person to be nominated for and receive an Oscar). His satisfaction at this honor was undermined by his concerns that this award was more of the industry congratulating itself for having him as a token and it would inhibit him from asking for more substantive considerations afterward. [41] Poitier worked relatively little over the following year; he remained the only major actor of African descent and the roles offered were predominantly typecast as a soft-spoken appeaser. [42]

In 1964, Poitier recorded an album with the composer Fred Katz called Poitier Meets Plato , in which Poitier recites passages from Plato's writings. [43] He also gave memorable performances in the Cold War drama The Bedford Incident (1965) with Donald Sutherland and Martin Balsam, the Biblical epic film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) alongside Charlton Heston and Max Von Sydow and A Patch of Blue (1965) co-starring Elizabeth Hartman and Shelley Winters.

In 1967, he was the most successful draw at the box office, the commercial peak of his career, with three popular films, To Sir, with Love , In the Heat of the Night , and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner . In To Sir, with Love, Poitier plays a teacher at a secondary school in the East End of London. The film deals with social and racial issues in the inner city school. The film was met with mixed response however Poitier was praised for his performance with the critic from Time writing, "Even the weak moments are saved by Poitier, who invests his role with a subtle warmth."

In Norman Jewison's mystery drama In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Philadelphia who investigates a murder in the deep south in Mississippi alongside a cop with racial prejudices played by Rod Steiger. The film was a critical success with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling it "the most powerful film I have seen in a long time." [44] Roger Ebert placed it at number ten on his top ten list of 1967 films. [45] [46] Art Murphy of Variety felt that the excellent Poitier and outstanding Steiger performances overcame noteworthy flaws, including an uneven script. [47] Poitier received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nomination for his performance.

In Stanley Kramer's social drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poitier played a man in a relationship with a white woman played by Katharine Houghton. The film revolves around her bringing him to meet with her parents played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The film was one of the rare films at the time to depict an interracial marriage in a positive light, as interracial marriage historically had been illegal in most states of the United States. It was still illegal in 17 states—mostly Southern states—until June 12, 1967, six months before the film was released. The film was a critical and financial success. In his film review, Roger Ebert described Poitier's character as "a noble, rich, intelligent, handsome, ethical medical expert" and that the film "is a magnificent piece of entertainment. It will make you laugh and may even make you cry." [48] To win his role as Dr. Prentice in the film, Poitier had to audition for Tracy and Hepburn at two separate dinner parties. [49]

Poitier began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized African-American characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. Poitier was aware of this pattern himself, but was conflicted on the matter. He wanted more varied roles; but he also felt obliged to set an example with his characters, by challenging old stereotypes, as he was the only major actor of African descent being cast in leading roles in the American film industry at the time. For instance, in 1966, he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC television production of Othello with that spirit in mind. [50] Despite this, many of the films in which Poitier starred during the 1960s would later be cited as social thrillers by both filmmakers and critics. [51] [52] [53] [54]

Later work

In the Heat of the Night featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania detective whose subsequent career was the subject of two sequels: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).

Poitier has directed several films, the most successful being the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy , which for many years was the highest-grossing film directed by a person of African descent. [55] His feature film directorial debut, in 1972, was the Western Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced the original director, Joseph Sargent. The following year, Poitier also directed and starred in the romance drama A Warm December . The trio of Poitier, Cosby, and Belafonte reunited, with Poitier again directing, in Uptown Saturday Night . He directed Cosby in Let's Do It Again , A Piece of the Action , and Ghost Dad . Poitier directed Fast Forward in 1985. In 1992 he starred in "Sneakers" with Robert Redford and Dan Akroyd.

In 2002, Poitier received the 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. Later in the ceremony, Denzel Washington won the award for Best Actor for his performance in Training Day , becoming the second black actor to win the award. In his victory speech, Washington saluted Poitier by saying "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir." [56]

With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, he became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor. [57] On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards to present the Best Director Award. He was given a standing ovation. Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating "we are in your debt". Poitier gave a brief acceptance speech, telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to warm applause.


From 1995 to 2003, Poitier served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company. [58]

Diplomatic service

In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held until 2007. From 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO. [59]

Personal life

Sidney Poitier's house in Stuyvesant, New York Sidney Poitier's house.jpg
Sidney Poitier's house in Stuyvesant, New York

Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. They raised their family in Stuyvesant, New York, in a house on the Hudson River. [60] In 1959, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll. [61] He has been married to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian former actress, since January 23, 1976. He has four daughters with his first wife (Beverly, [62] [63] Pamela, [64] Sherri, [65] and Gina [66] ) and two with his second (Anika [67] and Sydney Tamiia [68] ).

In addition to his six daughters, Poitier has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. [69]

When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, Poitier's family had 23 missing relatives. [70]


Honors and awards

Works about Poitier


Sidney Poitier Black and White explores Poitier's years from 1967-1972 - immediately before he directed Buck and the Preacher - revealing the conflict within as he replaced a white man as director of a ground-breaking film with African-Americans as the protagonists of the film:


Poitier has written three autobiographical books:

Poitier is also the subject of the biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004) by historian Aram Goudsouzian. [71]

Poitier wrote the novel Montaro Caine, released in May 2013.

Films about Poitier

See also


  1. James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for Song of the South (1946); it was not competitive.

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  25. Poitier, Sidney (2009). Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter. HarperCollins. p. 84. ISBN   978-0-06-149620-2. The question of God, the existence or nonexistence, is a perennial question, because we don't know. Is the universe the result of God, or was the universe always there?
  26. Sidney Poitier (2009). Life Beyond Measure . HarperCollins. pp.  85–86. ISBN   978-0-06-173725-1. I don't see a God who is concerned with the daily operation of the universe. In fact, the universe may be no more than a grain of sand compared with all the other universes.... It is not a God for one culture, or one religion, or one planet.
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