Sidney Poitier

Last updated

1997–2007

If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional . . . But I'll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game. Not when there is only one Negro actor working in films with any degree of consistency . . .

Sidney Poitier (1967) [56]

In 1961, Poitier starred in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun for which he received another Golden Globe Award nomination. [57] Also in 1961, Poitier starred in Paris Blues alongside Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Louis Armstrong, and Diahann Carroll. [58] The film dealt with the American racism of the time by contrasting it with Paris's open acceptance of Black people. [58] In 1963 he starred in Lilies of the Field . [59] For this role, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor and became the first Black male to win the award. [60] 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. [61] 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. [62]

In 1964, Poitier recorded an album with the composer Fred Katz called Poitier Meets Plato , in which Poitier recites passages from Plato's writings. [63] He also performed in the Cold War drama The Bedford Incident (1965) alongside the film's producer Richard Widmark, 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. [64] [65] [66]

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 , and In the Heat of the Night , and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner . [67] Although these three films seemingly shared little similarity, they all, albeit not overtly, dealt with the black and white divide. [68]

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." [69]

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." [70] Roger Ebert placed it at number ten on his top ten list of 1967 films. [71] [72] Art Murphy of Variety felt that the excellent Poitier and outstanding Steiger performances overcame noteworthy flaws, including an uneven script. [73] Poitier received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nomination for his performance. [52]

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." [74] To win his role as Dr. Prentice in the film, Poitier had to audition for Tracy and Hepburn at two separate dinner parties. [75]

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. [76] 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. [77] [78] [79] [80]

1970s

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). [81]

In 1972 he made his feature film directorial debut, the Western Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. [82] Poitier replaced the original director, Joseph Sargent. [83] The following year he directed his second feature, the romantic drama A Warm December . [84] Poitier also starred in the film alongside Esther Anderson.

During the 1970s, Poitier directed several financially successful comedy films, including three in which he also starred: Uptown Saturday Night (1974) with Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte; and Let's Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977), both with Cosby. [85] His most successful comedy was Stir Crazy (1980), starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, which for many years was the highest-grossing film directed by a person of African descent. [86]

Later career

Poitier in 2000 Sidney Poitier.jpg
Poitier in 2000

In 1985, he directed Fast Forward [87] and, in 1990, he reunited with Cosby directing him in the family comedy Ghost Dad . [88]

In 1988, he starred in Shoot to Kill with Tom Berenger. [89] In 1992, he starred in Sneakers with Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd. [90] In 1997, he co-starred in The Jackal with Richard Gere and Bruce Willis. [91] In the 1990s, he starred in several well received television movies and miniseries such as Separate but Equal (1991), To Sir, with Love II (1996), Mandela and de Klerk (1997), and The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (1999). [91] [92] He received Emmy nominations for his work in Separate but Equal and Mandela and de Klerk, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for the former. [93] He won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album in 2001. [94]

In 2002, Poitier received the 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. [91] 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. [95] 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." [96]

With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, Poitier became the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor. [97] On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards to present the Best Director Award. [98] He was given a standing ovation and Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating: "We are in your debt." [98] Poitier gave a brief speech, telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to warm applause. [99] In 2021, the academy dedicated the lobby of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles as the "Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby" in his honor. [100]

Board and diplomatic service

From 1995 to 2003, Poitier served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company. [101]

In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held until 2007. [8] [102] From 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO. [103]

Personal life

Poitier's house in Stuyvesant, New York, 2019 Sidney Poitier's house.jpg
Poitier's house in Stuyvesant, New York, 2019

Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. Though Poitier became a resident of Mount Vernon in Westchester County, New York in 1956, [104] they raised their family in Stuyvesant, New York, in a house on the Hudson River. [105] In 1959, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll. [106] He married Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian actress who starred with Poitier in The Lost Man in 1969, on January 23, 1976, and they remained married until his death. He had four daughters with his first wife (Beverly, [107] [108] Pamela, [109] Sherri, [110] and Gina [111] ) and two with his second (Anika [112] and Sydney Tamiia [113] ). In addition to his six daughters, Poitier had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. [114] When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, Poitier's family had 23 missing relatives. [115]

Death

On January 6, 2022, Poitier died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 94. [116] [117] [118] [119] His death was confirmed by Fred Mitchell, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas. [120] According to a copy of his death certificate obtained by TMZ, the cause of death was cardiopulmonary failure, with Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer listed as underlying causes. [116]

Upon Poitier's death, many released statements honoring him, including President Joe Biden, who wrote in part: "With unflinching grandeur and poise – his singular warmth, depth, and stature on-screen – Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America saw itself." Former president Barack Obama paid tribute to Poitier, calling him "a singular talent who epitomized dignity and grace". Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton also released statements. [121]

Many in the entertainment industry also paid tribute to Poitier, including Martin Scorsese who wrote, "For years, the spotlight was on Sidney Poitier. He had a vocal precision and physical power and grace that at moments seemed almost supernatural." [122] Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong'o, Halle Berry, Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, Octavia Spencer, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Esposito, Quincy Jones, Michael Eisner, Ron Howard and others also paid tribute. [123] [124] [125] Broadway paid tribute when its theaters dimmed their lights on January 19, 2022, at 7:45 pm ET. [126]

The Ebertfest film festival announced it would be dedicating their 2022 event to the memory of Poitier and Gilbert Gottfried. [127]

Filmography

Awards and honors

Poitier being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in August 2009 Sidney Poitier PMF.jpg
Poitier being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in August 2009

Poitier became the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963). [128] He also received a Grammy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, and a British Academy Film Award. [94] [129] [57] He received numerous honoraries during his lifetime including the Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime achievement in film in 2001. [91] In 1992, Poitier received the AFI Life Achievement Award. [130] In 1994, Poitier received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. [131] In 1981, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and in 2016 he received the BAFTA Fellowship. [132] [133]

In 1995, he received the Kennedy Center Honor and in 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. [134] [135] He was also named an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. [136] In 1986, he gave the Commencement Address to the University of Miami graduating class and was given the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. [137]

Legacy

Poitier c. 2013 Sidney Poitier-NPS.jpg
Poitier c.2013

Poitier was described as an icon in his obituary by USA Today . [138] Laura Jacobs for Vanity Fair hailed Poitier as the "Martin Luther King Jr. of the movies". [139] Several film historians and journalists have called him Hollywood's first African-American film star. [139] [140] [141] The New York Times noted after his death, that Poitier was instrumental for the diversity of Hollywood and "paved the way for Black actors in film". [140] The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "Poitier was the first actor to star in mainstream Hollywood movies that depicted a Black man in a non-stereotypical fashion, and his influence, especially during the 1950s and '60s as role model and image-maker, was immeasurable." [142]

While presenting Poitier the Honorary Academy Award in 2002, Denzel Washington said of Poitier: "Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn't cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture". [138] He was an influential African-American actor and highly viewed as such as he became the first Black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award and the first Black male actor to win the award. [138] [125] He was also described as the "sole representative" of African-Americans in mainstream cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, especially during the height of the American Civil Rights movement. [143] [140] The New York Times noted that Poitier was "an ambassador to white America and a benign emblem of Black power". [144] For his role in diversifying Hollywood and for his role in paving the way for further Black actors, he was described as one of "the most important figures of 20th century Hollywood". [145]

Former president of the United States Barack Obama noted that Poitier had "[advanced] the nation's dialogue on race and respect" and "opened doors for a generation of actors". [146]

Sidney , a documentary film about Poitier's life and legacy by Reginald Hudlin, was released on September 23, 2022. [147]

Works about Poitier

Autobiographies Poitier wrote three autobiographical books:

Biographies

Other works

Poitier wrote the novel Montaro Caine (2013). [153]

Documentaries

See also

Notes

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

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Sidney Poitier

KBE
Sidney Poitier 1968.jpg
Poitier in 1968
Born(1927-02-20)February 20, 1927
Miami, Florida, U.S.
DiedJanuary 6, 2022(2022-01-06) (aged 94)
Nationality
  • American
  • Bahamian
Occupation
  • Actor
  • film director
  • diplomat
Years active1946–2009
Works Full list
Spouses
    Juanita Hardy
    (m. 1950;div. 1965)
Children6, including Sydney Tamiia
Awards Full list
Ambassador of the Bahamas Ambassador to Japan