Bahamian tomato farmers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier were in Miami to sell their crop when Sidney Poitier was born two months prematurely on 20 February 1927. He spent his first three months in a Florida hospital while he gained his strength, but he grew up on Cat Island, which was so remote that he didn't know anything about electricity, automobiles or moving pictures until the family relocated to Nassau, the capital of the Caribbean archipelago of the Bahamas, when he was 10 years old. While Reginald worked as a taxi driver, Evelyn raised her seven sons in the Catholic faith.
When he was 15, Sidney returned to his birthplace to stay with one of his brothers. As an American citizen, he was able to travel freely. But he was poor and modestly educated and was taken aback when he experienced racial prejudice for the first time. His mother had warned him to 'charm them into neutral', and he followed her advice when he moved to New York in 1943 and improved his reading skills with the help of a waiter at the restaurant where he was washing dishes. Lying about his age after being shot in the leg during a race riot, Poitier volunteered for the US Army. However, he was disturbed by the rigidity and racism he encountered in the ranks and faked insanity in a bid to secure a discharge. Ultimately, he remained in uniform for a year and 11 days before returning to Harlem to embark upon his acting career.
Starting Out on Stage
Despite his good looks and dignified demeanour, Poitier was painfully shy and struggled to impress when he responded to a want ad for new actors at the American Negro Theatre. Indeed, co-founder Frederick O'Neal was so appalled by his sing-song Bahamian accent that he refused to let him perform and Poitier spent months parroting radio broadcasts in the restaurant kitchen in order to perfect an American brogue. When he re-applied to the ANT, O'Neal agreed to let him take acting lessons in return for doing chores backstage and Poitier found himself understudying Harry Belafonte in Frank Gabrielson's play, Days of Our Youth.
Much to his surprise, he was cast in a small role in a Broadway production of Aristophanes's comedy, Lysistrata, which folded after four days. However, he bounced back at ANT with a prominent part in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's screwball classic, You Can't Take It With You, which had earned Frank Capra an Oscar brace when he filmed it in 1938. However, Poitier's fortunes changed when he joined the company of a touring production of Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta and he made his first appearances on screen, as an unbilled extra in Arthur H. Leonard's Sepia Cinderella (1947) and as himself in the Army Signals Corps documentary, From Whence Cometh My Help (1949).
Making an Immediate Impression
In later life, Poitier revealed that he took roles that would reflect well on his father and he made a wise choice when he agreed to play Luther Brooks in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950), as he drew plaudits for his performance as a doctor who is targeted by bigot Richard Widmark after his brother dies in Poitier's care. He endured more prejudice on teaming with Canada Lee to play clergymen enduring abuse in apartheid Johannesburg in Zoltan Korda's adaptation of Alan Paton's bestselling novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).
But, while Poitier was determined to counter the image presented by such black predecessors as Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Mantan Moreland and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Hollywood wasn't ready for a black superstar at a time when many exhibitors in the Deep South still insisted on cutting scenes involving African-American actors that weren't key to the plot. Consequently, Poitier found himself in the ranks as a corporal with General Patton's forces in Budd Boetticher's war movie, The Red Ball Express (1952), and as a showboating basketball player alongside the legendary Harlem Globetrotters in Go, Man, Go! (1954), which was marked the American directorial debut of ten-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe.
But it was a rare moment of delinquency that brought Poitier back to the attention of the critics, as he joined Vic Morrow among the tough inner-city students giving new teacher Glenn Ford a hard time in Richard Brooks's take on Evan Hunter's acclaimed novel, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Once again, however, a shortage of worthwhile roles for black actors hampered Poitier's progression and he had to make do with supporting parts in Good-bye My Lady (1956), William Wellman's story about a Basenji dog in the Mississippi backwoods; Richard Brooks's Mau Mau uprising saga, Something of Value; and Raoul Walsh's pre-Civil War plantation melodrama, Band of Angels (both 1957).
Poitier played another African resistance leader opposite Eartha Kitt in Michael Audley's The Mark of the Hawk (1957) either side of two pairings with John Cassavetes. Martin Ritt's Edge of the City (1957) saw the BAFTA-nominated Poitier reprise a role he had played in Robert Alan Authur's 1955 teleplay, Man Is Ten Feet Tall, as a stevedore who takes newcomer Cassavetes under his wing and urges him to resist the bullying tactics of bigoted workmate Jack Warden. But, while this waterfront noir had the sting of authenticity, Pat Jackson's Virgin Island (1958) felt somewhat coy, even though it had been adapted from Robb White's memoir, as Poitier helped treasure seeker Cassavetes and new wife Virginia Maskell build their new home on the British Virgin Islands.
'The Martin Luther King of the Movies'
This title was bestowed upon Poitier by biographer Aram Goudsouzian and it admirably sums up the way in which he was perceived in Hollywood as the Civil Rights movement began to gather momentum. By the late 1950s, however, only two African-American performers had received Academy Awards. Hattie McDaniel had won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Mammy in Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939), while James Baskett had been presented with an honorary award for his display as Uncle Remus in Disney's live-action/animation hybrid, Song of the South (1948). But, four years after Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress for her vibrant turn in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), Poitier became the first black man to be nominated for Best Actor when he and co-star Tony Curtis were recognised for their partnership in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958).
Poitier also landed the Silver Bear at Berlin and a BAFTA for this provocative picture about a couple of prisoners who are forced to co-operate after they escape while shackled together. He also received consecutive Golden Globe nominations when he was cited for his performance opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger's take on George Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess (1959). However, this proved to be a fraught project, as not only had producer Sam Goldwyn threatened to sue Poitier for reneging on a verbal contract after he had had second thoughts about the contentious material, but he also felt let down after Rouben Mamoulian was eased out of the director's chair to be replaced by the dictatorial Preminger.
Poitier was also frustrated by the rewrites required to attract a star of the calibre of Alan Ladd to Hal Bartlett's All the Young Men (1960), as this study of integration within the American forces in the Korean War had originally been intended as a starring vehicle. Even though Martin Ritt's Paris Blues (1961) contrasted French and American attitudes towards race, Poitier also felt shortchanged when United Artists ditched the mixed-race romance depicted in Harold Flender's novel and paired Poitier with Diahann Carroll and Paul Newman with Joanne Woodward.
Poitier demonstrated that African-American families had the same problems as their white counterparts in reprising his stage role in Daniel Petrie's adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1961), while producer Stanley Kramer insisted on casting Poitier as the psychiatrist who treats Nazi sympathiser Bobby Darin in Hubert Cornfield's Pressure Point (1962) to show that black doctors had the best interests of their white patients at heart. Yet his next assignment saw Poitier play a Moorish king competing with Viking Richard Widmark for a fabled golden bell in Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships (1963). But everything was about change with Poitier's next picture.
Making Oscar History
Cast in Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field (1963) as an itinerant handyman who helps a group of exiled German nuns to build a chapel on their Arizona farm. Poitier added a hint of wry humour to his trademark decency and followed the Best Actor triumph at the Berlin Film Festival with another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Up against Paul Newman in Martin Ritt's Hud and a trio of Brits - Albert Finney in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, Rex Harrison in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra and Richard Harris in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life - he probably felt that he would go home empty-handed again. However, his name was called by Anne Bancroft and Poitier became the first black performer to win the category.
His success gave the studios a problem, however, as Poitier couldn't simply be cast as a standard leading man because his colour immediately put a political spin on any picture in which he appeared. With tensions rising across the United States, it was felt that Poitier could be most usefully employed as the cinematic counterpart to Martin Luther King, with whom he had marched on Washington in August 1963. But, while white audiences admired the way in which Poitier could display dignified defiance without being overtly deferential, radical black audiences dismissed his persona as a white liberal fantasy.
Poitier was aware of the problem his image created and suspected that his Oscar victory owed as much to Hollywood brandishing its egalitarianism as to the merits of his own performance. Consequently, he took his time before selecting his follow-up role, as a photojournalist aboard Richard Widmark's destroyer in James B. Harris's tense adaptation of Mark Rascovich's Cold War novel, The Bedford Incident (1965). But, following a cameo as Simon of Cyrene in George Stevens's gospel saga, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Poitier returned to playing symbols of non-threatening reassurance as the social worker protecting the sightless Elizabeth Hartman in Guy Green's A Patch of Blue and as a crisis centre volunteer helping the possibly suicidal Anne Bancroft in Sydney Pollack's debut feature, The Slender Thread (both 1965).
Adapted from Elizabeth Kata's novel, Be Ready With Bells and Drums, A Patch of Blue earned Poitier BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. But its message that 'love is blind' seemed trite following the assassination of Malcolm X, an advocate of black self-determination who challenged Dr King's integrationist doctrine. The racial conflict was also somewhat toned down in Ralph Nelson's Duel at Diabolo (1966), a reworking of Marvin H. Albert's novel, Apache Rising, which pitched Poitier into the Wild West for the first time, as a horse breaker who helps cavalry scout James Garner track down the killer of his Comanche wife.
But Poitier was growing frustrated by the stereotypical parts he was being offered and, in 1966, he turned down the chance to headline an NBC television production of William Shakespeare's Othello. His decision would be vindicated the following year, when he landed three of the most iconic roles of his career, teacher Mark Thackeray in James Clavell's To Sir, With Love, Detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night and Dr John Wade Prentice in Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (all 1967). Yet, while these pictures made Poitier Hollywood's most bankable star, they were less warmly received within the African-American community, which had been galvanised and divided by the emergence of the Black Panther Party led by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
A Man Out of Time
Their radical approach would receive a surge of support following the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968 and this filtered into how African-Americans wished to see themselves depicted on the screen. Consequently, as new film-makers like Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Bill Gunn and documentarist William Greaves sparked the emergence of both an independent black cinema and blaxploitation, Poitier outings like Daniel Mann's For Love of Ivy (1968), Robert Alan Aurthur's The Lost Man (1969) and James Goldstone's Brother John (1970) seemed detached from the tumult surrounding them.
Even a return to the Oscar-nominated role of Virgil Tibbs failed to pay dividends in Gordon Douglas's They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and Don Medford's The Organisation (1971). But Poitier had provided the story for For Love of Ivy and, when Harry Belafonte fell out with director Joseph Sargent on the Western, Buck and the Preacher (1972), Poitier took over behind the camera and he directed himself again in the romantic drama, A Warm December (1973), and in the action comedy, Uptown Saturday Night (1974).
Having played another African revolutionary opposite Michael Caine in Ralph Nelson's The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), Poitier took up dual duties again in the crime capers Let's Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977), which respectively saw the main characters play innocents pitted against some ruthless gangsters and a pair of petty crooks out of their league. However, the latter proved to be Poitier's last acting role in a decade, as he concentrated on directing Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the prison comedy, Stir Crazy (1980); Wilder and Gilda Radner in the droll thriller, Hanky Panky (1982); a cast of newcomers in the dance drama, Fast Forward (1985); and the whimsical fantasy, Ghost Dad (1990), which drew such negative reviews that Poitier curtailed his directorial activities for good.
Comeback and Beyond
Returning to the big screen in Roger Spottiswoode's Deadly Pursuit (1988), Poitier played an FBI agent following Kirstie Alley and Tom Berenger in the pursuit of some diamonds stolen by Clancy Brown. He played another Fed in Richard Benjamin's Little Nikita (1988), in which he comes to suspect that River Phoenix's parents are Soviet spies. But, while he reunited with Phoenix to play a former CIA operative in Phil Alden Robinson's conspiracy comedy, Sneakers (1992), Poitier ended his cinematic career as the Deputy Director of the FBI in The Jackal (1997), Michael Caton-Jones's remake of Fred Zinnemann's 1973 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's bestseller, The Day of the Jackal.
He has appeared in a clutch of documentaries, however, including Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies (both 2001), Tell Them Who You Are (2004), Mr Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2008) and Sing Your Song (2011). Moreover, Poitier has also featured in such TV-movies as David Greene's Children of the Dust (1995), Lloyd Kramer's David and Lisa (1998), Sterling Anderson's The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, Leon Ichaso's Free of Eden (both 1999) and Gregg Champion's The Last Brickmaker in America (2001). But, while he reprised the role of Mark Thackeray in leaving London for Chicago in Peter Bogdanovich's To Sir, With Love 2 (1996), Poitier was more impressive as he landed Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing the Supreme Court's first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall, in George Stevens, Jr.'s Separate But Equal (1991), and received another Emmy nod for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela, opposite Michael Caine, in Joseph Sargent's Mandela and De Klerk (1997).
Despite coming close to being prevented from becoming an actor because of his Caribbean burr, Poitier's voice has proved crucial to his success and, having recorded passages of Greek philosophy on the album Poitier Meets Plato (1964), he followed a Grammy nomination for the autobiographical The Measure of a Man (2000) with a win for its sequel, Life Beyond Measure (2008). He has also been presented with a BAFTA Fellowship in 2016 and an Honorary Academy Award in 2002 in recognition of his 'remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being'.
Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1974, Poitier has also served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan (1997-2007) and his country's UNESCO representative (2002-07). In 2009, he received America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential of Freedom, from Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father had been awarded a scholarship from the African American Students Association, which had been founded by Poitier, Belafonte and baseball legend Jackie Robinson. It seemed an apt presentation, as not only had Poitier played Obam in The Mark of the Hawk, but many commentators also considered that his characters had primed white America for its first black president.