Sidney Poitier, The Movie Star Who Built Bridges
Sidney Poitier - Not Just An Actor
Sidney Poitier is an inspirational figure. He is not just a great, award-winning actor and the first African-American ever to take home an Oscar for Best Actor, but also a writer, director, diplomat and cultural icon.
He is a man who has made his mark on popular culture. Starting from the humblest of beginnings in a poor farming family in The Bahamas he has worked his way up through half a century in show business and fifty-five roles, to the pre-eminent position he now holds. He has built bridges across the racial divide, opened doors for countless artists in succeeding generations. Sidney Poitier is the finest example, not just to black members of the community but to all members of the community.
Poitier's earliest memories are of Cat Island, Bahamas, although he was actually born in Miami, Florida in 1927 during a Stateside visit by his parents. His father was a tomato farmer and the family was poor. When Poitier was 11 the family moved to the capital, Nassau. He left school at the age of 13 and later joined the U.S. Army, serving in World War II as a medical assistant.
On demob, aged 18, Sidney moved to New York in an attempt to improve his lot. He had no money and no prospects and he suffered racial discrimination - from blacks as well as whites, due to his distinctive Bahamian accent. His first job was washing dishes and he then began working as a janitor for the American Negro Theater. Part of his pay took the form of acting lessons. From that time on he was in no doubt his future lay in the world of acting.
Poitier was given the role of understudy to Harry Belafonte, a job which he relished and which led to a small part in a production of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. His acting skills impressed the critics and he performed in 10 more productions with the company, including a national tour in 1944. He was on his way and the handsome actor continued to impress in leading roles on stage.
At the end of 1949, he was offered a role in the film No Way Out
No Way Out opposite Richard Widmark and his performance, as a doctor treating a white bigot, got him plenty of media attention and critical praise. More prominent movie roles followed and Poitier always chose carefully, considering each part on its merits, studiously nurturing his career.
Up and Coming Star
He again got positive reviews in 1951 for his performance in the internationally acclaimed 'Cry, The Beloved Country', but his real breakthrough into mainstream consciousness came in 1955 with 'The Blackboard Jungle', and then in 1957 starring with Tony Curtis in 'The Defiant Ones' (right) about two escaped prisoners who must overcome issues of race in their struggle for freedom. For this role Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award, the first male black actor to be so nominated.
After The Defiant Ones he was a nationally known mainstream actor and had also become a key figure in the Civil Rights movement due to his increasing popularity with audiences of all racial backgrounds, a popularity which increased with his appearance in 'Porgy and Bess' in 1959. He was a public representation to both blacks and whites of the proud, aspirational and ultimately powerful but non-threatening black person.
A Raisin in the Sun Also in 1959, Poitier returned to the stage with a stirring performance in 'A Raisin in the Sun,' a pioneering work on the subject of racial identity and an insightful and moving reflection of black family life. He repeated his success in the role for the Hollywood adaptation in 1961. In 1963, for his remarkable performance as an American serviceman in Germany in 'Lillies of the Field' he was awarded the movie industry's greatest compliment as he became the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
With the mainstream success of 1965's 'A Patch of Blue' and 1967's 'To Sir, With Love', Poitier's ascent to superstardom was complete and was confirmed in the same year in 'In the Heat of the Night', in which he confronts a condescending Southern sheriff with the famous line which resounded round the world, "They call me MISTER Tibbs."
They call me MISTER Tibbs
Poitier's next issue was one of the great taboos of the time - interracial romance. In the comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Poitier's character is engaged to a white woman. The film was Hollywood's first love story between members of different races that did not end tragically. By the time of its completion in the late sixties, Poitier was one of Hollywood's and the world's most popular stars.
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner - A Love Story, A Comedy, A Social Statement
A Patch of Blue, Sidney Poitier, 1965
Up To Date
With the mainstream success of 1965's 'A Patch of Blue' and 1967's 'To Sir, With Love', Poitier's ascent to superstardom was complete and was confirmed in the same year in 'In the Heat of the Night', in which he confronts a condescending Southern sheriff with the famous line which resounded round the world, "They call me MISTER Tibbs." Poitier's next issue was one of the great taboos of the time - interracial romance. In the comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Poitier's character is engaged to a white woman. The film was Hollywood's first love story between members of different races that did not end tragically. By the time of its completion in the late sixties, Poitier was one of HollywoodÂs and the world's most popular stars.
In 1972 Poitier co-starred with Belafonte in the western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After an argument with the film's director, Joseph Sargent, Poitier somewhat reluctantly took over. He went on to direct a series of highly entertaining films with Bill Cosby - 'Uptown Saturday Night', 'Let's Do It Again', and 'A Piece of the Action'. They also worked together on the comedy Ghost Dad (1990), which was not a success. Poitier also directed the hit comedy 'Stir Crazy' in 1980, as well as several other features.
He returned to acting after a 10-year absence, appearing in Shoot to Kill (1988), Little Nikita (1988), Sneakers (1992), and One Man, One Vote (1997). In 2001, he received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for his autobiographical book The Measure of a Man. In 2002, he received an honorary Oscar. In April 1997, he was named the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan. He also sits on Walt Disney's Board of Directors, and recently received the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sidney Poitier can look back proudly on a life well lived.
A Great Man
Poitier is important, not just because he is a very fine actor, but because of what he represents. He has been a true artistic and political pioneer, demonstrating the need for social change whilst participating within mainstream culture rather than ignoring it or trying to revolt against it with only limited influence. Sidney Poitier's characters are men of control, men who tame inner rage with reason and intellect. Poitier played men who know that there are bridges to build and doors to open. He helped build those bridges and open those doors.
It has been a long haul for a once penniless Bahamian immigrant. But it has been well worth it for film fans, and for those hundreds of actors for whom he showed the way. Sidney Poitier is a brave, talented and far-seeing man. The world is a better place because of him.