Sidney Poitier

For his daughter, see Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
Sir Sidney Poitier
Born (1927-02-20) February 20, 1927
Miami, Florida, U.S.[1][2]
Occupation Actor, director, author, diplomat
Years active 1947–2001

Military career

Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1943–44
Rank enlisted

Sir Sidney Poitier, KBE[3] (/ˈpwɑːtj/ or /ˈpwɑːti./; born February 20, 1927), is a Bahamian-American actor, film director, author and diplomat.

In 1964,[4] Poitier became the first Bahamian and first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor,[5] for his role in Lilies of the Field.[6] The significance of these achievements was bolstered in 1967, when he starred in three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year.[7] In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of classic Hollywood cinema, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.

Poitier has directed a number of films, including A Piece of the Action, Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, with Bill Cosby; Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder; and Ghost Dad, also with Cosby. In 2002, thirty-eight years after receiving the Best Actor Award, Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his "remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being".[8]

From 1997 to 2007, he served as the non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan.[9] On August 12, 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.[10] In 2016 he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film.

Early life

Sidney Poitier's parents were Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier,[11] Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island and traveled to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas.[12] Poitier was born 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.[13] Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British Crown colony. But because of his birth in the United States, he automatically received American citizenship.[13] Poitier's uncle has claimed that the Poitier ancestors on his father's side had migrated from Haiti[14] and were probably part of the runaway slaves who had established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He mentions that the surname Poitier is a French name, and there were no white Poitiers from the Bahamas.[15]

Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was 10, when they moved to Nassau.[16][17] He was raised a Roman Catholic[18] but, later became an agnostic[19] with views closer to deism.[20]

At the age of 15, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 16, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. A waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper.[21] He lied about his age and enlisted in the Army during World War II in 1943. He only served briefly as a mental hospital attendant and feigned insanity to get discharged,[22] after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theatre.[23][24]



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 North American Negro Chicken Club, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of African American actors at the time, Poitier's tone deafness made him unable to sing.[25] 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, which though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta.[26] By the end of 1949, he 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. Poitier's breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Poitier was the first male actor of African descent to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award (for The Defiant Ones, 1958). He was also the first actor of African descent 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 person of African descent 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.[27] 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.[28]

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 on Broadway in 1959, and later starred in the film version released in 1961. He also gave memorable performances in The Bedford Incident (1965), 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, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night. The last film 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 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 that time. For instance, in 1966, he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC production of Othello with that spirit in mind.[29]

In 2002, Poitier received the 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. With the death of Ernest Borgnine, in 2012, he became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor.[30] 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.


Poitier 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.[31] His feature film directorial debut was the Western, Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced original director, Joseph Sargent. 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 the first popular dance battle movie, Fast Forward in 1985.


Poitier recorded an album with the composer Fred Katz called Poitier Meets Plato, in which Poitier recites passages from Plato's writings.[32]


From 1995 to 2003, he served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.[33]

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.[9]

In March 2014, he swore in the new mayor of Beverly Hills, California, Lili Bosse, in a ceremony at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.[34]

Personal life

Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. He has been married to Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian former actress of Lithuanian-Jewish and Irish descent, since January 23, 1976. He has four daughters with his first wife and two with his second: Beverly,[35] Pamela,[36] Sherri,[37] Gina,[38] Anika,[39] and Sydney Tamiia.[40]

In addition to his six daughters, Poitier has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.[41]

Honors and awards

Poitier receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.



Year Title Role Notes
1947 Sepia Cinderella Extra Uncredited
1949 From Whence Cometh My Help Himself Documentary
1950 No Way Out Dr. Luther Brooks
1951 Cry, the Beloved Country Reverend Msimangu
1952 Red Ball Express Cpl. Andrew Robertson
1954 Go, Man, Go! Inman Jackson
1955 Blackboard Jungle Gregory W. Miller
1956 Good-bye, My Lady Gates Watson
1957 Edge of the City Tommy Tyler Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1957 Something of Value Kimani Wa Karanja
1957 Band of Angels Rau-Ru Ponce de Leon
1957 Mark of the Hawk, TheThe Mark of the Hawk Obam
1958 Virgin Island Marcus
1958 Defiant Ones, TheThe Defiant Ones Noah Cullen BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Silver Bear for Best Actor[42]
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1959 Porgy and Bess Porgy Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1960 All the Young Men Sgt. Eddie Towler
1961 Raisin in the Sun, AA Raisin in the Sun Walter Lee Younger Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
1961 Paris Blues Eddie Cook
1962 Pressure Point Doctor (Chief Psychiatrist)
1963 Long Ships, TheThe Long Ships Aly Mansuh
1963 Lilies of the Field Homer Smith Academy Award for Best Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Silver Bear for Best Actor[43]
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1965 Bedford Incident, TheThe Bedford Incident Ben Munceford
1965 Greatest Story Ever Told, TheThe Greatest Story Ever Told Simon of Cyrene
1965 Patch of Blue, AA Patch of Blue Gordon Ralfe Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1965 Slender Thread, TheThe Slender Thread Alan Newell
1966 Duel at Diablo Toller (contract horse dealer) Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Action Performance
1967 To Sir, with Love Mark Thackeray
1967 In the Heat of the Night Det. Virgil Tibbs Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1967 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Dr. John Wade Prentice Fotogramas de Plata Award for Best Foreign Performer
1968 For Love of Ivy Jack Parks Prize San Sebastián for Best Actor
1969 Lost Man, TheThe Lost Man Jason Higgs
1970 King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis Narrator Documentary
1970 They Call Me Mister Tibbs! Lt. Virgil Tibbs
1971 Brother John John Kane
1971 Organization, TheThe Organization Lt. Virgil Tibbs
1972 Buck and the Preacher Buck
1973 Warm December, AA Warm December Matt Younger
1974 Uptown Saturday Night Steve Jackson
1975 Wilby Conspiracy, TheThe Wilby Conspiracy Shack Twala
1975 Let's Do it Again Clyde Williams NAACP Image Award for Best Director
1977 Piece of the Action, AA Piece of the Action Manny Durrell
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist Narrator Short subject
1988 Shoot to Kill Warren Stantin
1988 Little Nikita Roy Parmenter
1992 Sneakers Donald Crease Nominated – NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
1994 Century of Cinema, AA Century of Cinema Himself Documentary
1996 Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick Himself Documentary
1996 To Sir, with Love II Mark Thackeray
1997 Jackal, TheThe Jackal FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actor – Suspense
2001 Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey Narrator Documentary
2004 Tell Them Who You Are Himself Documentary
2008 Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project Himself Documentary


Year Title
1972 Buck and the Preacher
1973 Warm December, AA Warm December
1974 Uptown Saturday Night
1975 Let's Do it Again
1977 Piece of the Action, AA Piece of the Action
1980 Stir Crazy
1982 Hanky Panky
1985 Fast Forward
1990 Ghost Dad


Year Title Role Notes
1991 Separate but Equal Thurgood Marshall Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film
1995 Children of the Dust Gypsy Smith Nominated – NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
1996 To Sir, with Love II Mark Thackeray
1997 Mandela and de Klerk Nelson Mandela Nominated – CableACE Award for Best Actor in a Movie or Miniseries
Nominated – NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor – Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated – Satellite Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film
Nominated – Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie
1998 David and Lisa Dr. Jack Miller
1999 Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, TheThe Simple Life of Noah Dearborn Noah Dearborn NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Nominated – Black Reel Award for Best Actor: T.V. Movie/Cable
1999 Free of Eden Will Cleamons
2001 Last Brickmaker in America, TheThe Last Brickmaker in America Henry Cobb

Works about Poitier


Poitier has written three autobiographical books:

Poitier is also the subject of the biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004) by historian Aram Goudsouzian.[47]

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

Movies about Poitier

See also


  1. Full Biography New York Times. 2015. Retrieved July 23, 2015
  2. Sidney Poitier Biography AETN UK. The Biography Channel. 2005–2011. Retrieved July 23, 2015
  3. Because Poitier is a citizen of The Bahamas, a Commonwealth realm, this is a substantive (as opposed to honorary) knighthood, which entitles him to the style "Sir". However, Poitier employs the title only in connection with his former official ambassadorial duties.
  4. Bill Goodykoontz, Gannett Chief Film Critic (2014-02-25). "Oscar win proved Sidney Poitier was second to none". Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  5. James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award, for his performance in Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946). The award was not competitive. See Awards for James Baskett, Internet Movie Database
  6. Awards for Sidney Poitier at the Internet Movie Database
  7. "Top Ten Money Making Stars". Quigley Publishing Co. Retrieved August 30, 2009.
  8. "''Sidney Poitier awards: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences'' awards database". 2010-01-29. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  9. 1 2 "Sir Sidney Poitier, best known Bahamian, honored". Retrieved 21 February 2015.
  10. "Sidney Poitier, Sen. Ted Kennedy Among 16 Who Receive Medal of Freedom". 2009-08-13. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  11. "Sidney Poitier Film Reference biography". Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  12. Davis Smiley interviews Sidney Poitier Archived March 16, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. 1 2 Adam Gourmand, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004), p.8.
  14. "Bio – Sidney Poitier". Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  15. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  16. "Sidney Poitier". Oprah Presents Master Class. Season 1. Episode 7. April 22, 2012. Oprah Winfrey Network. Archived from the original on October 27, 2013.
  17. Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. (2000). New York. HarperCollins.
  18. Winfrey, Oprah (October 15, 2000). "Oprah Talks to Sidney Poitier". The Oprah Winfrey Show. Retrieved September 16, 2010. I come from a Catholic family.
  19. Sidney Poitier (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?
  20. 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.
  21. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004) Aram Goudsouzian, University of North Carolina Press ISBN 978-0-8078-2843-4 p44
  22. "Sidney Poitier acted insane to find a way out of the Army.". Retrieved 2016-07-02.
  23. Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man. (2000). New York: HarperCollins Publishers
  24. Chenrow, Fred; Chenrow, Carol (1974). Reading Exercises in Black History. Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc. p. 46. ISBN 0-8454-2108-5.
  25. Goudsouzian; Sidney Poitier; p 69, 133
  26. Poitier, Sidney (2000). The Measure of a Man (First ed.). San Francisco: Harper. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-06-135790-9.
  27. Harris, Mark (2008). Pictures at a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of a New Hollywood. Penguin Press. pp. 58–9.
  28. Harris 2008, p.81–2
  29. Harris 2008, p.161
  30. Lauren Moraski (July 10, 2012). "Ernest Borgnine's death makes Sidney Poitier the oldest living best actor Oscar winner". Celebrity Circuit. CBS News. Retrieved July 27, 2012.
  31. Black Enterprise. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  32. Goudsouzian, Aram; Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, The University of North Carolina Press, 200, page 395
  33. "Actor Takes Center Stage as Disney Trial Grinds On" New York Times article 12 August 2004
  34. "New Mayor Lili Bosse Wants Beverly Hills to be the Healthiest City in the World". Beverly Hills Courier. 26 March 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
  35. "Poitier-Henderson Holds Book Signing – WLBT 3 – Jackson, MS:". 2014-08-06. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  36. The New York Times > New York Region > Hundreds Mourn Ossie Davis in Harlem
  37. "Daughters of King, Malcolm X Also Have a Message". 1988-04-09. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  38. "Atlanta News, Sports, Atlanta Weather, Business News |". Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  39. Dan Shaw (1994-05-21). "Chronicle – New York Times". Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  40. "Advice For Upn: Get Rid Of 'Abby' – New York Daily News". 1969-08-09. Archived from the original on July 30, 2012. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  41. Sidney Poitier children and grandchildren
  42. 1 2 "Berlinale 1958: Prize Winners". Retrieved April 1, 2010.
  43. 1 2 "Berlinale 1963: Prize Winners". Retrieved 2010-02-14.
  44. Hollywood Foreign Press Association – Cecil B. DeMille Award Jan 2015 Archived October 6, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  45. "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients", White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 30, 2009
  46. "Film Society of Lincoln Center honors the life and career of Sidney Poitier", Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, May 2, 2011
  47. Goudsouzian, Aram. 2004. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807828434
  48. Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light at the Internet Movie Database

External links

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