Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He was the youngest of seven children born to Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier,
Afro-Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on
Cat Island. The family would travel to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce to wholesalers. His father also worked as a cab driver in
Nassau. Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while his parents were there on business; 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. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a
British Crown colony. His birth in the United States
entitled him to US citizenship.
Some believe that the Poitier ancestors had migrated from
Haiti, and were probably among the runaway slaves who established
maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. Poitier was originally a French name, and there were then no Poitiers of French ancestry nearby in the Bahamas. However, there had been a Poitier of French ancestry 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 of West African origin who kept the name Poitier, a name that had been introduced into the
Anglosphere since the
Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. Charles Leonard Poitier might have been from Haiti originally but had lived in Jamaica previously.
Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was ten, when they moved to Nassau. There he was exposed to the modern world, where he saw his first automobile and first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and motion pictures. He was raised
Catholic but later became an agnostic with views closer to
At age fifteen, in 1942, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother's large family, but Poitier found it impossible to adjust to the racism in
Jim Crow era Florida. At sixteen, he moved to New York City, looking to become an actor, holding a string of jobs as a dishwasher in the meantime. After failing his first audition with the
American Negro Theatre due to his inability to fluently read the script, an elderly Jewish waiter sat with him every night for several weeks, helping him to improve his reading by using the newspaper. During
World War II, in November 1943, he lied about his age (he was only 16 at the time) 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.
After leaving the Army, he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a role in an American Negro Theatre production, the same company he failed his first audition with.
Early work and blacklist
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. 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. He modeled his legendary speech pattern after radio personality
Norman Brokenshire. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the
Broadway production of Lysistrata, through which, though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta. Poitier would later befriend
Harry Belafonte at the American Negro Theater.
In 1947, Poitier was a founding member of the Committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA), an organization whose participants were committed to a left-wing analysis of class and racial exploitation. Among his other CNA-related activities, in the early 1950s he was a Vice Chair of the organization. In 1952, he was one of several narrators in a pageant written by
Alice Childress and
Lorraine Hansberry for the Negro History Festival put on by the leftist Harlem monthly newspaper Freedom.
His participation in such events and CNA generally, along with his friendships with other leftist Black performers, including
Canada Lee and
Paul Robeson, led to his subsequent
blacklisting for a few years. Even associating with Poitier added to the basis for blacklisting Alfred Palca, the writer and producer of one of Poitier's earliest films, the 1954 Go Man Go.
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 white bigot (played by
Richard Widmark, who became a friend), 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. Poitier's distinction continued in his role as Gregory W. Miller, a member of an incorrigible high-school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955). But it was his performance in
Martin Ritt's 1957 film Edge of the City that the industry could not ignore. It was a pitch towards stardom granted him.
Poitier enjoyed working for director
William Wellman on Good-bye, My Lady (1956). Wellman was a big name, he had previously directed the famous Roxie Hart (1942) with
Ginger Rogers and Magic Town (1947) with
James Stewart. What Poitier remembered indelibly was the wonderful humanity in this talented director. Wellman had a sensitivity that Poitier thought was profound, which Wellman felt he needed to hide." 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. The film was a critical and commercial success with the performances of both Poitier and Curtis being praised. 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. Poitier did win the
British Academy Film Award for Best Foreign Actor.
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 . . .
In 1961, Poitier starred in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun for which he received another Golden Globe Award nomination. Also in 1961, Poitier starred in Paris Blues alongside
Louis Armstrong, and
Diahann Carroll. The film dealt with the
American racism of the time by contrasting it with Paris's open acceptance of
Black people. In 1963 he starred in Lilies of the Field. For this role, he won the
Academy Award for Best Actor and became the first Black male to win the award. 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. 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.
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."
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."Roger Ebert placed it at number ten on his top ten list of 1967 films. Art Murphy of Variety felt that the excellent Poitier and outstanding Steiger performances overcame noteworthy flaws, including an uneven script. 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 romance 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." To win his role as Dr. Prentice in the film, Poitier had to audition for Tracy and Hepburn at two separate dinner parties.
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. 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.
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).
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."
With the death of
Ernest Borgnine in 2012, Poitier became the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor. 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 and Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating: "We are in your debt." Poitier gave a brief speech, telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to warm applause. 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.
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".
Bill Clinton and
Hillary Clinton also released statements.
Poitier was described as an icon in his obituary by USA Today. Laura Jacobs for Vanity Fair hailed Poitier as the "
Martin Luther King Jr. of the movies". Several film historians and journalists have called him Hollywood's first African-American film star.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".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."
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". 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. 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.The New York Times noted that Poitier was "an ambassador to white America and a benign emblem of
Black power". 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".
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".
^Poitier, Sidney (1980). This Life. US, Canada: Knopf (US), Random House (Canada). pp. 2, 5. At this point [his father, Reginald Poitier] still had four boys and two girls (quite a few to make it through)... (2); When Reginald and Evelyn Poitier returned to Cat Island from Miami, carrying me—the new baby they now called 'Sidney'—they were greeted by their six children... my older brother Cyril, fifteen; Ruby, thirteen; Verdon (Teddy) [female], eleven; Reginald, eight; Carl, five; and Cedric, three. (5)
^Poitier, Sidney (2009). Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter. HarperCollins. p. 84.
ISBN978-0-06-149620-2. 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?
^Poitier, Sidney (2009). Life Beyond Measure. HarperCollins. pp.
ISBN978-0-06-173725-1. 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.