Sidney Poitier is an American actor and director, and the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was born on February 20, 1927 to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier who were farmers from Bahama. At the time of Poitier’s birth, his parents were in the U.S. to sell the produce from their farm, and Poitier was born two months prematurely. He was a very weak baby and wasn’t expected to survive but his parents stayed behind in the U.S. to nurse him back to health before taking him back to the Bahamas with them. He grew up in the Bahamas but received a U.S. citizenship as he was born there. He lived on Cat Island until the age of 10, and then lived in Nassau until the age of 15. Then he moved to Miami to live with his brother for 2 years, and at the age of 17, he moved to New York City.
In New York, Poitier worked a string of menial jobs, improved his English with the help of a waiter who taught him to read and then joined the United States Army. He auditioned at the American Negro Theatre and landed a role in a production there. However, his first venture into acting was not very successful, especially as he lacked singing talent. He then worked to improve his acting skills and to get rid of his Bahamian accent. Over the next 6 months, he received better roles and established himself as an actor. His first leading role was in the Broadway production “Lysistrata” and his performance garnered positive reviews from critics. He landed a role in the 1950 film “No Way Out” in which he played the role of a doctor, which led to more prominent roles such as the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle”.
Poitier became the first male African American actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award for his role in the 1958 film “The Defiant Ones”. In 1963, he made history by becoming the first African American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field”. Despite this immense honor, he was concerned with being a token African American actor cast in typical roles, and strived to receive more varied parts. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Poitier consolidated his reputation as a talented and serious actor with a string of creditable performances such as “A Raisin in the Sun” (both Broadway and film versions), “The Bedford Incident”, “A Patch of Blue”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “To Sir, with Love”, and “In the Heat of the Night”. The last one became his most famous performance, leading to two sequels “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!” and “The Organization”. He also had a successful directorial and television career.
Poitier was knighted in 1974, and has served in diplomatic roles such as Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan and Ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO. Poitier’s long and successful career can be evidenced by his long list of awards including the 1958 British Academy Film Award for Best Foreign Actor for The Defiant Ones, 1963 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for Lilies of the Field, 1982 Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, 1995 Kennedy Center Honors, 2000 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special for The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, 2001 NAACP Image Hall of Fame Award, 2001 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album and 2002 Honorary Oscar.
Poitier has written three autobiographical books i-e; “This Life”, “Life Beyond Measure – letters to my Great-Granddaughter” and “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography”. He has been married twice and has 6 children, 4 from his first marriage and two from his second. At the age of 87, Poitier is undoubtedly one of the most influential and ground breaking African American actors of his generation.