Best known for his roles in To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Cry, the Beloved Country
Red Ball Express
Go, Man, Go!
Good-bye, My Lady
Edge of the City
Something of Value
Band of Angels
The Mark of the Hawk
The Defiant Ones
Porgy and Bess
All the Young Men
The Long Ships
The Bedford Incident
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Slender Thread
Duel at Diablo
For Love of Ivy
The Lost Man
They Call Me Mister Tibbs!
Buck and the Preacher
A Warm December
Uptown Saturday Night
The Wilby Conspiracy
Let’s Do it Again
A Piece of the Action
Shoot to Kill
He was nominated for two competitive Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Defiant Ones (1958) and Lilies of the Field (1963). He one for Lilies of the Field and became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar. At the age of 90, Sidney Poitier is the oldest living male Oscar winner for Best Actor.
In 2002, he received an honorary Oscar “For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.”
Sidney Poitier, was born February 20, 1927, in Miami while his parents were visiting from the Bahamas. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British Crown colony. Because of his birth in the United States, he automatically received American citizenship.
At the age of 16, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. He lied about his age and enlisted in the Army during World War II in 1943. He only served briefly after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theatre 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.
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.
Poitier was the first male actor of African (Bahamian) 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). 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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, Pamela, Sherri, Gina, Anika, and Sydney Tamiia.
In addition to his six daughters, Poitier has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
On August 12, 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.