Sidney Poiter

Tom Shipka

Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He won it in 1963 for his role in Lilies of the Field. (1) Subsequently he received virtually every major honor which an actor can receive. (2) Poitier starred in some forty films, including Blackboard Jungle (1955); The Defiant Ones (1958); The Bedford Incident (1965); A Patch of Blue (1965); Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967); To Sir, With Love (1967); and In the Heat of the Night (1967). He also performed to critical acclaim on stage and on television and he directed nine films. (3)

Poitier's artistic success is nothing short of amazing when you consider his roots. He grew up on an island in the Bahamas without plumbing, electricity, paved roads, automobiles, or schools. He wore trousers which his mother made from flour sacks. His parents were tomato farmers whose business collapsed when the State of Florida banned tomato imports from the Bahamas in 1936. At that point the Poitier family moved to Nassau, a modern city, where Sidney attended school briefly, got in trouble with the law, and discovered race, class, and movie theaters. (4) At the age of 15 Poitier's father sent him to live with his older brother Cyril in Miami but racism there quickly drove him north to New York City. He lived in Harlem for fourteen years, many of them spent as a dishwasher. (5) His first try at acting at the American Negro Theater was a disaster. Poitier had had no training, he could barely read, and he had a "thick singsong Bahamian accent." (p. 56) He then undertook a program of self-improvement. With the help of an elderly Jewish waiter, he learned to read and speak by reciting the daily newspaper. (p. 57) He took acting classes (p. 58) and absorbed much from friends and fellow actors as well as radio and movie house newsreels. (6) Eventually he landed his first stage and film roles. (7)

Despite Poitier's growing success, none of the Hollywood movie companies sought to sign him to an exclusive contract. (p. 94) Poitier considered this an asset, however, because it allowed him to "pick and choose" his projects so that none of his roles would embarrass his family or contradict his own values. (p. 94) This independence explains why he turned down a leading role in a film in which his character was intimidated into silence about a crime (pp. 64-67), why he refused to sign loyalty oaths during the height of the cold war (pp. 93-99), and why he asked for and got a script change in a scene from In The Heat of the Night so that when a white man slapped him, he slapped back (pp. 136-137). (8)

How does one account for great artistic accomplishment by a person who grew up in a Third World culture, who had virtually no formal schooling, who had regular brushes with the law, and who couldn't read until his late teens? Poitier himself offers two speculations - that his gift for theater has genetic roots (p. 20) and that unseen mysterious forces - fate, if you will – guided him on his career path. (p. 61) Whatever the reasons, Sidney Poitier, who turns 82 next month, has given us a legacy of extraordinary films that will entertain, educate, and inspire young and old for many generations.


  1. See Sidney Poitier, The Measure of A Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, HarperCollins, 2000. References to this book are by page number.
  2. Among Poitier's awards are the Academy Award for Best Actor, the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, the AFI Life Achievement Award, the SAG Life Achievement Award, the Cecile B. DeMille Award, Kennedy Center Honors, the NAACP Hall of Fame Award, the Marian Anderson Award, the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, an Honorary Oscar, and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (knighthood). See "Sidney Poitier," Wikipedia.
  3. "Sidney Poitier," Wikipedia.
  4. Poitier quit school at age 12. His aborted schooling in Nassau did play an important part in his later career because one of his teachers, Mr. Fox, became the model for his role in To Sir, With Love, a story about a teacher in an impoverished area of London. (p. 187) In Nassau, after Poitier saw a movie, he would return home and act out all the parts. (p. 33)
  5. In New York, Poitier sometimes slept in a pay toilet or on a rooftop because he could not afford an apartment. When winter set in, he decided to join the U.S. Army so that he had food, clothing, and lodging. His career in the military was short-lived. To quicken his release, he feigned psychological problems and narrowly escaped a court martial. (See pp. 52-55)
  6. Poitier says that his "teachers" included Paul Robeson, Dr. Ralph Bunche, A Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Roy Wilkins, Mary McCloud Bethune, Walter White, Whitney Young, and Langston Hughes as well as contemporaries including Harry Belafonte, Leon Bibbs, and Philip and Doris Rose. (p. 76) He writes: "By their example and my own intense effort at reading the newspapers, I picked up useful bits of information every day." (p. 77) He also acknowledges Louise, a fellow acting student, who "taught me much, not the least of which was to appreciate how much a greater command of the language can enrich one's life." (p. 79) He credits a long list of actors with helping him to hone his acting skills, including Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee, Alice Childress, Frank Silvera, Spencer Tracy, and Canada Lee, among others. (p. 144)
  7. His parents viewed his first film, No Way Out, at a Nassau movie theater in 1950. (p. 60)
  8. Poitier reports that the actor John Cassavetes helped to reinforce Poitier's strong feelings about roles. Cassavetes told him never to do an artistic favor for a friend. Cassavetes said "You've got to have one area of your life where there's no room for compromise." (p. 147) Poitier's pride and independence also help explain his consistent refusal to sign loyalty oaths at the request of film-makers and TV moguls at the height of the cold war. (See pp. 93-99.)

© 2009 Tom Shipka