Sidney Poitier (born February 20, 1927) is a Bahamian-American actor, film director, author and diplomat. Poitier became the first Bahamian and first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. He is known for roles in To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida to farmers Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier. 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. He had little formal education and at the age of 15 was sent to Miami to live with his brother, in order to forestall a growing tendency toward delinquency. At 18, he went to New York, did menial jobs and slept in a bus terminal toilet. A brief stint in the Army as a worker at a veteran's hospital was followed by more menial jobs in Harlem. An impulsive audition at the American Negro Theatre was rejected so forcefully that Poitier dedicated the next six months to overcoming his accent and performance ineptness. On his second try, he was accepted.
Poitier joined the North 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. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which, though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta. 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. 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 breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).
Poitier was the first male actor of Bahamian descent to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award (for The Defiant Ones, 1958). He was also the first actor of Bahamian 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. His feature film directorial debut was the Western, Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte. Poitier replaced the 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.