Poitier was film royalty, and his Academy Award win in 1963 for his role in Lilies of the Field awarded him the distinction of being the first Black performer to win in the Best Actor category. He played the role of an itinerant worker who helped a group of white nuns build a chapel.
In his real life as a civil rights activist, many of his roles reflected his desire for equity and justice. In 1963, Poitier attended the March on Washington and, in 1964, he traveled to Mississippi to meet with activists in the days following the infamous slaying of three young civil rights workers.
In 1967, he appeared as a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in small-town Mississippi in In the Heat of the Night, and a doctor who wins over his white fiancée’s skeptical parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Although Poitier’s characters responded to hatred with poise and calm—which white audiences found reassuring—to Black audiences, he was selling out and dubbed by some an Uncle Tom.
“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” Poitier said, according to The New York Times. “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.”
Even decades later, Poitier struggled with his choices during the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.
“It’s been an enormous responsibility,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey in 2000. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
Poitier was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927. He was born premature, the youngest of seven siblings.
It’s been reported that Poiter’s mother paid a visit to a palm reader after his birth to see if he would survive or not.
“The lady took her hand and started speaking to my mother: ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier told CBS News in 2013. “And these were her words; she said, ‘He will walk with kings.’“
His parents were migrant tomato farmers who moved between Florida and the Bahamas, and when he was 15, they sent him to Miami to live with an older brother. They believed he would have a better opportunity there.
Following a dream to become an actor, Poitier moved to New York, where he took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. According to CNN, one of the waiters helped him with his reading and helped him improve his speech.
“That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week,” Poitier told CBS News. “And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.”
Poiter eventually secured himself a position with the American Negro Theater company, where he trained in acting and softening his Bahamian accent.
His first film was in the 1950s, No Way Out, where he played a young doctor forced to treat a racist patient. That role was followed by a reverend in Cry, the Beloved Country, and an escaped prisoner in The Defiant Ones—the role for which he became the first Black actor nominated for an Oscar.
But, the reality was that Poitier’s skin was dark, and Hollywood had rarely given darker-skinned actors an opportunity.
“(Blacks) were so new in Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters,” Poitier told Winfrey. “I had in mind what was expected of me—not just what other Blacks expected, but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.”
However much he struggled, he continued to find work. In 1959, he appeared in the first Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun and starred in the movie version two years later.
He would become the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, commanding $1 million a movie and ranking just under Richard Burton, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin as top box-office draws.
At least for the Black community, Poitier will be best remembered for In the Heat of the Night, where he played the role of Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs travels through racist Mississippi where at one point he’s detained by a white police chief, played by Rod Steiger, who alleges Tibbs is a suspect in a murder case.
Demanding the respect he deserves, Tibbs tells Steiger’s character in no uncertain terms, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Later in the film, when a racist plantation owner slaps Tibbs, Poitier’s character slaps him back, almost before the audience has a chance to realize what’s happened. That’s the moment when Black audiences cheered and Poitier reached hero status.
“And of course, it is one of those great, great moments in all of the film, when you slap him back,” CBS News’ Lesley Stahl told Poitier in 2013. He replied, “Yes, I knew that I would have been insulting every Black person in the world (if I hadn’t).”
In the 1970s, Poitier pivoted his talents to directing, teaming up with colleague and friend Harry Belafonte with a Western, Buck and the Preacher. Then with Bill Cosby, Poitier directed and starred in Uptown Saturday Night, followed by Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones … milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress,” Obama said.
In 2011, Poitier was awarded by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
“There’s a time before their arrival, and there’s a time after their arrival. And after their arrival, nothing’s ever going to be the same again. As far as the movies are concerned, there was pre-Poitier, and there was Hollywood post-Poitier. In the history of movies, there’ve only been a few actors who, once they gained recognition, their influence forever changed the art form,” director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, said when Poitier was honored at Lincoln Center.
Poitier was a true legend, kicking the door down for so many greats to follow. Without him, we would never have had Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker, Chadwick Boseman, Laurence Fishburne, Mahershala Ali, and so many others.
What’s your favorite Poitier film or moment?