Actor Sidney Poitier's (born 1924) presence in film during the 1950s and 1960s opened up the possibility for bigger and better roles for black performers.
At a 1992 banquet sponsored by the august American Film Institute (AFI), a bevy of actors, filmmakers, and others gathered to pay tribute to Sidney Poitier. Superstar Denzel Washington called the veteran actor and director "a source of pride for many African Americans, " the Los Angeles Times reported, while acting luminary James Earl Jones ventured that his colleague had "played a great role in the life of our country." Poitier himself was typically humble in the face of such praise, but he has acknowledged that his presence on film screens in the 1950s and 1960s did much to open up larger and more nuanced roles for black performers. "I was selected almost by history itself, " he averred to Susan Ellicott of the London Times.
After gracing dozens of films with his dignified, passionately intelligent presence, Poitier began to focus increasingly on directing; a constant in his life, however, has been his work on behalf of charitable causes. And he has continued to voice the need for film projects that, as he expressed it to Los Angeles Times writer Charles Champlin, "have a commonality with the universal human condition."
Born in 1924 in Miami, Florida, but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier experienced severe poverty as a boy. His father, a tomato farmer, "was the poorest man in the village, " the actor recalled in an interview with Frank Spotnitz for American Film. "My father was never a man of self-pity, " he continued, adding that the elder Poitier "had a wonderful sense of himself. Every time I took a part, from the first part, from the first day, I always said to myself, 'This must reflect well on his name."' The family moved from the tiny village of Cat Island to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, when Poitier was 11 years old, and it was there that he first experienced the magic of cinema.
After watching rapt as a western drama transpired on the screen, Poitier recollected gleefully to Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, he ran to the back of the theater to watch the cowboys and their horses come out. After watching the feature a second time, he again went out to wait for the figures from the screen to emerge. "And when I told my friends what had happened, they laughed and they laughed and they said to me, 'Everything you saw was on film.' And they explained to me what film was. And I said, 'Go on."'
Thrown Out of First Audition
Poitier made his way to New York at age 16, serving for a short time in the Army. He has often told the story of his earliest foray into acting, elaborating on different strands of the tale from one recitation to the next. He was a teenager, working as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. "I didn't study in high school, " he told American Film's Spotnitz. "I never got that far. I had no intentions of becoming an actor." Seeing an ad for actors in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper, he went to an audition at the American Negro Theater. "I walked in and there was a man there—big strapping guy. He gave me a script."
The man was Frederick O'Neal, a cofounder of the theater; impatient with young Poitier's Caribbean accent and shaky reading skills, O'Neal lost his temper: "He came up on the stage, furious, and grabbed me by the scruff of my pants and my collar and marched me toward the door, " the actor remembered to Los Angeles Times writer Champlin. "Just before he threw me out he said, 'Stop wasting people's time! Why don't you get yourself a job as a dishwasher."' Stunned that O'Neal could perceive his lowly status, Poitier knew he had to prove his antagonist wrong. "I have, and had, a terrible fierce pride, " Poitier told the audience at the American Film Institute fête, as reported by Daily Variety. "I determined right then I was going to be an actor."
Poitier continued in his dishwashing job; in his spare time he listened assiduously to radio broadcasts, he noted to Champlin, "trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns." He had some help in one aspect of his informal education, however: Daily Variety quoted his speech at the AFI banquet, in which he thanked "an elderly Jewish waiter in New York who took the time to teach a young black dishwasher how to read, persisting over many months." Ultimately, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theater, persuading its directors to hire him as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons.
Poitier understudied for actor-singer Harry Belafonte in a play called Days of Our Youth, and an appearance one night led to a small role in a production of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Poitier, uncontrollably nervous on the latter play's opening night, delivered the wrong lines and ran off the stage; yet his brief appearance so delighted critics, most of whom otherwise hated the production, that he ended up getting more work. "I set out after that to dimensionalize my understanding of my craft, " he told Champlin.
Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, portraying a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he could not save. Director Joseph Mankiewicz had identified Poitier's potential, and the film bore out the filmmaker's instincts. Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, notably in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country, the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle, and the taut The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played prison escapees manacled together; their mutual struggle helps them look past racism and learn to respect each other. Poitier also appeared in the film version of George Gershwin's modern opera Porgy and Bess.
First Black Actor to Win Academy Award
It was in the 1960s, however—with the civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others gathering momentum—that Poitier began to make his biggest mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, in a role he'd developed on the stage, he took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in the 1963 production Lilies of the Field. This role earned him a best actor statuette at the Academy Awards, making him the first black actor to earn this honor.
"Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue, " Poitier reflected to Ellicott of the London Times. "I didn't understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix."
The mix was more potent than might have been anticipated, in fact; by 1967 Poitier was helping to break down filmic barriers that hitherto had seemed impenetrable. In To Sir, With Love Poitier played a charismatic schoolteacher, while In the Heat of the Night saw him portray Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North who helps solve a murder in a sleepy southern town and wins the grudging respect of the racist police chief there. Responding to the derisive labels flung at him, Poitier's character glowers, "They call me Mister Tibbs." The film's volatile mixture of suspense and racial politics eventually spawned two sequels starring Poitier and a television series (Poitier did not appear in the small screen version).
Even more stunning, Poitier wooed a white woman in the comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; his fiancée's parents were played by screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film was considered a watershed because it was Hollywood's first interracial love story that did not end tragically. Poitier's compelling presence—articulate, compassionate, soft-spoken, yet demanding respect from even the most hostile—helped make this possible. Reflecting on the anti-racist agenda of filmmakers during this period, Poitier remarked to Ellicott, "I suited their need. I was clearly intelligent. I was a pretty good actor. I believed in brotherhood, in a free society. I hated racism, segregation. And I was a symbol against those things."
Key Activist for Civil Rights
Of course, Poitier was more than a symbol. At the AFI banquet, reported David J. Fox in the Los Angeles Times, James Earl Jones praised his friend's work on behalf of the civil right struggle, declaring, "He marched on Montgomery [Alabama] and Memphis [Tennessee] with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said of Sidney: 'He's a man who never lost his concern for the least of God's children."' Indeed, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 touched off a crucial battle for desegregation simply by refusing to sit in the "negro" section of a Montgomery bus, attended the tribute and lauded Poitier as "a great actor and role model."
In 1972 Poitier took a co-starring role with Belafonte in the revisionist western Buck and the Preacher for Columbia Pictures. After a falling out with the director of the picture, Poitier took over; though he and Belafonte urged Columbia to hire another director, a studio representative saw footage Poitier had shot and encouraged him to finish the film himself. "And that's how I became a director, " he told Los Angeles Times contributor Champlin.
Poitier is best known for helming comedic features co-starring his friend comedian Bill Cosby; in addition to the trilogy of caper comedies of the 1970s—Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action—they collaborated on the ill-fated 1990 fantasy-comedy Ghost Dad, which was poorly received by both critics and moviegoers. Poitier also directed the hit 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, which starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, as well as several other features.
Poitier took only a handful of film roles in the 1980s, but in 1991 he played Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in the television film Separate but Equal. James Earl Jones described the performance as "a landmark actor portraying a landmark figure, in one of the landmark moments of our history." And in 1992 he returned to the big screen for the espionage comedy-drama Sneakers, which co-starred Robert Redford, River Phoenix, and Dan Aykroyd. "It was a wonderful, breezy opportunity to play nothing heavy, " he noted to Bary Koltnow of the Orange County Register. "It was simple, and I didn't have to carry the weight. I haven't done that in a while, and it was refreshing."
That year also saw the gala AFI tribute to Poitier, during which the actor welcomed young filmmakers into the fold and enjoined them to "be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey, " reported Daily Variety. "I fully expected to be wise by now, " Poitier noted in his speech, "but I've come to this place in my life armed only with the knowledge of how little I know. I enter my golden years with nothing profound to say and no advice to leave, but I thank you for paying me this great honor while I still have hair, and my stomach still has not obscured my view of my shoetops."
Poitier observed to Champlin that during this "golden age" the demands of art had taken a back seat to domestic concerns to a large degree. "It's very important, but it's not the nerve center, " he insisted. "There is the family, and there is music and there is literature" as well as political issues. Poitier noted that he and his wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, travel a great deal since they reside in California and have children in New York, and, as the actor put it, "I live in the world."
Poitier returned to the small screen for 1995's western drama Children of the Dust. As a presence, reported Chris Dafoe of the Los Angeles Times, "it's apparent that he's viewed with respect, even awe, by virtually everyone on the set." Costar Michael Moriarty observed that Poitier lived up to his legendary status: "You see a face that you've grown up with and admired, someone who was an icon of America, a symbol of strength and persistence and grace. And then you find out that in the everyday, workaday work of doing movies, he is everything he symbolizes on screen."
Poitier continued to star in television movies with 1996's To Sir With Love II (directed by Peter Bogdanovich) and the 1997 Showtime docudrama Mandela and de Klerk. The latter tells the story of Nelson Mandela's last years in prison to his election as leader of South Africa. Both received mixed reviews.
For Poitier, the challenge of doing meaningful work involves transcending the racial and social barriers he helped tumble with his early film appearances. He has insisted that large budgets are not necessary to make a mark and that violence too often seems the only way to resolve conflicts on the screen. "We suffer pain, we hang tight to hope, we nurture expectations, we are plagued occasionally by fears, we are haunted by defeats and unrealized hopes, " he said of humans in general in his interview with Champlin, adding that "when you make drama of that condition, it's almost as if words are not necessary. It has its own language—spoken everywhere, understood everywhere."
Further Reading on Sidney Poitier
American Film, September 1991, pp. 18-21, 49.
Daily Variety, March 16, 1992, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1992 (Calendar), p. 8; March 14, 1992, pp. F1, F4; February 26, 1995 (Television Times), pp. 5-6.
New York Times, April 6, 1996, p. A20; February 15, 1997, p. A15.
Orange County Register, September 11, 1992, p. P6.
Times (London), November 8, 1992.