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Sidney Poitier Speaker Profile

Sidney Poitier was born dangerously premature at only three pounds on February 20, 1924, in Miami, Florida. Sidney Poitiers father, a tomato farmer, had already saved a shoe box to bury him in when he miraculously recovered. The family moved to the Bahamas, where Sidney grew up as the youngest of eight siblings on Cay Island and Nassau.

After attending school for only a year and a half, Sidney Poitier dropped out to help his ailing father tend to the tomato farm during the depression. At age 15, he moved back to Miami to live with his brother Cyril, working as a drugstore messenger. It was then that the young Sidney Poitier experienced the first sting of racial prejudice in the United States, which was markedly different from his island home.

After a warning visit from the Ku Klux Klan at his brothers home, Poitier decided to flee Miami for New York City. Not having funds for transportation, he rail hopped and finally arrived with only a few dollars in his pocket. He found work washing dishes and slept on a roof across from the Capitol Theatre; however, the onset of a harsh winter prompted Sidney to lie about his age and join the U.S. Army, with hopes of being stationed in a warm climate. Instead, he received a post at a mental hospital in Long Island and eventually feigned mental illness himself to escape duty in 1945. Back in the city, he came across an advertisement in The Amsterdam News that would change his life forever: The American Negro Theatre was looking for actors.

After being laughed and booed off the stage at his first audition, Sidney Poitier returned to the theatre and was granted free acting lessons from director Frederick ONeal in exchange for completing backstage chores. He eventually won a part, alternating with fellow struggling actor Harry Belafonte, in Days of Our Youth. One role led to another and soon Sidney Poitier was commanding the limited black roles available on the New York stage.

In 1950, after performing successfully on the stage for several years, Sidney Poitier made his Hollywood debut in No Way Out, playing a prison ward doctor struggling to do his job amidst escalating racial tension in the cells. A string of strong leading roles followed, and Poitier became the trailblazer for black actors in Hollywood.

In 1958, Sidney Poitier was the first black actor nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Defiant Ones; in 1963, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field; and in 1967, he initiated the first on-screen kiss between a white person and a black person in Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. Other successful films include: Blackboard Jungle; A Raisin in the Sun; The Bedford Incident; To Sir, With Love; A Patch of Blue; and In the Heat of the Night. Civil rights advocates praised Poitier for portraying characters whose reserved dignity demanded respect; however, not everyone was a fan. Many activists found his characters too rational, too composed, and lacking the passion they felt was needed to fuel the civil rights movement.

In the 1970s, Sidney Poitier turned away from acting to take the directors chair and made several films in the popular Blaxploitation vein, including Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). In 1977, he directed the hit comedy Stir Crazy, pairing charismatic comedians Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. His film appearances since the 1970s have been noticeably scarce.

Sidney Poitier played an FBI agent in 1988s Shoot to Kill, and in Little Nikita that same year. He also appeared in Sneakers (1992) and in 1997s The Jackal, with Richard Gere and Bruce Willis. In 1999, Poitier appeared alongside his youngest daughter, fledgling actress Sydney Poitier, in Showtimes Free of Eden.

Poitier and his second wife, Joanna, live in Beverly Hills, where he continues to write screenplays and study philosophy. In 1980, the notoriously private man published his autobiography, This Life. He recently received an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


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