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Sidney Poitier, Academy's 1st Black American Best Actor Winner, Had No Education When He Came to America at 15

Gracious Egedegbe
Sep 20, 2021
12:00 P.M.
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Sidney Poitier was the first Black male and Bahamian actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor but went through rough roads to reach those heights.

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Sidney Poitier is one of Hollywood's most prominent names and pioneered the rise of Black actors in the American movie industry. However, he went from the ground up before reaching the peak of stardom.

Poitier was born on February 20, 1927. He was born unexpectedly in Miami while his family was visiting there for the weekend. Hence, he automatically became an American citizen.

Portrait photo of Sidney Poitier. | Photo: Getty Images

Portrait photo of Sidney Poitier. | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier grew up in the Bahamas but he moved back to Miami at 15. A year after moving back to the city of his birth, he relocated to New York with only $3 in his pocket. There, he joined the North American Negro Theater.

His stage debut came when he filled in for Harry Belafonte in the theater's production of "Days of Our Youth." In 1946, he appeared in a Broadway production of "Lysistrata," which earned him rave reviews.

Following his impressive performance, he landed another role in the play "Anna Lucasta" and toured the country with the all-Black production in the next few years that followed.

Actor Sidney Poitier attends the opening night of "Born For This" at The Broad Stage on July 20, 2017. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier attends the opening night of "Born For This" at The Broad Stage on July 20, 2017. | Photo: Getty Images

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The actor's Hollywood debut came in the 1950 feature film "No Way Out." A year later, he starred in the movie "Cry, Beloved Country."

His career breakthrough came in 1955 when he starred in "Blackboard Jungle." The actor played the role of a gifted but troubled student at an inner-city school.

Poitier reached new heights in his acting career when he earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in the 1958 crime drama "The Defiant Ones." He also starred in "Porgy and Bess" alongside Dorothy Dandridge.

Sidney Poitier speaks onstage during the 2016 Carousel Of Hope Ball at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 8, 2016. | Photo: Getty Images

Sidney Poitier speaks onstage during the 2016 Carousel Of Hope Ball at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 8, 2016. | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier's starring performances in "Porgy and Bess" and the 1961 adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun," contributed to making him a top Hollywood star.

In 1964, Poitier emerged as the first African American actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field."

Poitier also revealed he was asked to change his name because it was thought to be difficult.

Actor Sidney Poitier attends the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier attends the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015. | Photo: Getty Images

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The win made him cinema's first Caribbean-American superstar and one who consciously defied racial stereotypes. He also became a living legend who changed Hollywood with his talent.

With his soft but powerful voice and integrity, Poitier captured the public imagination like no one before him ever did. A year after winning an Academy Award, he was an established star and opened doors that were closed to him initially.

In 1967, Poitier starred in three films, and he portrayed detective Virgil Tibbs in "In the Heat of the Night," a Southern crime drama. The star actor also starred in the British film "To Sir, with Love," as teacher Mark Thackeray.

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Actor Sidney Poitier attends the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier attends the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser at Montage Beverly Hills on December 19, 2015. | Photo: Getty Images

Despite helping to break down the color barrier in Hollywood and bringing dignity through the portrayal of intelligent and noble characters, Poitier came under fire in the late 1960s because of his lack of political radicalism.

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After a harsh national article about him, he decided to step out of the spotlight and lived in the Bahamas for some time before returning to Hollywood.

Actor Sidney Poitier speaks on stage at the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Rhapsody Ball held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on November 14, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier speaks on stage at the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Rhapsody Ball held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on November 14, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

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In 1972, he made his directorial debut in the movie "Buck and the Preacher," which he co-starred with his friend, Harry Belafonte. Poitier and Belafonte also starred in the 1974 comedy "Uptown Saturday Night."

He helmed the 1980 Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy "Stir Crazy," which was the highest-grossing film by an African-American director for many years.

Poitier stayed away from the big screen for almost a decade but returned in 1988 by starring in the dramas "Shoot to Kill," and "Little Nikita."

Actor Sidney Poitier arrives at the 86th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 2, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier arrives at the 86th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 2, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

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His later roles include the 1992 film "Sneakers," and the 1997 movie "One Man, One Vote." He also earned accolades for his role in small screen films.

He portrayed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in "Separate but Equal" (1991) and late South African leader Nelson Mandela in the 1997 film "Mandela and De Klerk."

In 2000, Poitier published "The Measure of a Man," a spiritual autobiography. In that same year, he won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for the audio version of his book.

Actor Sidney Poitier arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, 2014. | Photo: Getty Images

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In 2008, he shared his experiences and wisdom with future generations in the book "Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter."

He is a recipient of numerous honors for his legendary career and has held several positions in his lifetime. In 1974, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire.

In 2009, former US President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2011, Poitier received the Film Society of Lincoln's Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award. He also served as a non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan and UNESCO.

Sidney Poitier speaks at the 44th NAACP Image Awards - show held at The Shrine Auditorium on February 1, 2013. | Photo: Getty Images

Sidney Poitier speaks at the 44th NAACP Image Awards - show held at The Shrine Auditorium on February 1, 2013. | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier turned 94 on February 20. In a 2000 chat with Oprah Winfrey, he said he played a lot of golf for fun and noted that his love for the sport surpasses his gift for it.

The nonagenarian also revealed that he reads a lot. When asked what kind of books he reads, Poitier said he loves James Baldwin and Shakespear, adding that he has read many books on astronomy and books by Aristotle and Plato.

This is quite impressive given that Poitier had no formal education. However, despite his lack of formal education, he held on to who he truly was and said he was encouraged to do so because of the will to survive.

Sidney Poitier photographed while filming "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967. | Photo: Getty Images

Sidney Poitier photographed while filming "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967. | Photo: Getty Images

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During the interview, Poitier also revealed he was asked to change his name because it was thought to be difficult. However, he refused to do so.

Poitier has been married twice in his lifetime. His first marriage was to Juanita Hardy from 1950 to 1965. They share four daughters — Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina.

Sidney Poitier at the 36th Academy Awards ceremony, April 13, 1964. | Photo: Getty Images

Sidney Poitier at the 36th Academy Awards ceremony, April 13, 1964. | Photo: Getty Images

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He married for the second time on January 23, 1976, to actress Joanna Shimkus, with whom he shares two daughters, Anika and actress Sidney Tamiia.

Poitier appeared with his youngest daughters, Anika and Sidney, in an interview with THR. During the interview, Sidney and Anika shared surprising revelations about their childhood. Sidney said:

"We would put barrettes in his hair and then we'd make him call room service. So room service would come and he'd have to open the door with pink barrettes and lipstick on."

Actor Sidney Poitier is honored at 'An Artful Evening At CAAM' at California African American Museum on October 6, 2012. | Photo: Getty Images

Actor Sidney Poitier is honored at 'An Artful Evening At CAAM' at California African American Museum on October 6, 2012. | Photo: Getty Images

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Despite the fun moments he had with his kids, Poitier was a strict father. He said he learned parenting from his parents, who passed a view of life on to him. Anika also said she cherishes the values her father passed on to her and is using them to raise her kids.

Sidney further said they are blessed to have Poitier as their dad, adding that the world knows him as an iconic, legendary, and historical figure, but to them, he is a great dad.

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