Newborn Sidney Poitier Had Slim Chance to Survive & dad Prepared to Bury Him in a Shoebox

Laura Beatham
Dec 09, 2021
06:20 P.M.
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Although Sydney Poiter has created a successful career in Hollywood, there was a time when his parents did not believe he would survive when he was a newborn. 

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Sidney Poitier is considered America's first Black film star. After Kirk Douglas's death, Poitier became one of the last surviving actors from the Hollywood Golden Age.

Furthermore, Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. He received the award in 1964 for his performance in "Lilies of the Field."

Sidney Poitier departs the Oscars at Hollywood & Highland Center, 2014, Hollywood, California [Left. A Portrait of Poitier as a younger man [Right] | Photo: Getty Images

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After a troubled youth and a short stint in the US Army, Poitier moved to New York and pursued an acting

career

. He first joined the American Negro Theater after one failed audition. 

Before heading to the big screen, Poitier appeared in a few stage productions including, "Days of Our Youth," a Broadway production of "Lysistrata" in 1946, and "Anna Lucasta."

For the rest of the 40s, Poitier toured the US with the all-Black "Anna Lucasta" production. Then in 1950, he made his Hollywood debut in "No Way Out," and the following year, he featured in "Cry, the Beloved Country."

Sidney Poitier holding his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for "Lilies Of The Field" in 1964. | Photo: Getty Images

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His career blossomed in 1955 after appearing in "Blackboard Jungle." During the next few years, he appeared in "The Defiant Ones," "Porgy and Bess," and "A Raisin in the Sun."

Later in the 60s, Poitier had strong performances in films like "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and "To Sir, with Love."

Besides acting, Poitier directed a few films, including the 1972 "Buck and The Preacher" and the 1980 comedy "Stir Crazy" starring Richard Gere and Gene Wilder. 

Sidney Poitier and Joanna Shimkus attend the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation's 6th Annual Christmas Gala and Fundraiser, 2015 Beverly Hills, California. | Photo: Getty Images

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POITIER'S LONG MARRIAGE

While building his impressive career in Hollywood, he met his wife of 45 years, Joanna Shimkus. However, he was previously married to Juanita Hardy, but they divorced in 1965 allegedly because of Poitier's infidelity. 

Before becoming an actress, Shimkus worked as a model in Paris. Her line of work attracted the attention of movie producers, who then expanded her career by helping her pursue acting.

The couple married in 1976 and share two daughters, Sydney and Anika. It seems Sydney was well on her way to following in her famous parents' footsteps as she studied acting at New York City University. 

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Sidney Poitier with his wife Joanna Shimkus and their children in Monte Carlo, 1983, Monaco. | Photo: Getty Images

Shimkus and Poitier met while co-starring in the 1969 film "The Lost Man." Poitier portrayed army Lieutenant Jason Higgs, while Shimkus played Cathy Ellis, a social worker and his love interest. 

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The relationship between Poitier and Shimkus began to mimic the relationship between their onscreen characters. After meeting Shimkus, Poitier became aware of his cheating behavior and decided to master it.

Like Ellis, who provided a haven for Lieutenant Higgs, Shimkus offered Poitier clarity and perspective to change his ways. Poitier once said of their relationship:

“There is one key ingredient my wife has helped me to recognize over the years and that is the importance of articulating love for one another on a daily basis.”

Sidney Poitier and Joanna Shimkus during Giorgio Armani Prive in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images

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Shimkus and Poitier were active in their careers from the 60s and beyond. They came to represent a classical gilded era in Hollywood films.

POITIER LEARNED TO READ LATER IN LIFE

Besides acting and being a family man, the three times Golden Globe winner has written four books. However, he could barely read after he left school at 12.

A few years later, he learned how to read through the kindness of a stranger. He was a dishwasher in Queens and one day, was trying to read a newspaper, a "Jewish waiter" asked him, "What's new in the paper?"

Sidney Poitier attends the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party, West Hollywood, California. | Photo: Getty Images

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Poitier replied honestly and said he couldn't tell him because he could not read. The waiter then sat down with him and taught him how to read. Poitier once told People of the experience:

“That night and every night, that man, whoever he was, sat next to me and taught me to read—not just the pronunciation and meaning of the words, but what a comma was,...”

Eventually, Poiter went to work somewhere else. However, he never got the chance to thank the waiter for the gift (the ability to read) he had given him.

Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford on the set of "Sneakers" written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson. | Photo: Getty Images

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POITIER ESCAPED POVERTY

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas on Cat Island as the youngest of seven children in a farming family. Although his family did not have electricity or running water, his parents gave him something more valuable, as he once said:

"My dad was a remarkable man, a good person, a principled individual, a man of integrity. And my mother was the most amazing person. All that I am, she taught me."

Later at age 15, his parents gave him $3 and sent him to Miami, where his older brother lived. After an encounter with the Klu Klux Klan, he moved to New York and began working on his career. 

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Sidney Poitier attends the 50th anniversary screening of "In the Heat of the Night" during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, Los Angeles, California. | Photo: Getty Images

He started working as a dishwasher. While looking through the newspaper for another job, he stumbled upon the theater page and saw an "Actors Wanted" advert. 

So Poitier went to the audition. A man at the theater gave Poitier a script, but as Poitier was reading the lines in his thick Caribbean accent, the auditioner was not impressed. Poitier once explained

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"...as he is about to throw me out, he said to me 'Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher?'"

Sidney Poitier at the opening night of "Born For This" at The Broad Stage, 2017, Santa Monica, California. | Photo: Getty Images

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The rejection motivated the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" actor, and he spent months mimicking American newscasters to lose his accent and exchanged work for acting lessons. 

Finally, his hard work paid off. Poitier returned to the same theater company and landed his first role in the stage play "Days Of Our Youth." Of course, his impressive career followed. 

Sidney Poitier and daughters attend Entertainment Weekly's Winter Wonderland Sundance Bash during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah. | Photo: Getty Images

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POITIER'S PARENTS THOUGHT HE WOULD DIE

Although Poitier has a thriving and recognized career, many might not know that when his life started, his parents were unsure if he would live, let alone go on to have an impressive Hollywood career. 

The acclaimed actor was born two months premature in Miami in 1927. His likelihood of surviving was so slim that his father returned home with a shoebox to bury him in. 

Fortunately for Poitier, his family, and the eventual fans he would have, that tiny baby survived. He went through and broke free of poverty and became a huge success.  

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