Actor, Activist, Ambassador And Harlem Sidney L. Poitier Passes 1927 – 2022 (Video)

January 8, 2022

Sidney L. Poitier, February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022, was a Bahamian-American actor, film director, activist, and ambassador with a deep history in Harlem.

In 1964, he was the first Black person and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

He received two Academy Award nominations, ten Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) nomination. From 1997 to 2007, he was the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.

Poitier’s entire family lived in the Bahamas, then still a British colony, but he was born unexpectedly in Miami while they were visiting for the weekend, which automatically granted him U.S. citizenship. He grew up in the Bahamas, but moved to Miami at age 15, and to Harlem, New York City when he was 16 in 1943.

He joined the American Negro Theater, landing his breakthrough film role as a high school student in the film Blackboard Jungle (1955).

In 1958, Poitier starred with Tony Curtis as chained-together escaped convicts in The Defiant Ones, which received nine Academy Award nominations.

Both actors received a nomination for Best Actor, with Poitier’s being the first for a Black actor, as well as a nomination for a BAFTA, which Poitier won.

In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963), playing a handyman helping a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel.

Poitier also received acclaim for Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and A Patch of Blue (1965). He continued to break ground in three successful 1967 films which dealt with issues of race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night.

He received Golden Globe and British Academy Film Award nominations for his performance in the last film and in a poll the next year was voted the US’s top box-office star.

Beginning in the 1970s, Poitier also directed various comedy films, including Stir Crazy (1980), starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, among other films. After nearly a decade away from acting, he returned to television and film starring in Shoot to Kill (1988) and Sneakers (1992).

Poitier was granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. In 1995, he received the Kennedy Center Honor. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

In 2016, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. In 1999, he ranked 22nd among the male actors on the “100 Years…100 Stars” list by the American Film Institute. He won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.

In 1982, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award and in 2000, he received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. In 2002, he was given an Academy Honorary Award, in recognition of his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being”.

Early life

Sidney L. Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He was the youngest of seven children, born to Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island. The family would travel to Miami to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald also worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas.

Poitier was born unexpectedly in Miami while his parents were visiting. His birth was two months premature, and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained in Miami for three months to nurse him to health.

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British Crown colony. Owing to his unplanned birth in the United States, he was automatically entitled to U.S. citizenship.

Poitier’s uncle believed that the Poitier ancestors on his father’s side had migrated from Haiti, and were probably among the runaway slaves who established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He noted that Poitier is a French name and that there was no White Poitiers from the Bahamas.

However, there had been a White Poitier on Cat Island; the name came from planter Charles Leonard Poitier, who had immigrated from Jamaica in the early 1800s. In 1834, his wife’s estate on Cat Island had 86 slaves who kept the name Poitier, a name that had been introduced into the Anglosphere since the Norman conquest in the eleventh century.

Poitier lived with his family on Cat Island until he was ten when they moved to Nassau. There he was exposed to the modern world, where he saw his first automobile, first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and motion pictures. He was raised Catholic but later became an agnostic with views closer to deism.

At age fifteen, he was sent to Miami to live with his brother’s large family. At sixteen, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher.

A waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper.

During World War II, in November 1943, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Armvy. He was assigned to a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Northport, New York, and was trained to work with psychiatric patients. Poitier became upset with how the hospital treated its patients and feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge. Poitier confessed to a psychiatrist that he was faking his condition, but the doctor was sympathetic and granted his discharge under Section VIII of Army regulation 615-360 in December 1944.

After leaving the Army, he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a role in an American Negro Theater production.


Early work

Poitier joined the American Negro Theater but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of Black actors at the time, Poitier’s tone-deafness made him unable to sing.

Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success.

On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production of Lysistrata, for which, though it ran a failing four days, he received an invitation to understudy for Anna Lucasta.

The 1940’s

After paying $11 for a bus ticket, Poitier arrived that year in New York City — but his real destination was Harlem, which had “enticed Sidney since childhood,” and which was just a few years removed from the peak of its Renaissance, Aram Goudsouzian wrote in his 2004 biography of Poitier Patch writes.

Getting off the bus in Midtown, Poitier caught the A train and got off at 116th Street — though he ultimately returned downtown later that day after discovering that a Harlem hotel cost $3 per night, more than he could afford.

Getting off the bus in Midtown, Poitier caught the A train and got off at 116th Street — though he ultimately returned downtown later that day after discovering that a Harlem hotel cost $3 per night, more than he could afford.

Ultimately, Poitier saved enough to rent a room on 127th Street, where he paid $5 per week while working as a dishwasher at restaurants and hotels around Manhattan.

“The tiny space contained only a small cot, a rickety bureau, and a nacked light bulb hanging off-center,” Goudsouzian wrote.

Poitier’s tenure in Harlem coincided with the August 1943 race riots, which were touched off when a white police officer shot and wounded a Black soldier in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street.

Poitier’s tenure in Harlem coincided with the August 1943 race riots, which were touched off when a white police officer shot and wounded a Black soldier in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street.

In the biography, Poitier recalled playing dead inside a department store to avoid being targeted by the police, then being shot in the leg as he ran up Lenox Avenue and down 127th Street toward his apartment.

Discouraged by the New York City winter, Poitier joined the Army later that year, though he returned to Harlem after quitting. It was here that he made a fateful discovery one day while reading the Amsterdam News: the American Negro Theater had placed an advertisement seeking actors.

“Out of part dissatisfaction with the drudgery of daily toil, part fanciful daydream of a better life, and part sheer restlessness, Poitier pursued the following ad: ‘Actors Wanted By Little Theatre Group; Apply in Person at the American Negro Theater,'” Goudsouzian wrote.

In 1947, Poitier was a founding member of the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, an organization whose participants were committed to a left-wing analysis of class and racial exploitation.

The 1950s

By late 1949, Poitier had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950).

His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a Caucasian bigot (played by Richard Widmark, who became a friend), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most African-American actors of the time were offered.

In 1951, he traveled to South Africa with the African-American actor Canada Lee to star in the film version of Cry, the Beloved Country. Poitier’s breakout role was as Gregory W. Miller, a member of an incorrigible high-school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Poitier enjoyed working for director William Wellman on Good-bye, My Lady (1956). Wellman was a big name, he had previously directed the famous Roxie Hart (1942) with Ginger Rogers and Magic Town (1947) with James Stewart.

What Poitier remembered indelibly was the wonderful humanity in this talented director. Wellman had a sensitivity that Poitier thought was profound, which Wellman felt he needed to hide.”

Poitier later praised Wellman for inspiring his thoughtful approach to directing when he found himself taking the helm from Joseph Sargent on Buck and the Preacher in 1971.

In 1958 he starred alongside Tony Curtis in director Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones. The film was a critical and commercial success with the performances of both Poitier and Curtis being praised.

The film landed eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor nominations for both stars making Poitier the first Black male actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award as best actor. Poitier did win the British Academy Film Award for Best Foreign Actor.

Poitier acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun alongside Ruby Dee on the Broadway stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards.

The play introduced details of Black life to the overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, while director Richards observed that it was the first play to which large numbers of Black people were drawn.

The play was a groundbreaking piece of American theatre with Frank Rich, a critic from The New York Times writing in 1983, that A Raisin in the Sun “changed American theatre forever”. That same year Poitier would star in the film adaptation of Porgy and Bess (1959) alongside Dorothy Dandridge. For his performance, Poitier received a 1960 Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

The 1960s

In 1961, Poitier starred in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun for which he received another Golden Globe Award nomination.

Also in 1961, Poitier starred in Paris Blues alongside Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Louis Armstrong, and Diahann Carroll. The film dealt with the American racism of the time by contrasting it with Paris’s open acceptance of Black people.

In 1963 he starred in Lilies of the Field. For this role, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor and became the first Black male to win the award.

His satisfaction at this honor was undermined by his concerns that this award was more of the industry congratulating itself for having him as a token and it would inhibit him from asking for more substantive considerations afterward.

Poitier worked relatively little over the following year; he remained the only major actor of African descent and the roles offered were predominantly typecast as a soft-spoken appeaser.

In 1964, Poitier recorded an album with the composer Fred Katz called Poitier Meets Plato, in which Poitier recites passages from Plato’s writings.

He also performed in the Cold War drama The Bedford Incident (1965) alongside the film’s producer Richard Widmark, the Biblical epic film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) alongside Charlton Heston and Max Von Sydow, and A Patch of Blue (1965) co-starring Elizabeth Hartman and Shelley Winters.

In 1967, he was the most successful draw at the box office, the commercial peak of his career, with three popular films, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

In To Sir, with Love, Poitier plays a teacher at a secondary school in the East End of London. The film deals with social and racial issues in the inner-city school. The film was met with a mixed response; however, Poitier was praised for his performance, with the critic from Time writing, “Even the weak moments are saved by Poitier, who invests his role with a subtle warmth.”

In Norman Jewison’s mystery drama In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Philadelphia who investigates a murder in the deep south in Mississippi alongside a cop with racial prejudices played by Rod Steiger. The film was a critical success with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling it “the most powerful film I have seen in a long time.”

Roger Ebert placed it at number ten on his top ten list of 1967 films. Art Murphy of Variety felt that the excellent Poitier and outstanding Steiger performances overcame noteworthy flaws, including an uneven script. Poitier received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nomination for his performance.

In Stanley Kramer’s social drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier played a man in a relationship with a White woman played by Katharine Houghton. The film revolves around her bringing him to meet with her parents played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The film was one of the rare films at the time to depict an interracial marriage in a positive light, as interracial marriage historically had been illegal in most states of the United States. It was still illegal in 17 states—mostly Southern states—until June 12, 1967, six months before the film was released. The film was a critical and financial success. In his film review, Roger Ebert described Poitier’s character as “a noble, rich, intelligent, handsome, ethical medical expert” and that the film “is a magnificent piece of entertainment. It will make you laugh and may even make you cry.”

To win his role as Dr. Prentice in the film, Poitier had to audition for Tracy and Hepburn at two separate dinner parties.

Poitier began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized African-American characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Poitier was aware of this pattern himself but was conflicted on the matter.

He wanted more varied roles; but he also felt obliged to set an example with his characters, by challenging old stereotypes, as he was the only major actor of African descent being cast in leading roles in the American film industry at the time.

For instance, in 1966, he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC television production of Othello with that spirit in mind. Despite this, many of the films in which Poitier starred during the 1960s would later be cited as social thrillers by both filmmakers and critics.

Later work

In the Heat of the Night featured his most successful character, Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania detective whose subsequent career was the subject of two sequels: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).

Poitier directed several films, the most successful being the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy (1980), which for many years was the highest-grossing film directed by a person of African descent.

His feature film directorial debut, in 1972, was the Western Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte.

Poitier replaced the original director, Joseph Sargent. The following year, Poitier also directed and starred in the romance drama A Warm December. The trio of Poitier, Cosby, and Belafonte reunited, with Poitier again directing, in Uptown Saturday Night (1974).

He directed Cosby in Let’s Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), and Ghost Dad (1990). Poitier directed Fast Forward in 1985.

In 1988, he starred in Shoot to Kill with Tom Berenger. In 1992, he starred in Sneakers with Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd.

In 1997, he played a supporting role in The Jackal with Richard Gere and Bruce Willis.

In the 1990s, he starred in several well-received television movies and miniseries such as Separate but Equal (1991), To Sir, with Love II (1996), Mandela and de Klerk (1997), and The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn (1999).

He received Emmy nominations for his work in Separate but Equal and Mandela and de Klerk, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for the former.

In 2002, Poitier received the 2001 Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. Later in the ceremony, Denzel Washington won the award for Best Actor for his performance in Training Day, becoming the second Black actor to win the award.

In his victory speech, Washington saluted Poitier by saying “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”

With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, Poitier became the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor. On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards to present the Best Director Award. He was given a standing ovation and Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating “we are in your debt”.

Poitier gave a brief speech, telling his peers to “keep up the wonderful work” to warm applause. In 2021, the Academy dedicated the lobby of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles as the “Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby” in his honor.

Board and diplomatic service

From 1995 to 2003, Poitier served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.

In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held until 2007. From 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO.

Personal life

Poitier was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. Poitier became a resident of Mount Vernon in Westchester County, New York in 1956, though they raised their family in Stuyvesant, New York, in a house on the Hudson River.

In 1959, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll. He married Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian former actress, on January 23, 1976, and they remained married for the rest of his life. He had four daughters with his first wife (Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina) and two with his second (Anika and Sydney Tamiia) In addition to his six daughters, Poitier had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, Poitier’s family had 23 missing relatives.


On January 6, 2022, Poitier died at his home in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 94.

Please share any memories on our Harlem History Facebook page.

Photo credit: 1) Sidney L. Poitier . 2) A scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun. From left: Louis Gossett Jr. as George Murchison, Ruby Dee as Ruth Younger, and Poitier as Walter Younger. 3) Poitier (left) at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside actors Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston.

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