Sidney Poitier sadly died on January 6, 2022, at the age of 94.With his passing, we lost one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, activists, and icons.
Since his passing, many prominent personalities in the entertainment industry have spoken about their admiration for the late actor. Many actors from Morgan Freeman to Denzel Washington to Will Smith have been inspired by him and feel they owe much of their success to him.
This isn’t an exaggeration, of course. Apart from being a talented actor, Sidney Poitier was a trailblazer. He entered the entertainment industry when opportunities for black actors were few and far between.
But this didn’t stop him from making waves in show business. His daughter Sydney has now spoken out about her father’s incredible journey from Cat Island to Hollywood…
A TRAILBLAZER WITH MORAL FORTITUDE
On January 11th, 2022, actress Sydney Poitier posted a photo of her and her father on Instagram. She discussed how her father paved the way for other actors and how he was a man of great moral fortitude.
Sydney further wrote that “the world lost so much goodness” when her father passed away. She went on to discuss how her father was always known as a decent human being.
This is, indeed, how everyone thinks of Sidney Poitier. He played dignified characters in his films. But this dignity and decency went beyond the screen. In his real life, he had a reputation for being a decent person and a great role model.
He exemplified a classiness that’s sadly lost among most Hollywood stars today. He was the epitome of a gentleman, and his passing is a great loss for the entertainment industry.
But how did Sidney Poitier become an iconic actor? His background was humble, and he had to overcome many hurdles to get his foot in the door – in an otherwise ruthless and harsh industry.
Before we tell you more about Sidney Poitier’s life and career, please like this video and subscribe to our channel for more pop culture videos and interesting stories. Now, back to the video…
SIDNEY’S EARLY LIFE
Sidney Poitier was born on the 20th of February, 1927, in Miami, Florida. Due to being born on American soil, he was granted U.S. citizenship from birth. However, he wouldn’t return to the states until many years later. He was born prematurely, and his parents stayed in Miami for 3 months to help take care of him. But they soon would leave Miami to return to their farm.
As a child, he grew up on Cat Island in The Bahamas – still a British Crown Colony at the time. His parents, Reginald and Evelyn, owned a farm on the island. Today, this small island with just above 1500 residents is still known as the place where the legendary actor spent his childhood. He was raised in the Arthur’s Town settlement on the island. His childhood home is a popular attraction for tourists.
Sidney experienced rural Caribbean life until the age of 10 when he and his family moved to Nassau – the capital city of The Bahamas.
Here he was exposed to the comforts and fascinations of modern life – including motion pictures. When he was 15, his family sent him back to Miami to live with his brother’s family who had moved to the city.
However, Sidney only lasted one year in Miami. This was the early 1940s and the Southern states had enforced racist negationist laws known as the Jim Crow Laws. While it would still be a few decades until The Bahamas received independence from the United Kingdom, Sidney had become used to living in a country where he belonged to the majority race and was treated with respect.
The racism that he witnessed and endured in the Jim Crow South obviously took its toll on him. After only one year in Miami, he decided to move to New York City – which didn’t have segregationist laws and was a lot more tolerant toward Black Americans in comparison to the South.
He worked a number of odd jobs, but he had decided that he wanted to become an actor. One wonders if he knew, at the age of 16, that he’d become a trailblazer in American cinema within the coming decades…
SIDNEY’S EARLY CAREER
Sidney struggled to break through in show business. He joined the American Negro Theatre in the 1940s but struggled to impress audiences with his performances. Sidney wasn’t a very talented singer, and this was a skill that was expected of most Black actors and actresses at the time. He also had to spend several months getting rid of his thick Bahamian accent, which American audiences weren’t used to.
One of his early lead roles was in the stage play Lysistrata – though this, sadly, only ran for 4 days. Throughout the 1940s, he struggled to make a name for himself on stage.
In 1950, however, he got his big break and found his true calling. He was cast in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film No Way Out. In the film, Sidney played Dr. Luther Brooks. His role involved treating a bigoted white man named Ray Biddle played by Richard Widmark.
This was a controversial film for its time, and it was certainly brave for Sidney to undertake such a challenging role. It proved to be a great decision on his part as the film helped launch his career.
The following year, he acted in the British drama film Cry, The Beloved Country. This film shot in South Africa – which had implemented racial apartheid laws – even more horrific than the South’s Jim Crow laws.
As it was illegal for whites and blacks to mix in South Africa, at the time, Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee had to pretend that they were the indentured servants of director Zoltan Korda!
The fact that Sidney was willing to travel to a country governed by racist laws to illegally make a film showed that his mission wasn’t simply to act. He wants to bring dignity to black talent and he wanted to fight against racist laws – no matter where they were implemented!
THE FILMS OF SIDNEY POITIER
Following No Way Out and Cry, The Beloved Country, Sidney Poitier had developed a reputation as a black actor who insisted on playing characters with dignity. He refused to degrade himself by playing the kind foolish or unlikeable roles that often offer to black actors at the time.
In 1961, he appeared in the romantic drama film Paris Blues alongside Paul Newman. In the film, he played an American expatriate jazz musician. The film showed how Paris was open and tolerant toward Black Americans while back in the U.S. there was still much hostility and horrific race relations. Sidney clearly wasn’t afraid to challenge the prevailing attitudes of the time with his work.
In 1965, he became part of an ensemble cast in the Cold War drama film The Bedford Incident. This was his first role where his race wasn’t an integral part of the story or his character. While that might not seem significant today, it was unusual at the time for a black actor to just play a regular character – without his race having to be a central point of focus.
1967 was one of the most significant years of Sidney Poitier’s career. In that year, he returned to the subject of race relations with the romantic comedy film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? In the film, Sidney plays Dr. John Prentice, who meets his white fiancé’s parents – played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
The film portrayed an interracial relationship in a positive light – which was practically unheard of in the 1960s. At the time of the film’s production, interracial marriage was still illegal in many states in the USA. By the time the film released, these anti-miscegenation laws struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The same year, Sidney also appeared as Mark Thackeray in the British film To Sir With Love – based on E.R. Braithwaite’s best-selling novel. This film dealt with race-relations in the United Kingdom. Once again, Sidney wasn’t afraid to tackle a difficult subject regardless of where it took place!
But perhaps the film that made Sidney Poitier a household name was the mystery film In The Heat of the Night. In the film, Sidney plays Virgil Tibbs – a respected detective from Philadelphia taking on a case in a small town in Mississippi. In this town, he doesn’t receive the same respect he’s used to in Philadelphia. And is often scorned at by the town’s white population – including by Chief Bill Gillespie played by Rod Steiger.
Nevertheless, he shows incredible composure and demands respect. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when the character Endicott, an elderly white man slaps Virgil hard in the face. Without hesitation, Virgil immediately slaps him back.
This scene wasn’t in the original novel, but Sidney Poitier insisted that this must happen in the film. The scene was shocking for audiences at the time and remains one of the film’s most powerful moments.
Actor Laurence Fishburne once remarked that the scene “the slap heard around the world!”
This incredible film showed that black actors could play tough and commanding characters on-screen. When you see actors such as Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or Laurence Fishburne play such characters in their films – you should know that this wouldn’t have been possible without Sidney Poitier!
In fact, when Denzel Washington won his Academy Award for the film Training Day, he remarked “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
In the 1970s, Sidney made 3 remarkable comedy films where he co-starred with Bill Cosby. These films were Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. These films release at the height of the blaxploitation craze in the USA. These were fun films that featured an ensemble of talented black actors and actresses. They were among the first major American films to tell stories focused solely on the experiences of black Americans.
Sidney also directed these 3 films. He would later direct the comedy film Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. This became his most successful film as a director.
His notable acting roles in the 1980s and 1990s included the films Shoot To Kill, Sneakers, and The Jackal. He also had a lead role in the miniseries Separate but Equal which portrayed the landmark Brown VS Board of Education court case which led to the desegregation of American schools.
In 1997, he starred alongside Sir Michael Caine in the TV movie Mandela and De Klerk. In this TV movie, he played Nelson Mandela and the film focused on the end of apartheid in South Africa. Almost 50 years before this TV movie released, Sidney had defiantly traveled to apartheid-era South Africa to illegally make the film Cry, The Beloved Country!
His final acting role was in the 2001 TV movie The Last Brickmaker in America.
SIDNEY POITIER’S LEGACY
Aside from his work in cinema and on television, Sidney Poitier also served on the board of directors for The Walt Disney Company from 1995 to 2003. He also served as the Ambassador of The Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007.
Sidney won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 film Lillies of the Field.
He later received an Honorary Oscar for his life’s work in 2001. He also received several BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations and awards.
In 1992, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Insititute. Tying with Gary Cooper, he has the most representation for an actor in AFI’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time. The inspiring films included A Raisin in the Sun (1961), The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967)
In 1994, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He got granted the Knight of the Order of the British Empire by the UK Royal Family for his contribution to the arts in 1974. Sidney got the award of Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009.
Upon his passing, actor Denzel Washington stated, “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He’s gentleman and opened doors for all of us that had closed for years.”
We were all truly lucky to experience Sidney Poitier’s career. As his daughter stated recently,
“his goodness lives on….lives on in his wife, his children, his grandchildren, in his movies and books, in every warm embrace he offered an adoring fan, every piece of advice he gave to those he mentored, every tiny bug he gently placed outside.”
Are you a fan of Sidney Poitier?
Do you think that contemporary audiences know about his contribution to American cinema and how he paved the way for black entertainers in Hollywood? Or is there a need to revive his legacy for younger generations?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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