“If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”
Actor and director Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He arrived two and a half months prematurely while his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. As soon as he was strong enough, Poitier left the United States with his parents for the Bahamas. There Poitier spent his early years on his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island. After the farm failed, the family moved to Nassau, when Poitier was around the age of 10.
In Nassau, Poitier seemed to have a knack for getting himself into trouble. As a result, his father decided to send the teenager to the United States for his own good and Poitier went to live with one of his brothers in Miami. At age 16, Poitier left the South for New York City, where he worked menial jobs to support himself, until he found his life’s passion. Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York City to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He eventually made his way to the ANT stage, filling in for Harry Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth. In 1946, Poitier appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. His success in that role landed him another in the play Anna Lucasta, and for the next few years Poitier toured the country performing in the all-black production.
Cast mainly in supporting roles, Poitier had a career breakthrough with the popular film Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which he portrayed a student at an inner-city school. His success as an actor reached new heights when he scored his first Academy Award nomination, for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones, with Tony Curtis, and the following year, Poitier lit up the screen as a leading man in the musical Porgy and Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge. Both this film and his impressive turn in the 1961 film adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun helped make Poitier a top star. In 1964, Poitier won an Academy Award (best actor) for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963)—marking the first Oscar win by an African American actor. This accolade helped make Poitier cinema’s first Caribbean-American superstar, one who consciously defied racial stereotyping.
Now retired from acting, Poitier has turned his attention to sharing his many personal experiences. He penned The Measure of a Man, which was billed as a spiritual autobiography and published in 2000. That same year, Poitier picked up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for the audio version of the book. He shared his years of wisdom for future generations with 2008’s Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.
Poitier has received numerous honors during his legendary career. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Poitier was also feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2011, earning the organization’s Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.