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*Sidney Poitier was born on this date in 1927. He was a Black actor.
From Miami, Florida he was the son of Bahamian parents. He grew up in poverty on Cat Island in the Bahamas where his parents were poor tomato farmers. He was their seventh and last child. The family's struggles hammered home a lesson he has always live by: Survival requires everybody to carry a load. In fact, by the age of 13, he was working full-time to support the family. At 16, he arrived in New York City, totally alone, with three dollars in his pocket. In order to escape the cold, he lied about his age and joined the army. It was a short stint that lasted less than a year.
Back in New York he worked as a dishwasher and (basically) stumbled into acting while looking for a second job to make ends meet. Without any experience or training, and barely able to read, he auditioned for the American Negro Theatre. He was humiliated off the stage, but six months later, better prepared, he auditioned again. His first production, Days of Our Youth, led to nearly 10 more roles with the company, a national tour of Anna Lucasta in 1944 and, two years later at 22, came his first film No Way Out.. It launched the career that, in the words of his good friend Harry Belafonte, "put the cinema and millions of people in the world in touch with a truth about who we are. A truth that could have for a longer time eluded us had it not been for him and the choices he made."
His breakout role took place in a classroom of incorrigible high school students in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. He acted in the first run of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, and in its Hollywood adaptation in 1961. He also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and was the first actor of African descent to win this award. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (by right and recommendation of his Bahamian citizenship) in 1974. In 2000 he received the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and in 2002 he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Married first to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950 through 1965, and he then married to Canadian-born former actress Joanna Shimkus. He has four children by his first marriage and two children by his second marriage. His fifth daughter is actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier. In addition to authoring This Life (1980) and The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000), he is mentioned extensively in John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, when one of the characters (falsely) claims to be his son.
Poitier also has served as non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan (since April 1997), and to the United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In these diplomatic roles, the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refers to him as "His Excellency Sir Sidney Poitier". He has been hailed as a breakthrough star whose acclaimed performances, which consciously defied previous racial stereotyping, gave a new dramatic credibility for Black actors to mainstream film audiences in the Western world.
Sidney Poitier, whose elegant bearing and principled onscreen characters made him Hollywood's first Black movie star and the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar, died on January 6, 2022. He was 94.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Image: George Pimentel