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On This Day: Sidney Poitier Was Born

The iconic African-American actor turns 91 today.

sidney poitier receives medal of freedom
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  • Photo Credit: Obama White House / Flickr

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927. Now 91 years old, Poitier has become one of the most influential black actors of all time. The Bahamian American was born in Miami while his parents were visiting. Despite being born two months prematurely, Poitier managed to survive his infancy, thanks to the devoted care of his parents.

Poitier grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, a small island with less than 2,000 residents today. Thanks to the island’s isolation, Poitier did not see a car until he was 10, when the family moved to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.  

Being in a more urbane environment went to Poitier’s head – the boy started getting into trouble. By the time he was 15, Poitier’s father, sick of disciplining him, sent his son to Miami to live with an older brother. A year later, Poitier went north, ending up in New York City, where he began work as a janitor.

Soon, Poitier had bartered with the American Negro Theater: his work as a janitor in exchange for receiving acting lessons. Despite his innate love and talent for the work, Poitier was not an immediate success. He was a poor singer, a seemingly fatal flaw for a black actor in the 1940s, and his Bahamian accent often made him incomprehensible to American audiences.

After buckling down, Poitier was able to minimize his accent enough to be cast as the understudy for Harry Belafonte in Days of Our Youth. His first major role was in a production of Lysistrata, which brought him great praise. He spent the next four years touring the country on stage.

By 1950, Poitier was looking for something different. Specifically, he was hoping to move into movies. After snagging a job as an unnamed extra in a film called Sepia Cinderella, Poitier landed his first major role in No Way Out. Poitier played a doctor whose patients’ virulent racism threatens to upend his sense of morals and ethics. Poitier’s performance stunned critics, although it was little seen by audiences. Nonetheless, his skills led to many more roles, including his true breakout success, Blackboard Jungle

By 1958, Poitier had received his first Academy Award nomination. In 1963, he won his first Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, becoming the second black actor to do so (previously, Hattie McDaniel won for her role in Gone With the Wind. James Basket also received an honorary award in 1948.). He went on to star in a number of hits like Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, and To Sir, With Love

sidney poitier
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  • Poitier in Lilies of the Field

    Photo Credit: Rainbow Productions

Today, Poitier is most often associated with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a 1968 film about interracial marriage, which, at the time of filming, was still illegal in 17 states. Although Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may appear dated to today’s eyes, the film was a revelation – and not just because of its existence. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a box-office hit, refuting conventional ideas that white mass audiences would not see movies that prominently featured non-white actors and heavily discussed race.

But Poitier is much more than this one notable role. The 91-year-old has directed multiple films, including a Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder vehicle, Stir Crazy, written an autobiography, served as ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan and on the board of directors for Disney. In 2009, Poitier received a Medal of Freedom from President Obama in recognition of his artistic and humanitarian work.

Celebrate Poitier’s vast contributions tonight with a viewing of Lilies of the Field, the performance for which he won his Oscar. The heartwarming movie will lift you up, and Poitier’s performance will show you just why he became such an icon.

Featured photo: Pete Souza, Obama White House / Flickr