The elegance, eloquence and sheer class of Sidney Poitier are unrivaled.
Add his distinguished voice, handsome appearance, and tremendous talent, and it’s no wonder Sidney became one of the screen’s most respected and best loved stars.
But it wasn’t easy. It took drive, determination, years of hard work, and boundless faith. Against all odds, Sidney Poitier became the first black leading man.
Along the way, Sidney became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He garnered fans of all races, and, through his uplifting films, encouraged people across the world to unite in brotherhood. Sidney changed hearts and minds; he made filmgoers reevaluate how they viewed the black community.
As we mourn the loss of this great man, here are a few things about the remarkable Sidney Poitier you didn’t know:
He’s from the Bahamas
Sidney’s father was a tomato farmer on Cat Island, in the central Bahamas. His father’s tomatoes were reputedly the very best, thanks to the bat guano he used from a nearby cave to enrich the soil on his land.
Sidney was born in Florida on a tomato-selling trip, which granted him automatic US citizenship. Born prematurely at 7 months, baby Sidney weighed just about 3 pounds at birth. The Poitiers stayed in Florida until Sidney was healthy, then it was back to Cat Island.
From the age of 6, Sidney helped his father farm on Cat Island. Sidney had fond memories of his childhood, though the Poitiers had just barely enough to survive. As Sidney once said:
“We were poor, man! I mean, we were bus-ted!”
Sidney grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity. And he didn’t know what a movie was until the family moved to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, when he was 11. Sidney’s mother patched all of the Poitier children’s clothes to get as much life out of their wardrobe as possible. Despite these conditions, the Poitiers always took pride in their work, and believed in looking their best.
As Sidney once shared:
“She [his mother] used to say that it was all right to wear patches as long as you were clean. Well I want you to know that I wore me some patches!”
He Moved to the US at Age 15
At 15 years old, Sidney’s parents decided to send him to live with his older brother in Florida, where they felt Sidney would have greater opportunities for his future. Florida was Sidney’s first experience with segregation.
Growing up on Cat Island and Nassau, he’d never witnessed segregation or Jim Crow:
“I couldn’t understand it. Every sign, ‘White’ and ‘Colored,’ every rebuff, was like saying to me, ‘You’re not a human being.’”
But Sidney Poitier was a driven individual who could not accept the status quo. His later portrayals of gallant and accomplished black men on screen would greatly contribute to changing the way America viewed the black community.
Sidney Poitier Was a Self-Educated Man
Sidney excelled at bringing intelligent and educated characters to life onscreen. But his circumstances in the Bahamas and difficult first years in the US made a formal education impossible for young Sidney.
Sidney believed in the importance of education, and once the acting bug bit him, the drive to make himself an able reader, knowledgeable on as many subjects as possible, marked the beginning of his lifelong quest for knowledge. Sidney became a voracious reader, a hobby that remained with him for life.
He Moved to NYC Alone. With $3.
At 16 years old, Sidney realized he would have more opportunities for growth in New York City. So with $3 in his pocket, Sidney took a bus from Florida to NYC.
Remember, Sidney Poitier had only been in the United States for one year. Talk about a motivated young man.
When Sidney first arrived in New York, he had no money or connections: he often slept on the roof of the Brill Building–because it never closed–hidden under newspapers, or in a pay toilet stall at the bus station because it was cheaper than renting a hotel room. He washed dishes to make ends meet, and worked hard at various manual labor jobs, including construction. Eventually, Sidney saved up enough money to rent a modest room.
He Worked Hard for His Voice
Not long after his arrival in New York, Sidney began making the rounds of acting auditions. Sidney was told by the theater director at his first audition that, with his West Indian accent, he could never become an actor.
So Sidney saved up his money to buy a radio.
After work each day, Sidney spent hours imitating the voices he heard on the radio, from news reporters to advertisements to soap opera actors.
It was hard work, but the result was Sidney’s beautiful, crisp, slightly musical, and utterly distinct voice.
He was Still Washing Dishes for a Living After Leading Roles in Two Films
Even after starring in his first two major films, No Way Out (1950) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Sidney Poitier was still washing dishes to make ends meet. Sadly, there just weren’t many roles in Hollywood or NYC theater for black actors, something Sidney himself would soon help change.
It was a difficult and frustrating time for Sidney:
“As an actor, if I have the ability, all I ask is the opportunity. When it’s denied me because of my color I can’t help feeling resentful.”
But he didn’t give up:
“I’ve been knocking my head against the wall ever since coming to New York. I suppose I’ll just have to keep doing it.”
Things changed for Sidney in 1955, with his starring role in Blackboard Jungle. Sidney’s obvious talent and charisma in the film were electrifying. It was the break he’d been working for. And the roles kept coming.
Sidney Poitier: the First Black Man to Win Best Actor
In 1964, Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Lilies of the Field (1963). He was the first black actor to win the award.
It was a momentous accomplishment for Sidney’s career, and all black actors. But Sidney’s inspiring win reached much farther than Hollywood.
On her popular television show in 2005, Oprah Winfrey powerfully recalled watching Sidney accept his Oscar in 1964:
“I had watched Sidney Poitier win the Academy Award as a 10 year-old girl. And I thought, if he could do that, I wonder what I could do. So he was, and has been, and is, an enormous role model for me.”
Surely, with his groundbreaking Oscar win, Sidney Poitier inspired countless others.
Watch Sidney’s moment of triumph. His gratefulness is beyond endearing.
He Was the Highest Paid Actor
Impressively, from the mid to late 1960s, Sidney topped or consistently ranked among Hollywood’s ten most popular box office attractions.
And in 1969, Sidney’s agent, Martin Baum, estimated that Sidney Poitier was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
To add further to the magnitude of these accomplishments, a Gallup poll of the time found that Sidney topped the list of an elite group of actors whose films the public would pay to see on the basis of their star power alone.
In other words, audiences would pay to see a Sidney Poitier film simply because it starred Sidney Poitier.
At a time when many hearts had yet to be softened towards racial equality, Sidney was beloved by audiences of all colors.
That’s absolutely remarkable.
He Believed Entertainment Should Inspire
Throughout his career, Sidney purposely chose to participate in films with positive, uplifting messages:
“I like to have people coming out of a theater feeling better than when they went in.”
Another of his stated goals:
“I try to make motion pictures about the dignity, nobility, the magnificence of human life.”
Through such feel-good films as Lilies of the Field (1963), To Sir, with Love (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Sidney encouraged unity and brotherhood. He turned the hearts and minds of filmgoers towards equality and integration. Sidney Poitier changed the world with positive, inspiring entertainment.
Sidney Poitier Never Took His Success for Granted
Sidney’s impoverished days on Cat Island and Nassau left their mark: even as a world famous movie star dining at fancy restaurants, Sidney was known to agonize over the cost of a meal, and the amount of groceries he could have bought for the same price.
When he became one of Hollywood’s highest earners, Sidney frequently asked to be paid in installments, to ensure he would have income for any potential rainy days in the future: for his work on The Bedford Incident (1965), Sidney earned $400,000. He asked for half up front, and that the remaining $200,000 be paid to him in yearly installments between 1973-1978.
Add wise with money to the list of Sidney’s admirable qualities.
Sidney Poitier Went Vegetarian
The other half of Vanguard of Hollywood is my plant-based recipes, so of course I love that Sidney Poitier became a vegetarian.
The always health conscious Sidney went vegetarian at age 50. I’m biased, but I like to think the choice contributed to Sidney’s long and healthy years with us.
He Was Grateful
Sidney Poitier was always grateful for his beautiful life and tremendous success.
This mindset is underscored by Sidney’s eloquent acceptance speech at the 2002 Academy Awards, the year he won his honorary Oscar:
“I arrived in Hollywood at the age of twenty-two in a time different than today’s. A time in which the odds of my standing here tonight fifty-three years later would not have fallen in my favor.
Back then no route had been established for where I was hoping to go…and in fact might never have been set in motion were there not an untold number of courageous, unselfish choices made by a handful of visionary American filmmakers…with respect, I share this great honor with…all others who have had a hand in altering the arts for me and for others.
I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”
Watch Sidney’s full speech above. I challenge you not to get emotional.
Celebrate Sidney Poitier!
Celebrate Sidney Poitier with me this month, and join me next week for all about Sidney and 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.