Star of the Month: Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier Wins Best Actor, Is the Highest Paid Star in Hollywood, Goes Vegetarian, and Continues to Inspire with His Amazing Life Story.

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I know I’m a few days early, but I couldn’t wait until next week to introduce our September Star of the Month, the great Sidney Poitier!  There are so many fantastic Poitier films TCM will feature throughout September, and I want to review as many as possible.  So I’m rolling out my biographical sketch on Sidney a few days early!

If my post piques your interest, and you wish to learn more about Sidney, I highly recommend his stellar autobiography, The Measure of a Man, and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian.  Both are excellent reads, and are available on Amazon!

Much like Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier is a star I have always admired, and I was thrilled to research and learn more about him in preparation for his tribute month.  If I thought I admired Sidney and his eloquent, intelligent, and classy screen portrayals before, words cannot express the respect and admiration I feel for this great man after delving into his life and work.  I’m telling you guys, this man is amazing.  You seriously could not ask for a better role model.  Here are a few things I found particularly interesting and inspiring about Sidney’s extraordinary life and career:

(And in case that sounds too past tense, I’ll have you know that Sidney is still with us today!  He’s an impressive 92 years old!)

Sidney Poitier
Sidney at the 2002 Academy Awards. He won an Honorary Oscar that year "For his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence."

He’s from the Bahamas

Didn’t know!  Sidney’s father was a tomato farmer on Cat Island, in the central Bahamas.  (His father’s tomatoes had a reputation for being the best, thanks to the bat guano (ummm…that’s feces if you were wondering) he used from a nearby cave to enrich the soil on his land.) Sidney was actually born in Florida on a tomato-selling trip, which granted him automatic US citizenship.  But as soon as baby Sidney was healthy—he was born prematurely at 7 months, weighing just about 3 pounds—it was back to Cat Island for the Poitiers.

Sidney Poitier
A young Sidney looks deep in thought.

Humble Beginnings for Sidney Poitier

From the age of 6, Sidney helped his father farm on Cat Island.  Sidney has fond memories of his childhood, though the Poitiers had just barely enough to survive.  As Sidney recounts in his personable way,

“We were poor, man!  I mean, we were bus-ted!

Sidney grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity.  Young Sidney didn’t know what a movie was until the family moved to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, when he was 11.  His mother patched all of Sidney’s and his siblings’ 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!”

Sidney Poitier
Sidney behind the scenes on one of his most successful films, To Sir, With Love (1967).

Sidney Poitier 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 had never witnessed segregation or Jim Crow. 

About those unjust times, Sidney recalled that

“I couldn’t understand it.  Every sign, ‘White’ and ‘Colored,’ every rebuff, was like saying to me, ‘You’re not a human being.’”

Can you imagine?  Lucky for us, Sidney was a fighter, and would not accept the status quo.  His later involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and his portrayals of gallant and accomplished individuals on screen, would greatly contribute to the shift in the way America viewed and treated African Americans. 

L-R: Sidney, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston at the March on Washington, 1963.

He Was a Self-Educated Man

Sidney excelled at bringing to life intelligent and educated characters onscreen, so I always assumed he must have attended a prestigious university in real life.  Not so, his circumstances in the Bahamas and difficult first years in the US made formal education impossible for Sidney.

But Poitier understood the importance of an education, and after the acting bug bit him, the drive to make himself an able reader and knowledgeable on as many subjects as possible led to the beginning of his lifelong quest for knowledge.  He became a voracious reader, a hobby that has remained with him for life.

Sidney Poitier
A very young Sidney in front of the Apollo Theater, New York City.

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, he took a bus from Florida to NYC, alone

Now that takes GUTS.  Can you believe the motivation of this young man?

When Sidney first arrived in New York, he had no money or connections: he would often sleep 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 worked hard at various manual labor jobs, such as construction and dishwashing, and eventually saved up enough money to rent a modest room.

Sidney Poitier
What a handsome guy! Love Sidney's smile.

Sidney Poitier: A Unique Voice

Not long after his arrival in New York, Sidney was told by the theater director who oversaw his first acting audition that he’d never be an actor with his West Indian accent.  So what did our guy do?  He saved up his money to buy a radio! 

After work each day, Sidney would spend hours imitating the voices he heard on the radio, from news reporters to advertisements to soap opera actors.  If you’ve ever wondered where Sidney’s beautiful, crisp, yet musical voice comes from, now you know!

Sidney Poitier
Sidney with his first wife Juanita (centered), along with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Sidney played Walter Lee Younger in both the Broadway play and film of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

He was Still Washing Dishes for a Living After Leading Roles in Two Films

Even after starring in his first two big films, No Way Out (1950) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), Sidney had to make ends meet by washing dishes: there just weren’t many roles in Hollywood or NYC theater for African Americans at the time, something that Sidney himself would soon help change.  This was understandably a very 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.”

Then came 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  Sidney’s acting and charisma in the film were so electrifying, he could not be ignored.  The film was the break he’d been working for, and suddenly Sidney was a much sought after actor in the industry!

Sidney Poitier
Sidney wins the Best Actor Oscar in 1964.

Sidney Poitier: the First African American to Win Best Actor

In 1964, for his work in Lilies of the Field (1963), Sidney won the Academy Award for Best Actor.  He was the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar.  Furthermore, he was the first African American to win an Academy Award for a straight dramatic role that did not cast a black actor as a butler, mammy, or other racial stereotype. 

Sidney Poitier
Oh my goodness look at the sweet look on his face as the full emotion and significance of Sidney's Oscar win fills him. I just want to hug him!

To say this was a momentous accomplishment for not only Poitier’s career, but opportunities for African Americans in Hollywood, would be an understatement.  Poitier worked hard, persevered, and paved the way for African Americans to find fulfilling and varied roles in the film industry. 

With Anne Bancroft after winning the Oscar in 1964.

Always a class act, Sidney’s excitement and acceptance speech are just so fantastic and heart warming.  (As is Anne Bancroft’s joy when reading his name as winner!)  To view this historic moment, click here.  You’ll just love Sidney all the more after watching!

He Was the Highest Paid Actor

Poitier’s agent Martin Baum estimated that in 1969, Sidney was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.  WOW!  Again, talk about an accomplishment!  In the mid to late 1960s, Poitier’s name consistently topped, or was in the top ten, names on the list of Hollywood’s biggest box office attractions.

Ok, do we realize how huge this is?!!!!  Sidney was totally fighting the system here!  He was an African American actor, he was the highest paid actor, and his films attracted the most moviegoers, all during a very crucial time period in the Civil Rights Movement.  Sidney’s appeal crossed lines—he brought people of all races and backgrounds together, and to the movies.  That’s AMAZING.  Sidney repeatedly stated throughout his career that

“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.”

He certainly accomplished these things, as his earnings and popularity underscore.

Sidney Poitier
Sidney was the first African American to cement his hand and footprints at Graumen's Chinese Theater, in 1967.

Sidney Poitier Never Took His Success for Granted

Sidney’s impoverished days on Cat Island and Nassau left their mark, for even as a world famous movie star dining at fancy restaurants, Sidney was known to put his arm around his plate of food, as if protecting it.  Pretty sweet, old habits die hard.  He was also known to agonize over the cost of a meal out, 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 that he had income for any potential future rainy days.  For instance, 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. Love that he was wise with his money!

Sidney Poitier
Sidney with second wife Joanna Shimkus. The two were married in 1976, and are still together today!

He Went Vegetarian

Hey, the other half of this website is my plant-based recipes, so I have to include this fun fact!  At age 50, the always health conscious Sidney went vegetarian.  Whatever he’s doing, it’s certainly working!  He’s a handsome, healthy 92 years old as of this writing.

Sidney Poitier

He's Grateful

To drive this point home, I want to underscore Sidney’s acceptance speech at the 2002 Oscars, the year he won his honorary Oscar.  You must watch Sidney’s speech here.  I challenge you not to cry before he’s done!  Sidney thanks everyone for his success, taking no credit himself.  And it’s completely genuine:

“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.”

Celebrate Sidney Poitier!

What a neat guy!  Celebrate Sidney Poitier this month with me!  His films start playing on TCM this Tuesday, September 3rd.  Check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes!

What’s your favorite Sidney Poitier film?

Sidney Poitier
Sidney with the lovely Katharine Houghton in the landmark film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). If Houghton bears a striking resemblance to the great Katharine Hepburn, it's because she's Kate's niece!

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