Interviews


Sidney Poitier


Occupation: Actor, Director, Producer, Ambassador
Date of Birth: February 20, 1927
Place of Birth: Miami, Fla., USA
Sign: Sun in Pisces, Moon in Libra
Relations: Father: Reginald James Poitier (tomato farmer); mother: Evelyn Poitier (nee Qutten); brother: Cyril; wife: Joanna Shimkus (actress); ex-wife: Juanita Hardy (dancer); daughters: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina (with Hardy); Anika and Sydney Tamiia (with Shimkus)
Education: Only two years of formal schooling

 

SIDNEY POITIER was born prematurely in Miami, where his parents made a regular voyage from the Bahamas to sell their crop of tomatoes. The infant weighed only three pounds; his dejected father went to look for a shoebox in which to bury the child. Miraculously, Poitier survived  his birth served as a fitting tableau for a lifetime of shattering the odds against him. His career has been not only a trailblazing example for the black actors who have followed him, but a beacon in Hollywood against racism. As Vincent Canby of The New York Times said: "Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones."

The youngest of eight siblings, Poitier was raised on Cat Island and Nassau, in the Bahamas. He dropped out of school at age thirteen (he had only gone one and one half years) to work full-time to help support the family. At sixteen, after living for a year with his brother in Miami, Poitier arrived in New York City with only three dollars in his pocket. For food and shelter, he lied about his age to get into the Army and served a short stint before finding himself back in New York washing dishes. While looking for a second job, Poitier saw an ad scouting for actors. Barely literate, with no acting experience, he auditioned for the American Negro Theatre and was laughed off the stage. Six months later he returned better prepared, and landed a role in Days of Our Youth. Poitier did ten more plays with the company before winning a role in No Way Out, his feature-film debut.

In the '50s and '60s, Poitier embarked on a streak of cinematic firsts for black actors. He was the first black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, for The Defiant Ones, in 1958, and the first to win the Best Actor nod, for Lilies on the Field, in 1963. In 1968, Poitier became the first black No. 1 box-office star with his role in 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Poitier's characters had a common thread: they were intelligent, rational men  non-threatening to whites but exhibiting a quiet dignity and controlled anger. In In the Heat of the Night, when Rod Steiger's redneck sheriff asks Poitier's Virgil Tibbs, "What do they call you, boy?" he responds, "They call me Mr. Tibbs." It became one of Poitier's most celebrated lines, a quiet demand for respect that reverberated throughout filmdom. Some have argued that Poitier was perfectly tailored to become the first major black film star because he seemed devoid of any menace  indeed, one critic called him a "chocolate-dipped Mary Poppins."

When he was still at the height of his success as an actor, Poitier turned his skills to directing. His first film, Buck and Preacher, starred Harry Belafonte, for whom he had understudied during his days with the American Negro Theatre. He went on to direct several comedies, including Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again with Bill Cosby, and Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. After a long hiatus from acting, Poitier returned in the late eighties with a pair of fine thrillers, Shoot To Kill and Little Nikita.

While Poitier's career was a door-opener for many, he prefers that the door to his personal life remain closed. He has six daughters by two wives, and he keeps the press largely restricted to the promotion of his work. He is modest about the importance of his career: "I've been extremely fortunate in that I've been a party to some very interesting films. I don't deny that I've brought something to them. But once the magic is made, one has to keep an eye on all the component elements, not just the corner that might shine the brightest." Now in his seventies, Poitier's roles finally match the stature he has attained. He portrayed Nelson Mandela in the made-for-TV movie Mandela & DeKlerk, and in April of 1997, he was appointed to the real-life role of ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas.

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