Born in Miami in 1924 and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier wasn’t the first person of color to be in movies, but he was the first whose status rose so high that he was twice named the top male movie star in the country.
As a young man he withstood many rejections from the American Negro Theater because of his thick Caribbean accent. But after six months of working on the rhythms of his speech, he was accepted and appeared on stage with the Harlem company, which also trained Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Isabel Stanford (television’s Weezy Jefferson), among others.
His feature film debut was in “No Way Out” in 1950. Poitier played a doctor whose passion for justice requires him to make painful personal choices against a background of race riots. The film and the role were a perfect beginning for a career as notable for its honor as its ability to entertain.
Nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Noah Cullen in “The Defiant Ones” (1958), Poitier eventually became the first African-American male to win the best actor Oscar, for his role as Homer Smith, a handyman who reluctantly builds a chapel for a group of German nuns in “Lilies of the Field.”
Though many of his most memorable roles deal with issues of race “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) Poitier’s career has run the spectrum of roles, from musical (“Porgy and Bess”) to romance (“A Patch of Blue”) to thriller (“In the Heat of the Night”) to comedy (“Uptown Saturday Night,” which he also directed). As he told the New York Times in 1989, “During the period when I was the only person here no Bill Cosby, no Eddie Murphy, no Denzel Washington I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden.”
But a burden that, having been successfully carried, paved the way for the Cosbys, Murphys, and Washingtons, demonstrating why he has been called the Jackie Robinson of film.
The diversity of jobs Poitier has held is not limited to acting, directing, and writing. In 1997, he became ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas (he’s a dual citizen of the United States and the Bahamas). Though he does not live in Japan, he attended a ceremony officially welcoming him as ambassador that took place at the Imperial Palace, with Emperor Akihito presiding.