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Sidney Poitier.

Actor-director Sidney Poitier. | Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


The first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor, Sidney Poitier created a career filled with memorable characters who exhibited dignity, intelligence, and moral courage – particularly noteworthy given he did so in a Hollywood notorious for underserving Black artists and audiences. 

He took it as his personal responsibility as a representative on screen. In a 2013 “Sunday Morning” profile, Poitier told CBS News’ Lesley Stahl he would never play someone who was immoral or cruel: “If you go through my career package, you’ll find that I didn’t ever. I didn’t ever.”

Born to Bahamaian parents, Poitier rose from a childhood of poverty to perform with the American Negro Theater in New York City, before breaking out as a film actor, in such classics as “The Blackboard Jungle,” “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin the Sun,” “Lilies of the Field,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”  He also directed nine features, including “Buck and the Preacher,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” and “Stir Crazy.” 

By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan.

“No Way Out”

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20th Century Fox


The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born three months premature while his parents, Bahamian farmers from Cat Island, were in Miami to sell tomatoes. He would later move to Florida to live with relatives, and then to New York City. After a stint in the Army during World War II (he lied about his age to enlist), he tried acting, despite a lack of formal education and a thick Bahamian accent. 

His stage appearances prompted his first major film role, in the 1950 drama “No Way Out,” directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. He played a doctor facing overt racism from a prisoner played by Richard Widmark.

Poitier and Widmark would appear in several films together, including “The Bedford Incident” and “The Long Ships.”

“Cry the Beloved Country”

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British Lion Films


Sidney Poitier starred in the 1951 film adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel, “Cry the Beloved Country.”

“The Blackboard Jungle”

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MGM


Richard Brooks’ “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955) was a powerful drama of conflict between inner city youths and their teachers. It starred Sidney Poitier, Glenn Ford and Vic Morrow (in his film debut).

“The Blackboard Jungle”

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MGM


Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955).

“Edge of the City”

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MGM


“Edge of the City” (1957), Martin Ritt’s directorial debut, starred Jack Warden, John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier in a story of racial tensions among longshoremen on New York’s docks.

“Something of Value”

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MGM


Sidney Poitier and Rock Hudson star as two characters who grew up close in Kenya, but as men are caught in the turmoil of a tribal insurrection in the 1957 drama “Something of Value.”

“The Mark of the Hawk”

Eartha Kitt and Sidney Poitier in The Mark of the Hawk

John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


Eartha Kitt and Sidney Poitier in “The Mark of the Hawk” (1957). 

“The Defiant Ones”

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United Artists


Two escaped prisoners – one Black, the other White – must depend upon one another despite their racial differences in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 drama “The Defiant Ones.”

“The Defiant Ones”

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United Artists


Both Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for “The Defiant Ones,” with Poitier becoming the first Black actor to be so honored in the lead category.

“Porgy and Bess”

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Samuel Goldwyn Pictures


Sidney Poitier starred in the 1958 film version of the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess,” which also featured Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters and Pearl Bailey.

“All the Young Men”

Scene from All the Young Men

John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


American soldiers (played by Sidney Poitier, James Darren, Alan Ladd and Hall Bartlett) in the 1960 Korean War drama, “All the Young Men.”

“Paris Blues”

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United Artists


Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier are jazz musicians in the 1961 drama “Paris Blues.”

“A Raisin in the Sun”

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Columbia Pictures


Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil in “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), from the play by Lorraine Hansberry. Poitier, who appeared on Broadway in the original production, had received a Tony Award nomination for his performance. 

“Lilies of the Field”

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United Artists


Sidney Poitier played a worker who helps a group of nuns in the Arizona desert construct a chapel in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.” The performance earned Poitier the Academy Award for best actor – a first for a Black man.

“The Long Ships”

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Columbia PIctures


Sidney Poitier played a Moorish king in the historical adventure “The Long Ships” (1964).

“The Bedford Incident”

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Columbia Pictures


Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier starred in the 1965 Cold War drama “The Bedford Incident,” about an American destroyer’s pursuit of a Soviet submarine. Poitier portrayed a news photographer capturing the intense chase.

“A Patch of Blue”

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MGM


In a career of firsts, Poitier’s role in “A Patch of Blue” (1965), about the romance between a blind woman and a Black man, offered him another first: the first Black actor to kiss a White actress (Elizabeth Hartman) on screen.

“Duel at Diablo”

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MGM


Sidney Poitier in the 1966 western “Duel at Diablo.”

“To Sir, With Love”

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Columbia Pictures


Sidney Poitier learns the difficulties of teaching in a tough neighborhood of London in the 1967 drama “To Sir, With Love.”

By 1967 Poitier was among the Top 10 Hollywood moneymakers, though his status as a matinee idol was unique. “I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy,” he said in a 1988 Newsweek interview. “I was kind of the lone guy in town.”

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

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Columbia Pictures


When the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” opened, interracial marriage was still illegal in several states. Sidney Poitier starred as a young doctor and prospective son-in-law of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

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Columbia Pictures


Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier on the set of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

“In the Heat of the Night”

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United Artists


In the 1967 mystery “In the Heat of the Night,” Sidney Poitier starred as Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in the Deep South. Lee Grant co-starred along with Rod Steiger and Warren Oates.

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor for Steiger.

“In the Heat of the Night”

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United Artists


Sidney Poitier with director Norman Jewison in the set of “In the Heat of the Night.”

“In the Heat of the Night”

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United Artists


Before signing on to play the role of Virgil Tibbs, Poitier asked for a major script change to one scene in which his character is slapped by actor Larry Gates: “I said, ‘If he slaps me, I’m going to slap him back. You will put on paper that the studio agrees that the film will be shown nowhere in the world, with me standing there taking the slap from the man.'”

He had the slap written into his contract. “Yes, I knew that I would have been insulting every Black person in the world [if I hadn’t],” Poitier said. 

“For Love of Ivy”

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Palomar Pictures


Abbey Lincoln, Sidney Poitier, Beau Bridges and Lauri Peters in the 1968 romantic comedy “For Love of Ivy.”

“The Lost Man”

The Lost Man

LMPC via Getty Images


Sidney Poitier starred opposite Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus in the 1969 drama “The Lost Man.” They married in 1976. 

“Buck and the Preacher”

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Columbia Pictures


Sidney Poitier starred in and directed the 1972 western “Buck and the Preacher,” which also starred Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee.

“Uptown Saturday Night”

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Film Publicity Archive/United Archives via Getty Images


Sidney Poitier (pictured with Bill Cosby) directed the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” about the search for a stolen winning lottery ticket. It led to two other films sharing many of the same cast members: “Let’s Do It Again” and “A Piece of the Action.”

“Hanky Panky”

Set of Hanky Panky

Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty Images


Sidney Poitier directing the Gene Wilder-Gilda Radner comedy, “Hanky Panky” (1982). 

“Little Nikita”

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Columbia Pictures


In “Little Nikita” (1988), an FBI agent played by Sidney Poitier investigates River Phoenix’s parents, suspecting they may be foreign agents.

“Shoot to Kill”

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Buena Vista


Sidney Poitier plays an FBI agent and Tom Berenger is a mountain guide aiding in his pursuit of a killer in the 1988 adventure-thriller “Shoot to Kill.”

“Sneakers”

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Universal Pictures


River Phoenix, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier were among the cast of the 1992 computer caper “Sneakers.”

Kennedy Center Honors

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JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images


President Bill Clinton applauds as First Lady Hillary Clinton shakes hands with actor Sidney Poitier, at a reception at the White House in Washington, December 3, 1995. Poitier, along with dancer Jacques d’Amboise, opera star Marilyn Horne, musician B.B. King, and playwright Neil Simon, were awarded Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts.

“The Jackal”

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Universal Pictures


Sidney Poitier and Richard Gere starred in the 1997 thriller “The Jackal,” a loose adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel “The Day of the Jackal,” about the hunt for an assassin.

“David and Lisa”

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Harpo Productions


Sidney Poitier on the set of the 1998 TV movie “David and Lisa.”

Academy Awards

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MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images


Actor-director Sidney Poitier holds his honorary Oscar March 24, 2002, at the 74th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif.

Academy Awards

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AMPAS


Sidney Poitier accepts an Honorary Award from the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at the 74th Annual Academy Awards, Sunday, March 24, 2002.

Academy Awards

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AMPAS


Sidney Poitier, winner of an Honorary Academy Award, is greeted by Samuel L. Jackson at the Governor’s Ball following the 74th Annual Academy Awards, Sunday, March 24, 2002.

Sidney Poitier and Joanna Shimkus

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Actor Sidney Poitier and his wife, Joanna Shimkus, attend the Broadway opening of “The Color Purple,” at the Broadway Theatre in New York City, December 1, 2005.

Sidney Poitier and Beyoncé Knowles

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images


Actor Sidney Poitier and singer Beyoncé Knowles arrive at the 16th Carousel of Hope, a benefit for the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., October 23, 2004.

Benin

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Erick-Christian Ahounou/AFP/Getty Images


Actor Sidney Poitier talks to children during a measles vaccination campaign organized by the Red Cross, in Porto Novo, Benin, December 13, 2005.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

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Vince Bucci/Getty Images


Actors Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman attend the hand and footprint ceremony honoring Sherry Lansing, chairman of the Paramount Motion Pictures Group, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on February 16, 2005 in Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images


Actors Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman pose at a gala benefit dinner for Plan!t, an international disaster preparedness non-profit, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, January 16, 2009.

Martin Landau and Sidney Poitier

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Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS


Actors Martin Landau, left, and Sidney Poitier during the panel discussion for “An Academy Centennial Salute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz,” on Thursday, May 21, 2009. Poitier (who appeared in Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out”), co-starred with Landau in 1970’s “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” and in the 1965 Biblical epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Medal of Freedom

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House August 12, 2009 in Washington, D.C. The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Red Carpet

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Jason Merritt/Getty Images


Actors Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sidney Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier arrive at the premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, August 10, 2009 in Hollywood, California. The younger Poitier appeared in Tarantino’s 2007 double-bill feature, “Grindhouse.”

Governors Awards

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Matt Petit/AMPAS


Oscar-winning Actor Sidney Poitier and his daughter, actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier, attend the Governors Awards in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, Calif., Saturday, November 12, 2011.

Governors Awards

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Richard Harbaugh/AMPAS


Actors Sidney Poitier, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Julius Tennon and Viola Davis attend the Governors Awards in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, Calif., Saturday, November 12, 2011.

Chaplin Award

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Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images


From left: Sidney Poitier, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Quincy Jones and Quentin Tarantino attend the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s presentation of the 38th Annual Chaplin Award honoring Sidney Poitier, at Alice Tully Hall on May 2, 2011 in New York City.

NAACP Image Awards

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Mark Davis/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards


Singer Harry Belafonte, and actors Laurence Fishburne and Sidney Poitier attend the 43rd NAACP Image Awards, held at The Shrine Auditorium on February 17, 2012 in Los Angeles.

Academy Awards

ABC's Coverage Of The 86th Annual Academy Awards

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Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier on stage to present the Oscar for best director at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, March 2, 2014. 

Academy Awards

86th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

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In 2013 Poitier recalled how, when he was born premature, his mother was unsure he would survive, and consulted a palm reader: “The lady took her hand and started speaking to my mother: ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,’ And these were her words, she said: ‘He will walk with kings.'”

And it came true: “Everything she said, including walking with kings, yeah.”

Sidney Poitier died on Friday, January 7, 2021, at the age of 94. 




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