Actor. Author. Director. Diplomat? He’s the first African-American to win an Oscar for “Best Actor.” Oh yea, and he’s a Knight. So there’s that.
Born 1927, Miami, Florida. Poitier, born to Bahamian parents on vacation, he spent his early years on Cat Island (and later on, Nassau at age 10) in the Bahamas. As he became more of a troublemaker for his family, Poitier’s father shipped him off to New York to live with an older brother. During World War II at the age of 16, Poitier served a short stint in the army as a physiotherapist for almost a year (he lied about his age to the recruiter).
After working a series of menial jobs, Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York to receive acting lessons; in return, he served as the theater’s janitor. Eventually he would get his break filling in for Harry Belafonte in the stage play “Days of Our Youth.” He went on for years during the 40s acting a variety of stage plays to success.
It was however in 1950 that Poitier made his film debut in “No Way Out.” He began to receive more prominent roles until his career-breakout hit “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955. Poitier was the first male Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award in 1958 for “The Defiant Ones” and was the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field.” It was in 1967 (the commercial peak of his career) that one of the films he most famous for, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, debuted as the first movie condoning interracial relationships and marriage.
During a time of civil unrest in the late 60s, Poitier came under fire for not being more politically radical, and after a harsh critique of his character in the NY Times, moved from the spotlight back to the Bahamas for a short time. He did come back though and shifted his career from actor to director through the late 70s and 80s.
In 1974, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire, so technically you can call him Sir Sidney Poitier (but he doesn’t much care for it). Also, since 1997, Poitier was appointed and served as a non-resident Bahamian Ambassador to Japan. This is a real thing people. In 2000, he debuted his autobiography “Measure of a Man” which went on to be in Oprah’s book club and became a New York Times best seller.
The man has won a lot of awards. A lot. (This includes a friggin’ Grammy.) I wouldn’t want to list them all so just look here for my sanity. I will note that in 2009, President Barack Obama presented Poitier with the “Presidential Medal of Freedom”, the highest U.S. medal of honor a civilian can receive.