There might not have been a Chadwick Boseman or a Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) or Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) or a Denzel Washington or Danny Glover or Jamie Fox. I said might. But without question once Poitier came on the seen, opportunities for other black actors came knocking and the door opened wider than ever before. He set a standard back in the early fifties and black actors owe the man a debt of gratitude. Frankly, I think we all owe a little something to the elegant Mr. Poitier. He's made some very fine films and history will show him as one of Hollywood all-time super superstars.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, by the way, is considered to be one of his finest films. Coming in 1967, it coincided with the man's other two tremendous successes, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love. All were huge blockbusters and forever cemented his standing in Hollywood.
Sidney Poitier was born in Miami in 1927 but lived on Cat Island in The Bahamas until he was 15. He was never what one would call a bad kid but his parents detected a flirtation with juvenile delinquency and sent him off to live with his brother in Miami. Poitier has said that he had never lived with any special attention given to his race in The Bahamas, where, of course, blacks were the majority. In Miami they were not and he experienced his first brush with prejudice. After a few years of wrestling with these issues, he determined he would make something of himself as a black man and an honorable man. In his autobiography The Good Life and again on an Oprah segment, he stated that his beacon would always be his father. Poitier promised himself he would never do anything that reflected less than positively on his father's life. In my mind's eye, I don't think he ever did anything for which his father would have felt shame.
By age 18 he had moved to New York and by some stroke of unknown genius, he joined the American Negro Theater and quickly developed a love of acting. He could express himself in ways that he had never known possible and it excited him. He eventually made his way to Broadway and just as things were opening up for him, 20th Century Fox offered Poitier a starring role in No Way Out where he would play a doctor treating a white bigot played by Richard Widmark.
It was important to the film that no one dislikes Poitier other than Widmark and in this regard, of course, it couldn't have been better casting. Even seen today, it is astonishing that in 1950 there could be a film with language as raw and ugly as comes out of the mouth of Widmark. It is equally astonishing that the two men remained friends until Widmark died and they would work together in two more films.
|Scuffling with Glenn Ford on the stairs|
He worked throughout the early fifties in films but in 1955 he gained considerable attention when he appeared as the best of the bad students in the riveting teenage delinquent drama Blackboard Jungle. Glenn Ford may have been the teacher but Poitier was formidable in his attitude and demeanor and hot in his tight T-shirt. Like it or not, this increasingly good actor had become a sex symbol.
I still recall seeing Something of Value in 1957 because it was the first sneak preview I had ever seen. It took place in Africa and it concerned tribal warfare and a love-hate relationship he had with Rock Hudson.
A banner year came in 1958 when Stanley Kramer (his future director in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) cast him in The Defiant Ones. It was a stark look at a black and a white prisoner chained to one another while on the run from the law. Tony Curtis was the other prisoner and both men turned in flawless, gritty performances, receiving their first Oscar nominations.
The following year he made the musical Porgy and Bess, based on a Gershwin opera and costarring the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge. What a team they made! I don't think it was particularly successful but I remember seeing it at the time of its released and loved it. And I have looked for it ever since but it's never on the tube or on DVD. Somebody has it all locked up and out of public viewing and it annoys the hell out of me.
Poitier owned the 1960s. His star was blindingly bright. In A Raisin in the Sun he was part of a poor family that suddenly had a windfall. He was a fellow expatriate musician with Paul Newman in the under-rated Paris Blues. He and Bobby Darin were a powerful duo in Pressure Point about a psychiatrist trying to help a paranoid American Nazi. Then came a sweet little comedy-drama called Lilies of the Field about an itinerant handyman who comes to reluctantly build a chapel for a group of nuns in the desert. It displayed Poitier's wonderful versatility, a knack for understated comedy timing and it earned the great man an Academy Award for best actor, the first for his race in that category.
Before the decade was over he would make A Patch of Blue, a tender and sometime horrifying tale about a blind white girl in love with a black man who has befriended her. It is probably more famous for Shelley Winters' great Oscar turn as one of the bitch-mothers of all time. Still, Poitier displayed a gift for playing a loving and generous man. He did his first western in Duel at Diablo (with James Garner), a fun cowboy and Indian tale which went nowhere. He looked very good in the saddle. Due to those three films from 1967, he became Hollywood's most bankable star.
He was exciting as detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night and it would go on to become Oscar's best picture of the year. There was much talk over a famous scene where a white actor slaps Tibbs and the detective slaps him back. It was very bold, it seems, for 1967. The character was so popular that he played him again in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization.
In the 1970s his career took a decided turn when he took up directing. His first effort started with a western. And he starred in it as well, along with his buddy Harry Belafonte in the title roles of Buck and the Preacher. The charming Ruby Dee came as part of a trio who helped out freed slaves who are being victimized. For me, the original cowboy of my generation, it was mighty eye-poppin' seeing black folks in buckskins and boots. There were sure a lot of Indians in the films I saw, the occasional Chinese cook and a lot of Mexicans, but blacks? I dun thin' so, Lucy. So it was a particular joy for me that this was a shoot-'em-up with blacks as the central characters and I loved it. There was some fine comedy to feast on along with observing the real-life friendship of Poitier and Belafonte. We credit Poitier as a most elegant pioneer for black actors getting the attention they always deserved but we should remember ol' handsome Harry did much of the same thing around the same time and maybe a little earlier.
Poitier still acted in films that he didn't direct but he sure had a full slate of directorial turns... A Warm December, Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, all in the seventies. All were not great successes but all attracted attention because Sidney Poitier was attached to them.
His greatest success as a director came in 1980 with the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy. Those two were already a hot screen team and this film made that hotter. Poitier did not appear in it.
I hadn't seen much of Poitier's work in the seventies and he didn't make a film in the eighties until 1988s Shoot to Kill. Partly because I missed seeing his work, partly because I was attracted to the work of Tom Berenger and partly because I liked action-thrillers, it was a given I would see this one. It was not a certainty I would like it but I quite did. Poitier is a lawman assigned to find a killer whom he discovers is in the forest. He is joined by Berenger, an experienced tracker, whose girlfriend happens to be leading a group of hikers in the same area.
Poitier has grown a little greyer, his face a bit more etched with some history, in the 18 years I hadn't seen much of him. But the years had brought him up to edge of being an elder statesman. He was not the teacher of To Sir, with Love but I experienced him as a teacher nonetheless and I respected the man more and more in all of the choices he seemed to be making.
From the 1990s on, he did mainly TV movies, a couple of them quite prestigious, if he worked at all in his chosen industry. He was always a great family man, he had four daughters during his first marriage and two more in his current marriage.
The 1990s did become a decade in which Poitier took on some interesting tasks and would garner some lovely honors. He recorded an album called Poitier Meets Plato in which he recited some of the philosopher's writings. In 1997 he was appointed Ambassador of The Bahamas to Japan, a position he still holds, and also Ambassador of The Bahamas to UNESCO.
He received the American Film Institute and SAG Life Achievement Awards, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and got an honorary Oscar for extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.
In 2009 President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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