The Path To Becoming An Icon Was A Long Shot, But Sidney Poitier Did It

“Historical circumstances have changed,” Sidney Poitier said. “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.” Poitier became an icon, but it wasn’t easy. His trailblazing story exemplifies hard work, dedication, and passion. If you have no clue about Poitier’s story, we’ve got you covered. As you read along, you’ll find out who Poitier is and everything he stood for as an African American in Hollywood.

A Premature Birth

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Daniel FallotINA via Getty Images
Daniel FallotINA via Getty Images

Statistics show that babies born between 32 and 33 weeks during the pregnancy have a 95% survival rate. Sidney Poitier’s parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, hailed from Cat Island in the Bahamas. Reginald worked as a cab driver, but one time, he and Evelyn made a trip to Florida to see produce in between cab driving.

While in Miami, Sidney was born on February 20, 1927, two months premature. He was very frail, so his parents had to stay in Miami for three extra months to ensure his survival.

Poitier Didn’t Receive A Lot Of Education

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United Artists/Getty Images
United Artists/Getty Images

Today, you wouldn’t hear a successful star didn’t complete schooling through at least high school. Times were different when Poitier grew up. After making a full recovery from premature birth, life would go on usually for the star, but not for long.

Poitier would only receive a year and a half of schooling. At 15, he made his way back to Miami to live with his brother, where he worked to support himself. Poitier would remain in Florida until he was 16 before moving to New York City.

A Poor Theatre Audition

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The American Negro Theater formed in Harlem on June 5, 1940. When Poitier had his first audition with them, it went horribly. The future star could barely read the script, and his West Indies accent made him difficult to understand.

To improve, Poitier bought a radio and spent countless hours listening to voices so he could train himself to pronounce words better. He also studied magazines and newspapers so that he could teach himself to read since he didn’t have much schooling. Soon enough, the theater hired him.

Poitier The Dish Washer

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Poitier arrived in New York City, he had to provide for himself somehow. That’s why he became a dishwasher for different establishments. While doing this, he would slowly learn how to read, but it wouldn’t be good enough.

A waiter was friendly enough to sit down with the youngster and would help him read the local newspapers. It was a start, but Poitier still had a ways to go before he could grasp it completely. He did this work until landing the theater role.

Lying About His Age

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In the ’40s, during World War II, Poitier would end up getting enlisted. He lied about his age and ended up going into the Army in 1943, where they assigned him to a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Northport, New York.

He trained to work with psychiatric patients during this stint. Poitier eventually grew upset with the way hospitals treated the patients, so he faked a mental illness so he could get discharged from the military. After confessing about faking, the doctor felt sympathy and granted his discharge.

Poitier Had To Grind It Out

arms up
United Artists/Getty Images
United Artists/Getty Images

During these times, being able to sing was something that many expected of black actors. Poitier was tone-deaf, so that made it harder for him during his audition for the American Negro Theater.

As he pushed to fix his accent and get better overall, he spent six months trying to perfect his craft. His second attempt at the theater showed him what hard work could do. They noticed him and gave him the leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata.

Tough Times As A Youth

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

We have to be conscious of the era Poitier lived in and flexed his bravery. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court outlawed segregation at the state level, and it wouldn’t be until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act canceled state and local laws.

“Bigotry — and poverty — were Poitier’s lot in youth,” The Times wrote in 1959. Having parents from the West Indies, being uneducated, and living in a foreign place only made things more difficult for Poitier, but he moved forward.

What Would Poitier Do?

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Contributor/Getty Images
Contributor/Getty Images

Before 1949 came to an end, Poitier had a tough decision to make. He had to decide whether he would do a leading role on stage or work an offer from Darryl F. Zanuck in the movie No Way Out.

The film was his answer, and he would become a doctor on screen. Poitier’s character treated a Caucasian racist (Richard Widmark), and this led him to earn greater recognition and more acting opportunities. With each one, Poitier would embrace more prominent acting jobs than many other people of color at that time.

Taking His Talents To South Africa

sidney poitier
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Canada Lee was another African-American actor trying to make his way in entertainment during a time when his people didn’t get much shine. In 1951, Poitier linked up with Lee, and they traveled to South Africa.

There they would star in a film version of Cry, the Beloved Country. Poitier continued building buzz around his name and would eventually land his breakout role. Everything he did leading up to that was important to his success.

What Was His First Acting Role?

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United Artists/Getty Images
United Artists/Getty Images

Many might not know this, but No Way Out wasn’t Poitier’s start in acting. That was the first time he received credit for a role, but not the first time he acted in a movie.

Sepia Cinderella would be the beginning of his film days, but he didn’t get credited for it. There were also three shorts he did while enlisted in the Army. It’s essential not to omit that part of Poitier’s acting history.

Blackboard Jungle

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

In 1955, Poitier played Gregory W. Miller in the movie Blackboard Jungle. It was a high school drama, and his character was a member of an unruly class despite being 28-years-old.

Miller was only 15 in Blackboard Jungle, but Poitier wasn’t the only actor playing a younger aged person. Not only did this place Poitier on the road to icon status, but the movie also helped change the world by showing there was a culture not yet considered by the masses.

The Movie That Changed Everything

Breaking records
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1958, Tony Curtis and Poitier starred in the Stanley Kramer directed, The Defiant Ones. The two stars played prisoners chained-together who end up escaping custody after the truck transporting them crashes.

To avoid getting captured again, they had to work together despite their differences. This mix was the golden ticket as the film received much success, and both actors got plenty of praise. The movie did extraordinarily well, but no one expected what would happen next.

Making Academy History!

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Defiant Ones was such a success with the critics; it ended up helping Poitier make history. The filmed earned eight Academy Award nominations, with Best Picture and Best Actor nominations included.

Wait, a Best Actor nominee too? That made Poitier the first black male actor to get such a nomination for a competitive Academy Award. The two stars also gained this recognition at the Golden Globes, but neither would end up taking home the trophy.

The Next Accomplishment Was Lilies Of The Field

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Not long after The Defiant Ones received much success, Poitier’s streak of good fortune would continue in another role. Lilies of the Field released in 1963, and with it unfolded more history for Poitier.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote a compelling piece about the film and Poitier’s performance, saying: “Poitier has had little opportunity to display his comic talents. He shows here his timing and technique are impeccable. His relationship with the five women is delicate — not because of difference in race but of sex — and plays beautifully.”

A Groundbreaking Victory

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Contributor/Getty Images
Contributor/Getty Images

Poitier made history in 1964. After performing so well in Lilies of the Field, the actor earned yet another nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. The energy this time around wasn’t the same as last time when he got the nomination with Tony Curtis.

No, this time, Poitier became the first black actor to win the award for the Best Actor! His portrayal as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field won over the Academy and critics.

Poitier Speaks On The Victory

first black actor
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

This wasn’t just a step forward for black people, but it also helped to legitimize the Academy as well. It was a special moment when Hattie McDaniel won as the first African American ever, but she wasn’t the leading role. This moment was a bit different.

“I guess I leaped six feet from my seat when my name was called. You can call that surprise if you want to,” he told The Times in 1964 with a relaxed chuckle.

Dealing With All The Success Was Internal

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Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

It’s tough to imagine how Poitier or any person of color would feel after earning this much success in this period. Being an athlete was different than becoming a star in Hollywood since the paradigm focused more on those not colored. Poitier handled it well and had a philosophy to help.

“I have always thought of survival in terms of my internal self,” Poitier added. “That is more important than external self. I wanted to be, in my own terms, worthwhile. I wanted to be acceptable to myself. And I felt that way in acting.”

Poitier Helped Change The Rules Of Hollywood

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Mondadori via Getty Images
Mondadori via Getty Images

Since Poitier became more and more of a prominent figure in acting, Hollywood eventually had to adjust to him. There weren’t many others that had his complexion, so production lighting was only curated to suit those of lighter complexions.

Poitier played in In the Heat of the Night, which was the first Hollywood movie where they adjusted the lights to fit darker skin tones better. Before that movie, there would always be an excessive glare on black actors.

Poitier Witnessed History

actors at the March on Washington
Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Not only did Poitier make history, he always witnessed it live in 1963. Poitier other high-profile actors like Burt Lancaster and Harry Belafonte participated in the March on Washington during the Civil Rights Movement.

There were over a quarter-million people in Washington D.C. as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. He didn’t need to attend it all, but he showed up for a more significant cause with his colleagues with him.

Poitier Reflects On It All

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ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ/AFP via Getty Images
ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Decades after obtaining so much success, Poitier pondered over it all. He’s seen the industry change a great deal and knows it’s nothing like it was in the past. He got the chance to speak out about it.

“Historical circumstances have changed,” Poitier said. “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 no control over content, no creative leverage except to refuse to do a film, which I often did.”