HeroVet: Sidney Poitier

Barack Obama and Sidney Poitier

There is probably only one veteran who lied about his age to join the Army early and also went on to win an Academy Award. Bahamamian-American actor Sidney Poitier enlisted at age 16 and though his military service only lasted 10 months, his film career set records for Black individuals on screen for decades. Poitier passed away on January 6 at the age of 94.

“Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace,” tweeted former President Barack Obama after the Oscar-winner’s death. He had awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Poitier’s early life was challenging like many during his time. Born in 1927 in Miami, Florida, he grew up in the small village of Cat Island, Bahamas. His father, a poor tomato farmer, moved the family to their nation’s capital, Nassau, when Poitier was 11. At age 15, he left for the United States without any money and soon encountered his first challenges from racism, after spending his childhood in his predominantly Black island nation. 

Upon making it to New York, the poverty-stricken teen washed dishes and sought housing at an orphanage. When the chance to enlist in the Army came around when he was 16, he lied about his age in hope for a better life.

He wrote about that challenging time in his 1980 memoir, “This Life.”

The Army sent him to a hospital on Long Island for “shellshocked” veterans where he and 150 Black Army recruits assisted the white medical staff to “tend wards [and] administer cold packs, shock treatments and other supposedly rehabilitative therapies….We would in time become no more than jailers. The army was not heavily into the mental health business,” he wrote at that time.
After less than a year of service he chose to act his way out of his circumstances by pretending to be mentally unfit. Acting turned out to be his winning ticket.
Poitier worked as a janitor for the American Negro Theater, as it was named during its existence from 1940-1951, in exchange for acting lessons, and began to develop his legendary acting skills in the theatre. He once even landed a role as understudy to Harry Belafonte.

He continued to perform in plays until 1950, when he found a film career that quickly moved in parallel with the racial upheaval that was percolating its way throughout the decade. He made his film debut in No Way Out, a violent tale of racial hatred, which made him a hero back home in the Bahamas. The colonial government deemed it too explosive and censored it. 

It launched the career that, in the words of his good friend Harry Belafonte, "put the cinema and millions of people in the world in touch with a truth about who we are. A truth that could have for a longer time eluded us had it not been for him [Poitier] and the choices he made."

In 1959, he made history as becoming the first Black individual nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Defiant Ones, and doing so again in 1963 by winning the Academy Award for his role in Lillies of the Field. He was a trailblazer on camera, taking on roles beyond the normal stereotypes.

“I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy,” he told Newsweek in 1988. “I was kind of the lone guy in town.”

Poitier evolved and grew beyond acting and beyond drama. He went on to direct and produce, as he joined forces with Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand to form First Artist Production Company. During the 1990s up to 2001, Poitier made several movies for television. They included "Separate But Equal" as Thurgood Marshall; "Mandela and De Klerk" as Nelson Mandela and his last was "The Last Brick-maker in America."

Reflecting in 2002 on his last Oscar, a Lifetime Achievement Award, Poitier said, “I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”

In addition to his two Academy Awards, Poitier received the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, two NAACP Image Awards and a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.  

Poitier led a full life but ultimately passed away from heart failure and had previously suffered from Alzheimer's dementia and prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus, a retired actor from Canada, and five daughters.

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