HeroVet: Sidney Poitier, Academy Award-winning Actor

Barack Obama and Sidney Poitier

Not many Academy Award-winning actors started out as immigrant teens washing dishes. But Sidney Poitier, a young orphan desperate to emerge from poverty and make something of himself, faced his raw beginnings by joining the U.S. Army and has made history as a trailblazing actor ever since.

Some say his highest achievement is becoming the first black American to win an Academy Award nearly 50 years ago, inspiring countless others to follow and emulate him. But Poitier is very respectful of his spot in history. Reflecting in 2002 on his most recent Oscar, a lifetime achievement award, Poitier says:

“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.”

Born in 1927 in Miami, Florida, Sidney Poitier grew up in the small village of Cat Island, Bahamas. His father, a poor tomato farmer, moved the family to the capital, Nassau, when Poitier was eleven and left for the United States as a young teen without any money.

He went to an Army recruitment office during World War II and said he was 18 when he was only 16. He then went on to serve the Army as a physiotherapist for almost a year. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, “The U.S. Army literally took him in out of the cold.”

From dishes, Poitier then worked as a janitor for the American Negro Theater in exchange for acting lessons and began to develop his legendary acting skills in the theatre, once even landing 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. Sydney Poitier's movie debut came in No Way Out, a violent tale of racial hatred, that made him a hero back home in the Bahamas. The colonial government deemed it too explosive and censored it. The subsequent protest that erupted gave birth to the political party that would eventually overturn British rule.

That event launched the Poitier 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."

By decade’s end, Poitier’s emergence was solidified, and in 1959, Sydney Poitier's Academy Award nomination, for his role in The Defiant Ones, was the first ever for an African American. By1963 he scored another first – the first black to win the Academy Award, this time for his role in Lillies of the Field.

The New York Times' Vincent Canby once pointed out: "Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones." And, according to the Kennedy Center for the Arts, the firsts just kept coming:

Poitier also starred in the first mainstream movies to condone interracial marriages and permit a mixed couple to hug and kiss (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967) and to attack apartheid (The Wilby Conspiracy, 1975).
His trajectory traced an arc similar to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Justice Thurgood Marshall, as they emerged and impacted the American consciousness. Paying tribute to Poitier in 1967, Dr. King said, "He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom. Here is a man who, in the words we so often hear now, is a soul brother."

Poitier evolved and grew beyond acting and beyond drama. He went on to direct and produce, as he joined forces Steve Mc Queen, Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, to form First Artist Production Company which released his next four films. For the rest of the 1970s, he starred in, along with his counterpart on television, Bill Cosby, and directed three successful comedies: "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), "Let's Do It Again" (1975) and "A Piece of the Action" (1977).

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier, at the White House in Washington on August 12, 2009. UPI/Kevin Dietsch (click image to enlarge)
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."

In addition to his two Academy Awards, Poitier has 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. President Barack Obama recently awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor at a White House ceremony.

Finally, he has also established himself as a writer, developing themes spirituality, character, and legacy. Poitier has written two autobiographies: "This Life" (1980), and "The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography" (2000). The latter was selected as one of Oprah's Book Club and a New York Times Bestseller. "Life Beyond Measure - letters to my Great-Granddaughter" (2008) was his third book.

Looking forward, in Life Beyond Measure, Poitier describes the responsibility he feels to teach his great-granddaughter about the opportunities of today’s world.

“I would like to make a small contribution to her becoming a person who is worldly in her understanding of the human family. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves, the human family -- not just the black or Hispanic people among the family, or the Europeans or Asians among the family. We are all family.”

Image Credit: http://www.achievement.org/achiever/sidney-poitier/

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