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Sidney Poitier was the pioneering black actor of the twentieth century. It is through his exquisite skills that black actors like Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington were able to achieve so much with their own talent in future years.
It is a miracle that Sidney Poitier survived even a few days in this world. He was born dangerously premature, weighing in at only three pounds, in Miami in 1924. His death was considered so imminent that his father immediately went to look for a suitable container in which to bury the unfortunate Sidney. Amazingly, the youngster survived, and went on to spend his childhood on a farm in the Bahamas.
At the age of fifteen, Poitier was sent to live with his brother in the States, having left school two years earlier and in danger of turning into a delinquent. By the age of sixteen he had moved to New York and served in a variety of jobs, most of them menial. He had also joined the army, but was kicked out when officers realized that he was underage. As a young adult in search of more interesting avenues of employment, Sidney Poitier was drawn towards the American Negro Theatre. His first audition led to immediate rejection; his thick Caribbean accent was considered unsuitable. Undaunted, he went away and spent endless hours fine tuning his acting skills. After six months he sensed his improvement and returned to the theatre. This time he was successful and proved the beginnings of a hugely successful career.
The number of ‘firsts’ that Sidney Poitier accumulated is the primary reason that he is considered to be such a great pioneer. He was the first black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award (1958 ‘The Defiant Ones’), and was the first black actor to win that award (1963 ‘Lilies On the Field’). He also became the first black number one box office star in 1967, after the release of ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’
Poitier was often cast in acting roles that dealt with issues of race. More often than not he played the role of a black person who was perfect, in a crusade against the morally corrupt white people. This type of casting was also immensely helpful in his role as a pioneer for other black actors, because it broke previous stereotypical roles.
Success as a director and producer followed that of acting, including the comedy ‘Stir Crazy’ with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. The late eighties saw a return to acting, mainly in thrillers, and in 1997 he was appointed ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas. This appointment reflected the real life characteristics of the man – calm, willing to listen, friendly and open to conversation. He always kept his personal life very private, and so rightly he will be remembered for a lifetime of tremendous works as an actor and director.