Actor and director Sidney Poitier was born to his Bahamian parents two and a half months prematurely on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. Poitier went to live with a brother when he was in his mid-teens. In New York City, he first worked small jobs, such as dishwashing, to support himself before he found his life’s true passion.
Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York City to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He eventually made his way to the ANT stage, filling in for Harry Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth. In 1946, Poitier appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. For years, Poitier worked as a stage actor. He made his Hollywood debut in 1950 in No Way Out. He also appeared in Cry, the Beloved Country, a drama set in South Africa during the time of apartheid.
Cast mainly in supporting roles, Poitier had a career breakthrough with Blackboard Jungle (1955). He scored his first Academy Award nomination for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis. The following year, Poitier lit up the screen as a leading man in the musical Porgy and Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge. This film and his impressive turn in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun helped make a top star.
In 1964, Poitier won an Academy Award (best actor) for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963)—marking the first Oscar win by an African-American actor. In 1967, he played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama In the Heat of the Night, and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he played a black man engaged to a white woman in this groundbreaking look at interracial marriage. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play his fiancée’s parents in the film.
In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The Film Society of Lincoln Center also honored Poitier in 2011, earning the organization’s Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Poitier is relaxing while making some TV appearances as himself and is currently married to Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus, and they have two children, Anika Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.