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It’s been 53 years since Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. He may have broken a huge barrier that night, April 13, 1964, but racial discrimination was still widespread. When actress Anne Bancroft gave him a kiss on the cheek after presenting him with the Oscar, conservative audiences were offended.
Often recognized as the forerunner of the wealth of successful black talent today, Poitier was a featured performer or star of 48 films, and he directed six. He also fought for civil rights, marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. In 2009, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest honor for a civilian.
On Feb. 20, as we celebrate Poitier’s 90th birthday, let’s take a look at seven reasons to wish this actor, author and director a spectacular day.
1. Poitier persevered when the odds were heavily stacked against him.
Born three months premature in Miami to Bahamian parents who were there to sell tomatoes, Poitier spent much of his youth in the Bahamas on Cat Island, in a home with no running water or electricity. Nearly illiterate, he was sent to live with his older brother in Miami at the age of 15. A few months later, he traveled to New York with only $3 and — after a brief stint in the U.S. Army — sought work as an actor with the American Negro Theatre. Upon hearing Poitier’s thick Caribbean accent, a director told him he’d be better off as a dishwasher. But Poitier wouldn’t have it. He changed the way he talked by mimicking American newscasters. He returned to the same theater company and nabbed a role in Days of Our Youth.
2. He refused parts that played to racial stereotypes.
In 1950, Poitier made his film debut by playing a doctor who treated a white bigot in No Way Out. His big breakthrough, though, came five years later when he played a musical prodigy in Blackboard Jungle. In 1967 alone, Poitier starred as a detective in the Southern crime drama In the Heat of the Night, a black man engaged to a white woman in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and an inner-city teacher in To Sir, with Love. These three huge hits made him the country’s biggest box-office draw in 1968. Always, he insisted on playing smart, poised and thoughtful black characters.
3. He stood up for what he believed was right.
It was called “the slap heard around the world.” When filming In the Heat of the Night, released just as racial tensions in America were boiling over, he insisted on changes to a key scene. Poitier played a black homicide detective who, along with a bigoted white sheriff, was trying to solve the murder of a white businessman. When a prejudiced cotton plantation owner grows angry over being considered a suspect, he slaps Poitier’s character. Initially, Poitier was just supposed to take it. But after demanding a rewrite, Poitier slapped back, even harder, stunning both white and black audiences.
4. And he broke still more barriers beyond acting.
Poitier was also a director. His movie Stir Crazy, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, was the first film by a black director to gross more than $100 million in North America. The 1980 box-office smash was the third-highest-grossing film of that year.
5. He was closely associated with the civil rights movement.
With the civil rights struggle convulsing the nation, he helped shine a light on the issue by attending the 1963 March on Washington. Paying tribute to Poitier in 1967, 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.”
6. He looked beyond the film industry to extend his influence.
From 1997 to 2007, he served as Bahamian ambassador to Japan. Concurrently, he served as an ambassador to UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, from 2002 to 2007. He was proud of his Bahamian ancestry and wanted to support his country any way he could.
7. He’s also earned acclaim in the literary world.
He’s written about his life and career in three autobiographical books: This Life, The Measure of a Man and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter. He also wrote his first novel, Montaro Caine, in 2013.
Poitier once said, “If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”
And that’s why we say, “Happy birthday, Sidney Poitier.” Here’s to many more.
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