“It’s of the noblest of human virtue to tell a loved one before their ‘final curtain falls’ that they are loved and appreciated, for the dead rarely respond to the exclamations of the living” – Theodore W.
As movie directors, producers and actors from around the globe prepare for this year’s Oscars, an event that is unparalleled in it’s celebration of cinematic accomplishment and excellence, worldwide homage should be paid to a rapidly dwindling number of acting legends of whom movie aficionados respectfully refer to as, Hollywood’s living “Immortals”.
In retrospect of past acting greatness, a deep and revered homage to the Immortals should especially be rendered by today’s new crop of actors and actresses that have greatly benefited from a multitude and variety of “blueprints” that were left behind by the movie “Giants” of yesteryear.
Sadly, the living Immortals of Hollywood’s “Golden Years” are a rapidly decreasing number of actors / actresses that have, through their love, dedication / improvisation to the craft of acting / movie making, have created a brightly illuminated path to “acting enlightenment”; an intangible roadmap that was created as a means to educate and inspire future stars and stars in-waiting, as new and not-so-new thespians strive to achieve “perfection” at the sound of the director’s bark of “lights, camera, action”.
In honor of Black History Month, today’s piece tells the remarkable story of a very special actor whose accolades and awards are too numerous to mention in an allotted amount of space.
He is a distinguished living icon whose very name conjures trailblazing cinematic greatness. The man of whom this piece bestows great respect to is no other than Sidney Poitier.
Sir Sidney Poitier
When the world utters the name Sidney Poitier, it is spoken in the analogy of movie-making royalty.
Born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, Florida, to his Bahamian parents, Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, Sidney Poitier – pronounced /ˈpwɑːtjeɪ/ or /ˈpwɑːti.eɪ/, is a Bahamian American actor whose storybook tale of achieving international stardom via his “perfection” of acting is definitely a tale worth telling.
Indeed the title, Sir Sidney Poitier is a title that was bequeathed to this man of humble origin by England’s Queen Elizabeth II; a reward for his brilliant ability as a thespian of the highest order to stir human imagination / passion and for his ability to inspire individual greatness.
In recognition of his noble achievements, the Queen in 1974, Knighted Poitier as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Thirty-five years later in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama presented Mr. Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award that can be bestowed upon an individual for their lifetime achievements and contributions to humankind.
In the beginning…unlocking the “gate”
When Sidney Poitier came into this world, he was born a premature and sickly infant. Not expected to survive by prognosticators of doom, his parents ignored nursemaid’s predictions of death and decided instead to muster all their love and energy around their tiny newborn child.
Evelyn and Reginald Poitier remained in Miami long enough to nurse their young son to health. As a toddler he grew up with his family on Cat Island, The Bahamas, then a British colony. At age 10, he and his family moved to Nassau in hope of eecking out a better way of life during economically tough times.
At the age of 15, a teenaged Sidney was sent to Miami, Florida by his parents to live with his older brother. However, after witnessing his brother’s harassment by a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Sidney at the age of 17 decided to move to New York City where he held a succession of menial blue collar jobs.
Exasperated from working jobs that paid little money and provided little hope for his future, – a penniless and despondent Poitier often slept on top of the roof of a building that overlooked New York City‘s Capital Theatre – he decided to join the United States Army.
Stationed in Long Island, New York, Poitier worked as a soldier in a military psychiatric facility.
The demands of a soldier did not go well with Poitier and he eventually feigned mental illness to escape further duty. Poitier’s ability to convince his superior officers that he too was “mentally challenged” was in essence Sir Poitier’s first “award winning” acting role.
In spite of his difficulties as a soldier, it was in the Army that a young Sidney Poitier found the confidence he needed as a civilian to unlock “the gate” that was inhibiting him from searching for a better way of life.
After receiving a medical discharge from U.S. Army, Sidney returned to New York City and worked as a dishwasher until an ad for an actor in the classifieds caught his attention.
Intrigued by the thought of becoming a successful actor, Poitier attended the audition. However, his lack of reading prowess and his thick West Indian accent sealed his doom and he failed his first official audition miserably, in fact Poitier was told by the casting director, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?”
From that moment on Poitier vowed to show the play’s casting director and everyone else that he could and would succeed an actor. He intensely applied himself to improving his reading and writing, a mindset that within a year, landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater.
Sidney Poitier, the poor yet determined young man from Miami, Florida that grew up as a impoverished child in the British West Indies, had finally “unlocked the gate of opportunity” that had threatened to keep him secluded in a life of poverty. The man, the thespian had arrived.
Although boos from a fickle New York City audience during his first major play was disheartening, Poitier was not to be denied his destiny, and he to continued to sharpen his acting skills. By the end of 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a white bigot, was well reviewed which led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most Black actors of the time were offered.
Poitier’s big screen breakout role was that of a high school delinquent in the 1955 classic, Blackboard Jungle.
Poitier was the first male Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award for his role in the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones. In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field.
1967 which was a tumultuous year in American history. It was a year full of demonstrations that were spawned by a Black civil rights movement and a “rainbow” of college students protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was in 1967 that Sidney Poitier starred in two movies that captivated the mind and imagination of a movie-watching world. The movies recognized the inequality and indignities that Blacks in the United States were (some say still) suffering.
The first of the two movies, In the Heat of the Night portrayed Poitier as Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniapolice detective caught up in a racially bigoted town – fictional – in Mississippi. His character role of detective Virgil Tibbs depicted an educated / professional Black man that many in the United Stateswere clueless actually existed. The movie shattered a “thousand lies” that were told about Black “intelligence”.
His second movie that was released in 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner , starred Poitier in the role of Dr. John Prentice. Again Poitier’s brilliant portrayal of an educated and world renowned Black man who happened to be a doctor whose fiancé was a young and vibrant White woman shattered stereotypes of Black men and dared to confront the taboo of interracial relationships. Poitier’s dynamic improvisation of both lead characters, signed, sealed and delivered his status as America’s premier lead actor.
The metaphorical “gate” had now been busted wide open, and Sidney Poitier the struggling theatrical young actor of the late 1940s had evolved in less than two decades into being the world’s premier big screen actor, Black, White, or polka dot.
Willing to break the mould of expected roles that he portrayed on the “silver screen”, Poitier in the 1970s starred in classic big screen comedies that starred him alongside acting and comedic legends, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte.
Indeed the list of Sir Sidney Poitier’s accomplishments as an actor, director and producer is too long to include in this piece.
He is without question the author of this piece’s all-time favorite thespian. Sidney Poitier provided the author with an enormous amount of pride and inspiration, allowing the a little boy from Brooklyn, New Yorkto dream big dreams.
In one of Poitier’s lines from the movie, “In the heat of the night”, an agitated Virgil Tibbs glared at a bigoted Mississippi police chief that questioned what people in the North called him. Without he hesitating, the character glared back and replied, “They call me Mr. Tibbs“. Enough said.
Thank you Sir Sidney Poitier.
If you would like to review the list of awards and movies that have made Sir Sidney Poitier an international icon the following link is provided.
As always the New Orleans Examiner is interested in what you think. Did Sidney Poitier’s great cinematic performances single-handedly change how the world viewed Black male actors as “leading men” in movie scripts? And if so, does today’s current and future crop of Black male actors owe Mr. Poitier a world of gratitude? Inquiring minds want to know. Sound off.
Until next time Louisianans, Good Day, God Bless and Good Fishing.