Friday, February 20, 2015

BORN ON THIS DAY: SYDNEY POITIER

It is hard to believe that someone like Sydney Poitier is 88 years ago. The images he displayed on the film made him seem so timeless. Sir Sidney Poitier was born February 20, 1927. In 1964, Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor,  for his role in Lilies of the Field. The significance of this achievement was later bolstered in 1967 when he starred in three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.

Sidney Poitier's parents were Evelyn (née Outten) and Reginald James Poitier, Bahamian farmers who owned a farm on Cat Island and traveled to Miami in the U.S.A. to sell tomatoes and other produce. Reginald worked as a cab driver in Nassau, Bahamas.  Poitier was born in Miami while his parents were visiting. His birth was two months premature and he was not expected to survive, but his parents remained three months in Miami to nurse him to health. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas (then a British colony) but because of his birth in the U.S., he automatically gained U.S. citizenship. Poitier's uncle has claimed that the Poitier ancestors on his father's side had migrated from Haiti and were probably a part of the runaway slaves which had established maroon communities throughout the Bahamas, including Cat Island. He mentions that the surname Poitier is a French name, and there were no white Poitiers from the Bahamas.

At the age of 15 he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. A Jewish waiter sat with him every night for several weeks helping him learn to read the newspaper. He then decided to join the United States Army after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theatre.


Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of African American actors at the time, Poitier's tone deafness made him unable to sing. Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which he received good reviews. 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 Caucasian bigot (played by Richard Widmark), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most African American actors of the time were offered. Poitier's breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).

Poitier began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized African American characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967). Poitier was aware of this pattern himself, but was conflicted on the matter: he wanted more varied roles, but also felt obliged to set a good example with his characters to defy previous stereotypes, as he was the only major actor of African descent in the American film industry at the time. For instance, in 1966 he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC production of Othello with that spirit in mind. In 2001, Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for his overall contribution to American cinema. With the death of Ernest Borgnine in 2012, Poitier became the oldest living man to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor. On March 2, 2014, Poitier appeared with Angelina Jolie at the 86th Academy Awards, to present the Best Director award. He was given a standing ovation, as Jolie thanked him for all his Hollywood contributions, stating "we are in your debt". Poitier gave a small speech telling his peers to "keep up the wonderful work" to emotional applause...


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