BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Entertainment: Film
Front Page 
UK Politics 
TV and Radio 
New Media 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 13:56 GMT
How Poitier conquered Hollywood
Sidney Poitier
Poitier challenged racial issues in his films
Actor Sidney Poitier is to receive an honorary Academy Award for his long career in film, and for representing the industry with "dignity, style and intelligence". BBC News Online takes a look at how he came to prominence.

Sidney Poitier - the first black person to win an Oscar for best actor - helped break the mould for black actors in Hollywood.

His winning role in 1963's Lilies of the Field saw him star as Homer Smith, a construction worker who stops off at a farm run by nuns - who believe he was sent by God to build their church.

His ground-breaking success made the film-world sit up and take notice of him - and he exploited this to the full.

Poitier often took roles that dealt with racial issues, as he was keen to tackle such tensions head-on in his work.

He grew up in the Bahamas
In the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, he starred with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as their future son-in-law.

Poitier played John Prentice, a prince and a doctor who worked in Switzerland, and the film saw a revolutionary kiss between Poitier and his white fiancée, played by Katherine Houghton.

All of this was a far cry from Poitier's humble beginnings in Cat Island in the Bahamas.

He was born in Miami, Florida in 1924 but grew up in the Bahamas where his father was a tomato farmer.

Sidney Poitier
Poitier began his acting career on stage
The family was moved to the capital, Nassau, when Poitier was aged 11, where he saw his first films in the cinema.

After only a brief schooling, Poitier moved to Miami aged 15 to join his brother and work as a chemist store's messenger.

Having come from the Bahamas, which was predominantly black, he found it a shock to arrive in the US, where he experienced his first taste of racial discrimination.

Undeterred, he enlisted in the US army and served briefly in a medical unit during World War II.


On his return to the States, he applied to the American Negro Theatre in New York, but was rejected.

After practising an American accent, he was accepted - and won the job of understudying Harry Belefonte in the play Days of our Youth.

This led to Poitier's stage debut, when he covered one night for Belefonte.

His acting talents were immediately spotted, and he gained a small role in the Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which he was well received.

Sidney Poitier
He broke the mould for black actors
His stage career began to take off, and he appeared regularly until 1950 when he landed his first film role in No Way Out.

It depicted violent racial hatred, and Poitier's role as a prison ward doctor was lauded in the Bahamas, although the movie was censored by the colonial government.

This sparked racial tensions in the Bahamas, although it was not until 1969 that the UK was persuaded to give the islands Commonwealth status, and independence in 1973.

Meanwhile Poitier was building on his film success - he began to receive almost unprecedent offers to play the leading man. He took roles in some of the 1950s' most controversial, daring films.


In Blackboard Jungle in 1955, he played alienated school student Gregory Miller who is accused of threatening his teacher's wife.

And in 1958, he earned his first Academy Award nomination for The Quiet Ones, in which two convicts chained to each other - one white and one black - escape prison.

As the film progresses, their tensions being to dissolve and their hatred turns to respect.

He went on to play Porgy in Porgy and Bess in 1959 and, of course, won his Academy Award four years later.

Poitier continued to appear on stage, and was outspoken on civil rights issues - he gained a reputation as a man of great integrity and talent.

Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis also starred in The Jackal
In 1969 Poitier branched out and founded the First Artists Production Company - three years later he directed his first film Buck and the Preacher.

He followed up with Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Stir Crazy (1980), and Ghost Dad (1990), appearing in some of the movies as well as directing them.

He acted in more than 40 films throughout his career, and his last big movie was in 1997's thriller The Jackal as a CIA agent alongside Richard Gere and Bruce Willis.

In the same year he was also in the TV film Mandela and de Klerk with Michael Caine, for which he gained an Emmy nomination for his role as Nelson Mandela.


As well as receiving many prestigious acting awards, including Baftas, Golden Globes and a lifetime achievement prize from the American Film Institute, he is also ambassador to Japan for The Bahamas.

Earlier this month he was honoured with the Living Legend Award at the Trumpet Awards in the US.

His recognition from the Academy Awards for his efforts in the film world will be much applauded.

See also:

09 Jan 02 | Showbiz
Poitier hailed as living legend
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Film stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Film stories