March 2002


They call me Mr. Tibbs answered Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (a signature line from 1967's In the Heat of the Nigh while stuck in racist Mississippi with a redneck sheriff to solve a murder.

Yet, today, most of us know him as film legend Sidney Poitier. And until the envelope is opened on March 24, Poitier is the only African-American actor to win the coveted award in a leading role, male or female, in the history of the presentation of the Oscar awards. Poitier, who won in 1964 for his performance as the footloose handyman named Homer Smith who helps five confused German refugee nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert in Lilies of the Field, will receive another statue, an honorary award, for his massive contribution to motion picture film industry.

"Sidney Poitier will be honored for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world," said Academy president Frank Pierson. "When the academy honors Sidney Poitier, it honors itself even more."

Poitier's career is an amazing testament to the measures of a man who continued to defy the odds against him. Beginning at birth when he arrived prematurely weighing only three pounds in 1927 on Cat Island in the Bahamas, to his ill-prepared first actor's audition for the American Negroe Theatre in Harlem where he was laughed off stage to his screen debut in 1950's No Way Out, the man has demonstrated a "Yes, I can" attitude.

During the turbulent era of racial injustice, "Jim Crow" laws and inequality Poitier pressed forward with his commitment to the arts with his portrayals of dignified, non-threatening Black men. In 1958 he received his first Academy Award nomination for his role as Noah Cullen, a southern escaped convict (shackled to the character of a white convict portrayed by Tony Curtis) in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. It would become the beginning of many first times for Poitier.

He was the first Black actor nominated for a best actor award for The Defiant Ones, the very first to win a best actor award for a leading character in Lilies of the Field and the numero uno Black actor to become a box office star with the smash hit Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film that examined interracial dating. These are monumental accomplishments especially during the storied civil-rights campaign era of the '60's.

The 1970's saw Poitier expand his talents to directing some classic films including Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action with Bill Cosby and most notably Buck and the Preacher with long time friend and co-star Harry Belafonte, a sure hit for movie fans of the Western genre. A hiatus from acting on the silver screen enveloped some of the 80's but Poitier was welcomed back with open arms in movies including Little Nikita and Sneakers with Robert Redford.

Poitier, without argument, opened the door for today's Denzel Washington's, Morgan Freeman's, Will Smith's, Eddie Murphy's, Samuel L. Jackson's, Angela Bassett's and so on and so on.

Today, we call him Sidney Poitier, an American icon. Not bad for a man whose tomato-farmer father almost buried him in a shoe-box at birth.