HarperCollins Speakers Bureau

Sidney Poitier

Academy Award-Winning Actor


  • An Evening with Sidney Poitier



Sir Sidney Poitier's 50 year-plus career span has seen this Academy-Award winning actor, director, producer and best-selling author receive many honors and awards; the most meaningful being the knighthood awarded to him by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in 1968. He is the recipient of four honorary doctorate degrees, the last from New York University. He was honored in 2006 at the 59th Cannes Film Festival, where he was pronounced Commander of Arts and Letters, France's most prestigious commendation. Also in 2006, he received the Cunard Britannia Award for Lifetime Contributions to International Film presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Poitier rose to the top of the charts and shot to number one on the New York Times best-seller list after being picked by Oprah Winfrey as her 56th Book Club selection. In The Measure of a Man, Poitier reveals the depth of spirit, passion, and intellectual fervor that has propelled his remarkable life. Rich in stories and in hard-earned wisdom, the book draws on the two halves of Poitier's unique perspective: his impoverished but, in many ways blissful, upbringing on an island in the Bahamas, and his long career making some of the most morally significant films of the late 20th Century.

In 2002, Poitier was presented with a second Oscar for "his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence." He received the BAFTA Award; three Golden Globe Awards; American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award; the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award; the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award; five NAACP Image Awards; and two Golden Bear Awards from the Berlin Film Festival. Currently, His Excellency serves as ambassador to Japan from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Poitier is president and CEO of Verdon Cedric Productions in Beverly Hills, where he continues to write screenplays and study philosophy. He is married to Joanna Shimkus Poitier, is father to six daughters, a grandfather of four and most recently, a great-grandfather of one.

Poitier was born dangerously premature at only three pounds on February 20, 1924, in Miami, Florida. Poitier's father, a tomato farmer, had already saved a shoe box to bury him in when he miraculously recovered. The family moved to the Bahamas, where Poitier grew up as the youngest of eight siblings on Cay Island and Nassau.

After attending school for only a year and a half, Poitier dropped out to help his ailing father tend to the tomato farm during the depression. At age 15, he moved back to Miami to live with his brother Cyril, working as a drugstore messenger. It was then that the young Poitier experienced the first sting of racial prejudice in the United States, which was markedly different from his island home.

After a warning visit from the Ku Klux Klan at his brother's home, Poitier decided to flee Miami for New York City. Not having funds for transportation, he rail hopped and finally arrived with only a few dollars in his pocket. He found work washing dishes and slept on a roof across from the Capitol Theatre; however, the onset of a harsh winter prompted him to lie about his age and join the U.S. Army, with hopes of being stationed in a warm climate. Instead, he received a post at a mental hospital in Long Island and eventually feigned mental illness himself to escape duty in 1945. Back in the city, he came across The Amsterdam News, which changed his life forever: The American Negro Theatre was looking for actors.

After being laughed and booed off the stage at his first audition, Poitier returned to the theatre and was granted free acting lessons from director Frederick O'Neal in exchange for completing backstage chores. He eventually won a part, alternating with fellow struggling actor Harry Belafonte, in Days of Our Youth. One role led to another and soon Poitier was commanding the limited black roles available on the New York stage.

In 1950, after performing successfully on the stage for several years, Poitier made his Hollywood debut in No Way Out, playing a prison ward doctor struggling to do his job amidst escalating racial tension in the cells. A string of strong leading roles followed, and Poitier became the trailblazer for black actors in Hollywood.

In 1958, Poitier was the first black actor nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Defiant Ones; in 1963, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field; and in 1967, he initiated the first on-screen kiss between a white person and a black person in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Other successful films include: Blackboard JungleA Raisin in the SunThe Bedford IncidentTo Sir, With LoveA Touch of Blue; and In the Heat of the Night. Civil rights advocates praised Poitier for portraying characters whose reserved dignity demanded respect.

In the 1970s, Poitier turned away from acting to take the director's chair and made several films in the popular Blaxploitation vein, including Buck and the Preacher(1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). In 1977, he directed the hit comedy Stir Crazy, pairing the charismatic comedians Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Poitier played an FBI Agent in 1988's Shoot to Kill, and in Little Nikita that same year. He also appeared in Sneakers (1992) and in 1997s The Jackal, with Richard Gere and Bruce Willis. In 1999, Poitier appeared alongside his youngest daughter, fledgling actress Sydney Poitier, in Showtime's Free of Eden.

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