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Spotlight: Sidney Poitier

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March 1, 2002 Posted: 2:07 PM EST (1950 GMT)

CNN) -- Actor Sidney Poitier is known the world over for his powerful, racially sensitive portrayals of African-American characters on the silver screen.

His work in cinematic classics such as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "A Patch of Blue" gave African-Americans the ability to go to the movies and see a truer image of themselves.

Ironically, Poitier grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, an idyllic setting where his father owned and worked a tomato farm. In Nassau, Bahamas, where Poitier was educated, he learned there were no limits to what he could be when he became a man.

"Nassau was a place where I saw black policemen ... where there were black doctors, and as a matter of fact, there were magistrates," said Poitier. "So, if I chose at that early age to latch on to someone as a role model, there were teachers and there were successful businessmen, etc."

When Poitier was 15 years old he moved to New York and enlisted in the Army to serve as a physiotherapist during World War II. When the war ended he returned to New York City.

"I never started out to be an actor," said Poitier. "I got involved in the theater because I was earning a living as a dishwasher in the city."

Even though Poitier had a very thick accent, he replied to an advertisement he saw in the newspaper, and Poitier went to the American Negro Theatre to audition. The director's reaction to the young man was immediate.

"He said, 'you can't talk, you can't even talk!' He said ... 'why don't you go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something,'" said Poitier.

After the director threw him out of the theater, Poitier decided he was going to become an actor.

"I had no conversation with him (the director) about what I did, but he suggested that I go out and become a dishwasher or something, which implied to me that that was his perception of me," said Poitier.

"So I decided before I got to the bus stop at 135 Street and Seventh Avenue that I was going to become an actor. But it was to show him that he was wrong in that prognostication of me. That I was going to be an actor," he said.

  • How well do you know your civil rights era history? Take our Quiz!
  • Poitier tamed his accent and returned to the theater only to be rejected a second time. But the would-be actor saw that the company needed a janitor, so he struck a deal in which he would work for acting lessons.

    Thus began a career that spans five decades and includes 54 movies and counting. Poitier became Hollywood's first African-American movie star. And in the process of building a long career, Poitier has had to fight to play deep, meaningful roles.

    "He turned down roles that he thought were degrading," said fellow actor James Earl Jones of his friend.

    "I choose parts that would be reflective, reflect positively on my father's values," said Poitier, "because those are the values I own, those are the values I was raised with."

    In 1963 Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Homer Smith in "Lilies of the Field."

    It was the first time an African-American male had won that prestigious award.

    "The moment he won the Academy Award meant for the whole world that he had established a height to which actors should go, could go, should achieve," Jones said.

    In 1972 Poitier made his directorial debut with "Buck and the Preacher" where he also co-starred with Harry Belafonte. He has gone on to direct several other films including "A Warm December" and "Ghost Dad."

    And along his journey Poitier has confronted racism.

    "When I first faced racism, I had to say, 'oh no, you got it wrong. That's not the kind of person that I am. My mother is not like that; my dad is not like that; my brothers and sisters are not like that. The people I grew up with are not like that," he said.

    Poitier has served as the Ambassador to Japan from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and he has been awarded a Knighthood from England's Queen Elizabeth, II in 1968. He has also received the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award.

    Despite his obvious success Poitier remains humbled by his experiences.

    "It was not my intent to be a role model. I don't for a moment downplay its importance," he says. "My big battle was to be a worthy person, and I couldn't see myself as a worthy person unless I carried myself as a worthy person," he said.

    • Black History Special
    • Chasing the Dream

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    Updated September 21, 2002

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