Sir Sidney Poitier – A Legendary Gentleman
Sir Sidney Poitier had a presence, and was a dignified force - one that created seismic shifts in American culture. Though his family lived and farmed in the Bahamas, they traveled to Miami often to sell their produce to wholesalers. It was on one of these ventures that Poitier was born, quite unexpectedly, on February 20, 1927. He was very premature, and not expected to survive, but his parents remained in Miami for three months until he grew strong enough to travel home. The youngest of seven children, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, but his birth in the United States granted him US citizenship.
The Poitier family had a very strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. Though they undoubtedly struggled to provide, they were a very close unit and instilled in Poitier a sense of confidence and a sense of belonging, which resulted in a healthy self-esteem, along with his signature characteristics of dignity and respect.
Poitier left his family at the age of 14 in pursuit of opportunity in the United States, settling in Florida. It became clear to Mr. Poitier that racism in the US would play a major role in his life, and was perhaps dismayed at how large. At sixteen, he moved to New York City to become an actor, holding several odd jobs to support himself. His auditions went poorly at first due to his inability to read scripts fluently. An elderly waiter he worked with at a diner sat with him every night for several weeks helping him build his literary skills. He was a man full of determination.
Poitier had a tremendous sense of accountability. During World War II, he enlisted in the army, although not quite yet legally of age. In his assignment, he assisted veterans and was trained to work with psychiatric patients. He became frustrated and disenchanted with how patients were treated. This experience, caring for those struggling mentally, physically and emotionally, undoubtedly gave him even greater levels of empathy and understand for the human condition. He had the heart of a lion, and also that of an advocate.
The Making of a Legend
Poitier continued acting, at first in several theater productions, and then made his breakthrough in Hollywood. His legacy in film history is at once groundbreaking and heartbreaking. He took on what he perceived to be his responsibility to address issues with racism, and did so with grace, dignity and determination. He commanded respect.
In 1959, Poitier was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in the film, “The Defiant Ones.” It was in 1964 that he was again nominated, and won, the Best Actor award for his role in the film, “Lilies of the Field.” In the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Poitier starred as the love interest opposite Katharine Houghton.
The film shattered interracial perceptions, and gave the world an intimate view of a relationship fraught with very real external pressures. This was filmed during a time when, unbelievably, several states in the US still legally prohibited interracial marriage. He was also the recipient of multiple Golden Globe awards, Grammy awards, and more throughout his career.
At the 2002 Academy Awards, Oscar-winning actor, Denzel Washington, said, "Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn't cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture," while presenting Poitier with an honorary Oscar. "He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo, above-the-title African American movie star."
A Lasting Impact
Accolades for his talented acting, and recognition for the tremendous contribution he made to society through the roles he played and the example he set in his life of being an eternal gentleman, continued for the remainder of Sir Poitier's life. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1974. In 1999, The American Film Institute included him on its list of greatest male Hollywood stars. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, (the nation’s highest civilian honor), stating, "It’s been said the Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones – milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress."
Sir Sidney Poitier passed away in his home January 6, 2022. In a joint statement to USA TODAY, his family said this following his death:
“…Sidney Poitier was not only a brilliant actor, activist, and a man of incredible grace and moral fortitude, he was also a devoted and loving husband, a supportive and adoring father, and a man who always put family first. He is our guiding light who lit up our lives with infinite love and wonder. His smile was healing, his hugs the warmest refuge, and his laughter was infectious. We could always turn to him for wisdom and solace and his absence feels like a giant hole in our family and our hearts. Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us. He will live on in us, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren—in every belly laugh, every curious inquiry, every act of compassion and kindness. His legacy will live on in the world, continuing to inspire not only with his incredible body of work, but even more so with his humanity.
We would like to extend our deepest appreciation to every single one of you for the outpouring of love from around the world. So many have been touched by our dad’s extraordinary life, his unwavering sense of decency and respect for his fellow man. His faith in humanity never faltered, so know that for all the love you’ve shown him, he loved you back.”
For us, Sir Sidney Poitier embodies all that it means to be a gentleman. It is character like his that elevates men into legends. We celebrate all that he stood for in how we carry ourselves and demonstrate the values of our own foundations in paying respect to this legendary gentleman.
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