02/22/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

In a Mostly Caucasian Oscar Year, a Tribute to Sidney Poitier

Noting the absence of Black nominees for the major Oscars this year, my thoughts turn to the legacy of Sidney Poitier, who turned 84 this past Sunday.

There are some celebrities who, by virtue of what they represent and contribute beyond their talent, become something more than simply what their chosen profession would indicate.

Such a man is Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win a Best Actor Oscar.

An authentic groundbreaker, with each scene he played on-screen, he seemed to shatter age-old stereotypes about his race. And thus, simply by inhabiting his characters, he advanced the cause of civil rights just as surely as the courageous agitators and activists on the front lines.

Most will rightly claim that in an already tough, competitive, and often capricious movie business, a person of color establishing a sustained, successful career remains highly challenging. Still, we can only hope that this year's Academy Awards is an aberration, and that soon the next Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Spike Lee will be announcing themselves to the world.

Today at least, if those young talents have the magic ingredients (including luck) on their side, they can make it to stardom. Before Poitier, however, this prospect was not only difficult; it was unthinkable. Mirroring the times, until the 1960s, black roles in mainstream films were largely confined to servants, layabouts and buffoons.

But when Sidney hit the screen, suddenly America was confronted with a Black man exuding nobility, strength, intelligence, and humility -- in short, Black pride long before the term was coined. Never with a chip on his shoulder, never self-pitying, he commanded attention and respect, showing anger only when provoked by others' ignorance.

To experience this again first-hand, watch Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000), a touching and highly personal documentary of the man. In Light you learn quickly that the actor's ability to convey at once an essential goodness and strength on-screen comes from the simple fact that this is who the man really is.

The son of a dirt farmer in the Bahamas, young Sidney grew up in virtual poverty. His initial arrival in the States brought only more hardship, as he was forced to sleep in rest rooms and nearly froze one harsh New York winter without an overcoat.

The idea of acting first came as an arbitrary opportunity, but a slew of initial rejections, and a suspicion he might actually have talent, caused Sidney to buckle down and work, losing his heavy Caribbean accent, and learning his craft.

He was finally cast in Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out, lying to the director about his age to get the part (he was just 22). He would continue building his career through the mid-fifties in titles like Cry, The Beloved Country (1952) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Of course, the idea of achieving actual stardom still seemed out of reach, since there had never been an African-American leading man in Hollywood.

All this would change in 1958, when maverick producer/director Stanley Kramer cast Poitier opposite Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, a gripping tale of two escaped convicts manacled together -- one a racist, one black. Poitier more than holds his own with Curtis, then a big star. Finally, at the age of 30, the actor's name would start going above the title. Virtually simultaneous with the rise of the civil rights movement, Sidney Poitier was set to go where no black actor had gone before.

Daniel Petrie's A Raisin In The Sun (1961), based on Lorraine Hansberry's play, provided an ideal star vehicle for his explosive talent. Sidney portrays a proud but frustrated young man counting on his mother's small nest egg to let him invest in a business which could lift him and his family out of their dead-end existence. The actor projects barely suppressed rage as he pleads with a resolute matriarch who wants to use the money to buy a new home with a backyard. We feel Poitier's raw desperation as he sees his one chance to better himself potentially slipping away. See this deeply moving piece for Poitier's intense performance, and for Claudia McNeil's equally impressive turn as his mother. (Notably, both had originated their roles on Broadway). A young Ruby Dee is also solid as Sidney's conflicted wife.

Next came a gentle and charming change-of-pace: Lilies Of The Field (1963), in which Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman who finds himself helping a group of nuns build a chapel. In the process, he learns something about the meaning of human charity and the power of God's will, as exercised through His most faithful followers. Sidney's pure, heartfelt performance in Lilies would bring him the Oscar for Best Actor, a sign of changing times in Hollywood -- and beyond.

In 1965, Poitier starred in A Patch Of Blue, a parable about the power and meaning of friendship. A man of color strikes up a friendship with a neglected, blind white girl he meets in a park, and decides to see to her welfare. Leisurely paced and simply told, the film is worth sticking with, as uniformly fine performances carry the audience to a satisfying finish. (Actress Shelley Winters would take home an Oscar that year for her highly unsympathetic turn as the girl's racist, harridan mother.)

That same year, the actor re-teamed with Richard Widmark (who'd worked with him fifteen years earlier in No Way Out) in a tense Cold War thriller called The Bedford Incident. Widmark is a hardened, aggressive naval commander playing cat-and-mouse with a Russian submarine off the coast of Greenland, Poitier the astute journalist covering the maneuvers with increasing uneasiness. The result is a taut, no frills psychological drama.

Notwithstanding his groundbreaking Oscar four years earlier, 1967 was Sidney Poitier's year. First, he plays a determined teacher out of his element in a tough London high school in To Sir, With Love. Initially facing apathy and resistance from his students, by the end of Sir, he has transformed his unruly charges into hopeful-and grateful-young people, and we the audience buy it, because we've been transformed right along with them.

Next came In The Heat Of The Night, with Sidney in full glory as Detective Virgil Tibbs, a San Francisco police officer who ends up in the wrong place (the Deep South), at the wrong time (a murder has just been committed). Set up against a bigoted, wily sheriff played by Rod Steiger, Poitier must unravel the mystery alone while watching his back in hostile territory. Heat deservedly netted the Oscars in the top categories that year -- for Best Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay, and Editing. And though Steiger won the big prize, it was -- and remains -- just as much Poitier's movie.

Next Sidney would work with the immortal team of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the interracial romance, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, about a liberal white couple whose ideals are put to the test when their daughter decides to marry a black man (Poitier). Touted as quite daring in its time, the film has not aged well, but beautiful underplaying by Sidney -- and a masterful farewell turn by a then-dying Tracy -- help elevate it.

The succeeding decades would find the actor taking fewer roles and branching out into directing comedies (notably, Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again co-starring Bill Cosby, and Hanky Panky, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor). Though his acting output would shrink during this period, it was still evident he could deliver the goods with the right material.

One overlooked Poitier role from the early 70's is Brother John (1971), an offbeat fable about a mysterious and reticent man who seems always to return to the town of his birth at significant, life-changing moments. Co-starring veteran actor Will Geer as the town's old doctor (the only one to sense who Sidney's character might really be), the film is a meditation on this fascinating question: when and if the Messiah re-appears on Earth, will we be able to see him, and more important, accept him?

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) teams Sidney with Michael Caine, in a pairing reminiscent of "The Defiant Ones" nearly twenty years before. Poitier is a black activist on the lam in South Africa, thrown together with a white man (Caine) who's accidentally been implicated in the same crime. The movie is well-paced, with plenty of thrills and suspense, and the two stars share a solid chemistry (though character actor Nicol Williamson almost steals the proceedings as the ruthless police inspector on their trail).

Finally, we fast-forward to 1991, and a film which should be required viewing for all Americans: Separate But Equal. Originally a TV movie aired in two parts, this is the vivid recounting of events leading up to the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark ruling on school desegregation. Poitier stars as Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice who was, at the time, lead attorney for the struggling, under-manned N.A.A.C.P. Featuring a memorable supporting performance by Richard Kiley as Chief Justice Earl Warren, Separate is an invaluable rendering of an historic, proud moment in our country's evolution. Predictably, this subtle, seasoned actor does Mr. Marshall proud.

Sidney Poitier is indeed a movie star. And for myself and countless others of all colors and creeds, he is something even more special: a genuine hero.

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