Sidney Poitier has had to carry a heavier load of social significance than just about any other actor in history. In his more than forty feature films, he rarely had the luxury of ignoring the larger implications of his characters’ actions. He was always judged twice: once for his performance and once for the worth of that performance to the advancement of human relations. That’s a lot to ask of any mere mortal. But then, there’s nothing “mere” about Sidney Poitier.
Sidney Poitier’s characters — doctors, detectives, lawyers, gunslingers, scientists, soldiers — tend to be men of control, men who subdue volcanic rage with reason and intellect. They’re willing to be reasonable up to a point, but when that anger simmers close to the surface, look out. Poiter’s jaw clenches, those remarkable piercing eyes flash with fury, and his voice lowers to a strained, aching whisper. But these characters know that there are bridges to be built, doors to be opened. They know that to survive you have to stay the course. When redneck sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) condescendingly purrs in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), “What do they call you up in Philadelphia, Virgil?,” Poiter says, in measured tones that suggest barely capped dynamite, They call me MISTER Tibbs!” His words were louder than a gunshot; they struck a responsive chord with audiences that continues to reverberate today.
Poiter imbues every one of his roles with what George Stevens, Jr., calls his “dignity, strength and quiet sense of outrage.” He has a warm and attractive screen presence, a powerful, often brilliant, acting technique and a face that promises to remain leading-man handsome for life. These are the attributes that made him a movie star. But Sidney Poiter’s impact far exceeds his ability to put on a good show. In his amazing, unparalleled career, he has helped change set-in-cement attitudes, he has paved the way for countless artists who would not have had a chance of success a generation earlier. And he has stood as a beacon of excellence and hope and happiness to millions and millions of moviegoers around the world.
It seems unthinkable that such a powerful force might never have had the opportunity to shine, but the truth is that there was virtually no precedent for Poiter’s success. Before he hit the screen in his first feature film, NO WAY OUT (1950), black actors generally had to make do with supporting roles, usually as comic relief. He grew up with great admiration for performers like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Paul Robeson, people who rarely got to show the extent of their gifts on screen, but he never allowed himself to be cowed by the enormous odds against him.
“I was different,” Poiter has said. “I never asked anybody, ‘What do you think of my chances?’ Had I asked, 99 percent of them would have said,’Don’t be ridiculous.’ The statistics were there, and they were realistic statistics.”
Sidney Poitier, virtually by himself, changed those statistics. In no time flat, Poitier became a bona fide Movie Star. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1958 for his role as an escaped convict handcuffed to a white racist (Tony Curtis) in Stanley Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES and took home an Oscar as Best Actor for LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963). From 1967 to 1969, Poiter was one of the 10 top box-office attractions in the country — in 1968 he headed that list over such luminaries as Paul Newman, John Wayne, Julie Andrews and Clint Eastwood.
He began directing films in 1972 with BUCK AND THE PREACHER, and that aspect of his career has seen enormous success — UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, LET’S DO IT AGAIN, STIR CRAZY…the list goes on.
“I was looking for something to define me,” he says. “Being an actor was not as compelling for me as was being a certain type of person. It would have been the same if I had been a postal worker or a grocery clerk or anything. I would have gone in with the intent to be the best, to be productive and to reach for a certain kind if distinction. That was, and is, the way I am.”
Sidney Poitier has racked up such an impressive list of achievements — including tonight’s award — that it’s easy to transform him into some kind of societal footnote. In fact, Poiter’s screen work is always about quality, skill and emotion. He deserves the Life Achievement Award not just because he was a trailblazer but because he is one of the finest American screen actors.