The passing of the actor Sidney Poitier will elicit much discussion about the variety of roles he played, the awards he won and his elevation of the presence of Black actors in American cinema.
But his iconic reputation as an actor and director can be traced to the reels of these five ground-breaking roles:
1. Rocking the classroom
Poitier’s first major role was as a student in 1955’s urban drama “The Blackboard Jungle,” about a new teacher going into an inner-city school. The star was Glenn Ford, but the resounding impression was Poitier as Gregory W. Miller, a tough student in Ford’s English class. The movie also had one other landmark element: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was part of the show and helped ignite the rock-and-roll explosion.
2. Nominated once
In 1958 Poitier made his first dent in history by becoming the first Black man to be nominated as Best Actor in the Academy Award for his turn in “The Defiant Ones.” Tony Curtis was the billboard star of this film about two prisoners in the racially segregated South, but Poitier stole the show as the man chained to him.
3. The Best
It was “Lilies of the Field” in 1963 that made Poitier a legend because his turn as traveling handyman Homer Smith won him an Oscar for Best Actor. After being the first Black nominee, he was then the first Black actor to be so honored. Remarkably, that didn’t happen again until 2001, when Denzel Washington won for “Training Day.” Poitier again was honored by the Academy in 2002 with a lifetime award for his work.
4. Bringing the Heat
Even if you didn’t see “In The Heat of the Night,” starring Rod Steiger, who won Best Actor – or the television adaptation in the 1970s – you likely remember Poitier as Deputy Virgil Tibbs serving in the small Southern town and his resonating introduction: “They call me, Mr. Tibbs.” Poitier reprised the character from that 1967 film in two more movies: Appropriately “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!” (1970) and “The Organization” (1971).
5. Landmark change
But perhaps Poitier’s most intellectually groundbreaking role also came in 1967 in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” Poitier played John Prentice, the Black fiancé that actor Katharine Houghton took home to meet her parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn won Best Actress for her portrayal, and Tracy died just after the movie’s release. But Poitier and Houghton were shown briefly kissing, and the movie debuted just months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled interracial marriages were legal (they still weren’t in some states). All that controversy meant that the movie wasn’t shown in some of those states – 17 by one count – until months after its release.