Common wisdom marks Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin as the most iconic Hollywood male star of the 1960s. Also to be considered is Paul Newman, who had an excellent decade, including his “H” movies: The Hustler, Hud, Harper and Hombre. However, a little investigation reveals that an actor rarely if ever considered emblematic of the period may have had the best record of quality films, was popular, won awards, and was instrumental in breaking down societal barriers via his persona: slow to anger, honest, heroic, noble. This star is Sidney Poitier. David Shipman wrote, “Over the years the public grew to like and respect and trust him. Like all the best screen actors he has presence and integrity.”
Poitier was born in Miami to visiting Bahamian parents in 1927. After returning from the Bahamas to Miami when he was 15, he traveled to New York and joined the American Negro Theatre. His first Hollywood film was the raw, racially-charged No Way Out (1950). This was no stretch for 20th Century Fox’s production chief Darryl Zanuck, who’d never been afraid to green light projects other studios considered taboo. Consider the light focused on downtrodden Okies in The Grapes of Wrath (1941), lynch mob mentality in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), American anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), mental patients in The Snake Pit (1948), and the African American woman passing for white in Pinky (1949). In No Way Out, Poitier maintained his cool as a doctor treating the bigoted criminal played by Richard Widmark, at whose house he stayed during his early days in Hollywood. (Contrary to his notable psychopathic gangster roles in the late 40s, Widmark was in reality a milk-drinker, compassionate liberal, and ultra-professional actor.) When Poitier’s mother and father saw the film, their first, in Nassau, his mother rose to her feet and shouted at the screen when Widmark’s character was pummeling her son: “Hit him back, Sidney! Hit him back! You never did nothing to him!”
Poitier’s next major step toward leading man status and stardom was as a high school delinquent in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Unlike Vic Morrow’s switchblade-wielding creep, Poitier’s character was changed for the better by his teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford). Shipman wrote, “Poitier looked young enough to play the student,…caught between decency and delinquency. In that he really made his mark,….”
For 1957’s longshoremen saga, Edge of the City, with John Cassavetes, Poitier was nominated for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (He and Cassavetes would co-star again the following year in the British film Virgin Island.) In 1958 he opposed Rock Hudson in the grim Robert Ruark tale of the Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising, Something of Value. For The Defiant Ones (1958) with Tony Curtis, Poitier received a number of nominations and awards, winning the BAFTA and Germany’s Silver Bear. In his second autobiography, The Measure of a Man, he convincingly deciphered the ending, which as often as not caused critics to question its validity. After this success, who else had the standing to play the lead in the prestigious 1959 Samuel Goldwyn film version of the seminal American stage production, Porgy and Bess?
The 1960s started off with All the Young Men, with Poitier as a Korean war combat soldier. (President Truman had begun the abolition of segregation in the military with an 1948 Executive Order, two years before the conflict began.) This was followed by Poitier’s role as Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), a role he’d originated and played on Broadway from 1959 to 1960. Paris Blues (1961) featured Poitier as jazz musician opposite Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 1962’s Pressure Point he was a psychiatrist treating a sociopath played by Bobby Darin.
Poitier re-teamed with Widmark for the 1963 tongue-in-cheek Viking/Moorish saga, The Long Ships. It was the next film that year that solidified his standing as a major star: Lilies of the Field. Poitier won a Best Actor Academy Award for his itinerant handyman helping immigrant nuns build a chapel.
Nineteen-sixty-five was a banner year. Poitier was back with Widmark as a correspondent on a U.S. Navy vessel in the 1965 Cold War thriller, The Bedford Incident. In director George Stevens’ mammoth The Greatest Story Ever Told, he played Simon of Cyrene. For A Patch of Blue, in which he displayed compassion toward the blind girl played by Elizabeth Hartman, he received various acting nominations. In The Slender Thread he helped talk Anne Bancroft down from a planned suicide. Times were changing, and nothing was made of Poitier playing former Buffalo Soldier turned horse breaker helping James Garner stave off an Indian attack in Duel at Diablo (1966).
Nineteen-sixty-seven was even better than 1965 for Poitier, who had three very big hits: To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? To Sir put Poitier back in the classroom, but this time in Britain as a teacher, not one of the delinquents as he had been in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. Pop singer Lulu had a monster hit with the eponymous title song. In the Heat of the Night was the Academy Award-winning Best Picture that year, and although Poitier was nominated for the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and the Laurel Award, Rod Steiger’s portrayal of a tough Southern sheriff who comes to respect Poitier’s Detective Tibbs from Philly received the Academy Award. (Steiger could easily have won for The Pawnbroker in 1965, but Lee Marvin’s double gunslinger duty in Cat Ballou netted him the statuette.) Some argued that Poitier was just too perfect to be realistic in Guess, in which his physician character meets for the first time the Draytons (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), the upper middle class parents of his white girlfriend, Joanna (Katharine Houghton). Others have rebutted this, insisting that Poitier had the gravitas and was the perfect black man to essay the role at the perfect time. It would be more unrealistic for Joanna to bring home a janitor or cook. There were stirring monologues, and perhaps the best was Poitier’s counter to his father at the end of a heated discussion: “You think of yourself as a black man, I think of myself as a man.” Fears that the film would be shunned in the South were unfounded and it made an astounding $70,000,000 on a $4,000,000 budget. Poitier’s status was such that his name on the poster came between Tracy and Hepburn. This triumvirate made Poitier #1 in the Quigley poll of film star popularity for 1968.
Poitier’s sixties closed out with a gentle love story from his own story, For Love of Ivy (1968), and a heist drama, The Lost Man (1969). He married his co-star from the latter, Joanna Shimkus.
There would be a number of good films to come, but as with most stars, even superstars, there is one period when their films are uniformly excellent, their star shines brightly, and they represent an era. The Sixties was that for Sidney Poitier.
Holston, Kim. Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Poitier, Sidney. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The International Years. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972.