“They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” — R.I.P. Sidney Poitier

It was less than a week ago that I shed a tear over the death of the beloved Betty White, and today I shed yet another upon reading of the death of another Hollywood icon, one who broke the colour barrier on the ‘big screen’, Sidney Poitier.  Mr. Poitier was 94 … not quite as old as Betty White who died just a few days short of her 100th birthday, but like White, he had a long and meaningful career … he made a difference.  How many of us can say that?

Sidney Poitier (r) with Nelson Mandela

A bit about Mr. Poitier’s start in life from today’s Washington Post

Sidney Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, where his parents were on a visit to sell tomatoes they had grown on their farm in the Bahamas. The family soon returned home, to the desperate poverty of Cat Island. His mother dressed the seven Poitier children in flour sacks.

At 15, after being jailed overnight for stealing corn, he was sent to live with an older brother in Miami who could provide a roof but little else. After the frightening encounter with police in Florida, he left for Harlem, hoping to find a more welcoming environment for Black people.

At first, he scrounged for change to sleep in pay toilets. When it became too cold to sleep on benches, he lied about his age (he was 16) and joined the Army in 1943.

He became a physiotherapist at an Army psychiatric institution on Long Island, but his anger at what he called the “abusive” attitude toward the patients and the racism he encountered at a local roadhouse antagonized him. Through the intervention of a sympathetic doctor, he received an honorable discharge.

Flipping through help-wanted ads in 1945, he saw a call for actors at the American Negro Theatre in New York. He figured it was easy work — that any profession that advertised next to requests for porters, busboys and dishwashers must require no special talent.

At his audition, Mr. Poitier’s unintelligible, singsong island accent dismayed theater founder Frederick O’Neal. But O’Neal was in such dire need of male actors that Mr. Poitier was hired with the understanding that he would also moonlight as the theater’s janitor.

During his first Broadway appearance, a small part in a 1946 production of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” Mr. Poitier suffered stage fright and began delivering lines out of order. But citing his “terrible fierce pride,” he later said he was determined to refine his skills. Over the next several years, his good looks and sensitivity as a performer brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and he made a strong impact in “No Way Out,” his film debut.

In his second feature film, Mr. Poitier was cast as a young clergyman in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951), based on Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid. Working on location in South Africa, Mr. Poitier was forced to live far from the studio, and he had to deal with other restrictions and insults. Officially, he was an “indentured laborer” of director Zoltan Korda. Mr. Poitier later called South Africa “on a racial, political and social level, the worst place I have ever been.”

Still a relative unknown on-screen, Mr. Poitier owned and operated a Harlem ribs restaurant to support his growing family between movie assignments. He had married Juanita Hardy, a model, in 1950, and they had four children.

As we now know, Mr. Poitier went on to help change the way the world viewed Black people through his many, many films and roles.  I first remember seeing him in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and then in To Sir with Love, both in 1967, but the role he may be most famous for was that of Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night.  There is no way I could possibly summarize Mr. Poitier’s life and career in a single blog post, nor will I try.  A few accolades are in order, however.  Mr. Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor.

In 2002, Mr. Poitier received a lifetime achievement Oscar for “his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.” That year, Denzel Washington became the second Black man to win the best-actor Oscar.  In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Mr. Poitier was modest about his legacy, saying …

“I was part of an influence that could be called paving the way. But I was only a part of it. I was selected almost by history itself. Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue. I didn’t understand the elements swirling around. I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix.”

R.I.P. Sidney Poitier … you made a positive difference in the world.

36 thoughts on ““They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” — R.I.P. Sidney Poitier

  1. Almost 50 years ago he was invited to attend the official opening ceremony of a small school in Nassau, The Bahamas, and he attended and brought Harry Belafonte with him! He did this while he was at the height of his powers in Hollywood!

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  3. Jill, outstanding tribute. There are so many great movies to choose from. “To Sir with Love” ranks up there as one of the best teacher movies. But, “In the Heat of the Night” may be the best one with him going head to head with Rod Steiger. Thanks, Keith

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    • Thanks again, Keith, though I cannot take credit for most of it that came straight from WaPo. I loved both “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir with Love” … I’m planning to watch them both again soon! Yes, he and Rod Steiger both did a terrific job in “In the Heat of the Night” … so good it spawned a television series that lasted from 1988 ’til 1995.

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  5. Guess who’s coming to dinner brought together for me the best acting talent in the world wth Katie Hepburn and Spencer Tracy with Sidney Poitier.A look at the very complicated Social mores of the day beautifully done. To Sir With Love can still raise a tear in my eyes and no-one could have bettered that role for me. An exceptional man, a superb actor who will be sadly missed but not foregotten.

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  6. Forgive me for sounding like a librarian or, even worse, a bookseller…but! My list of Sidney Poitier books begins with his first autobiography in 1980 or ’81 with “This Life”. I was already a fan of Poitier’s movies, particularly the three in 1967, as well as an avid reader so purchasing the book was a must! That book made the actor come alive beyond the screen. Sadly, I no longer have the original book due to its frequently being loaned and ending with its not having been returned going unnoticed for many years until 2000. An attempt to replace it then was not met with success as the price of copies had reached astronomical amounts! The search had been instigated by “The Measure of a Man : A Spiritual Autobiography” having just been published. It later became one of Oprah’s Book Club books though the year is not recalled as I had already purchased it soon after publication. Admittedly, Poitier did ramble on at times and for that reason the book did receive mixed reviews. Being that I have a known Propensity for Loquacity it seemed unfair to hold him to a higher standard and I did not do so! Found in the book were several things that stood out to me and deserved a jot into one of my little notebooks. One of them : “We’re all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.” It may be that the most recent (and now last) of the line of autobiographical books, “Life Beyond Measure : Letters to My Great-Granddaughter” in April of 2008, will become Poitier’s best self-written legacy. I loved these words to remember from the book : “We are what we are, and half of what we are is what we are not.” Sidney Poitier’s last book was “Montaro Caine : A Novel” in May of 2013. Yes, after all of the notable movies and the books written about himself…Sidney Poitier ended with a novel. Do read it! Sidney Poitier’s gifts of movies and books will ensure his being remembered as a uniquely talented human being! WHAK!! Thank-you!

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    • I have not read any of his books or autobiographies, but I do plan to remedy that starting this weekend! I am not in the least bit surprised to find that you have read all these books, likely some more than once! And I am thrilled to see that your P for L is still alive and well, dear friend! I do so enjoy your comments!!! WHAK!!!

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  7. One of my favorite actors. Ever. I’d been watching adventure, horror, or comedy films. Suddenly, here was this thing called, “The Defiant Ones”. Changed my youthful tastes in movies. Then I realized, it was less about the genre, more about the script, directing, and acting. Yes, it made an impression. One of the milestones in my life, seeing that film. Hugs and cheers, M

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    • I’ve never seen “The Defiant Ones” … I’ll have to check it out! I do remember “Lilies of the Field” and “A Raisin in the Sun”, in addition to the ones I mentioned in the post, and he was great in all of them!
      Hugs ‘n cheers to you, my friend!

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