In 1963, Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. The significance of this achievement was later bolstered in 1967 when he starred in three successful films: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year. In all three films, issues revolve around the race of the characters Poitier portrays. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.
Poitier has directed a number of popular movies, such as A Piece of the Action, Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again (with friend Bill Cosby) and Stir Crazy (starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder). In 2002, thirty-eight years after receiving the Best Actor Award, Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Honorary Award, designated “To Sidney Poitier in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being. Since 1997, he has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. On August 12, 2009, Sidney Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.
Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, but was rejected by audiences. Contrary to what was expected of black actors at the time, Poitier’s tone deafness made him unable to sing. Determined to refine his acting skills and rid himself of his noticeable Bahamian accent, he spent the next six months dedicating himself to achieving theatrical success. On his second attempt at the theater, he was noticed and given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata, for which he received good reviews. By the end of 1949, he had to choose between leading roles on stage and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out (1950). His performance in No Way Out, as a doctor treating a white bigot (played by Richard Widmark), was noticed and led to more roles, each considerably more interesting and more prominent than those most black actors of the time were offered. Poitier’s breakout role was as a member of an incorrigible high school class in Blackboard Jungle (1955).