This afternoon, Sidney Poitier received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sidney Poitier was one of 16 recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor. On the White House blog, President Obama made the following statement about this year’s US Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients:
“These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.”
Sidney Poitier’s legacy is widespread as an actor, film director, author, and diplomat. At age 82, he looked remarkably well and strong at the awards ceremony today.
Sidney Poitier Receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom: Life and Career
Sidney Poitier grew up in the Bahamas. At age 15 he moved to Miami, then to New York City at age 17. He struggled as an actor with the American Negro Theater before achieving his break-out role in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle where at 27, he played an unruly high school student. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in 1958’s The Defiant Ones. He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. He was the first black male to earn the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Other famous Sidney Poitier films included Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue, To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Sidney Poitier Receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom: Types of Roles
Sidney Poitier sought to overcome stereotypes about African Americans through the types of roles he portrayed. Sidney Poitier always played strong, intelligent, morally upright characters. In Lilies of the Field, he was an itinerant worker who befriended East German nuns by teaching them English and building them a chapel. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he was a Yale Medical School graduate with plans to promote medicine in Africa. He was the idealized future son-in-law who refused to have premarital sex. In To Sir, with Love, he was the idealistic teacher who touched the lives of troubled teenagers. Although Sidney Poitier risked typecasting himself with his roles, he sought to set a strong example.
Sidney Poitier Receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom: Later Career
Sidney Poitier has also had a remarkable career as a director, beginning with his work in 1972’s Buck and the Preacher which co-starred Harry Belafonte. He also directed several Bill Cosby films such as Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action, and Ghost Dad. Sidney Poitier has also made his mark in television, receiving Emmy Nominations for his roles as Nelson Mandela and Thurgood Marshall.
Sidney Poitier is currently the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan, a position which he’s held since 1997. In 2001, he received a Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime of achievements. That night, Denzel Washington won his Oscar for Best Actor. During his speech he joked that he had been chasing Sidney Poitier for years only to have them give it to him on the same night.
Sidney Poitier Receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom: Hollywood Legends
Sidney Poitier is one of the last bastion of living legends from the Hollywood Golden Age. Others such as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guiness have departed this life. Unlike some of today’s actors, the previous generations of actors knew how to light up the screen without relying on excessive violence or sex for dramatic effect. Actors such as Sidney Poitier carried themselves with dignity, understated strength while still being able to deliver compelling performances. Although these actors were attractive by today’s standards, their sex appeal was more wholesome.
Sidney Poitier is married to Lithuanian Joanna Shimkus. Their daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier is an actress who has appeared on Joan of Arcadia and Veronica Mars.
2009 Medal of Freedom Recipients