Sidney Poitier

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"No one expected that the son of a tomato farmer and a semi-literate lady would ever make a stir of any consequence," says Sidney Poitier. "I was an incorrigible kid to some extent. I didn't know where I was, who I was or what I was.

"But there was a teacher in the Caribbean. His name was Fawkes... he used to tell us stories about those places beyond our limited horizon. He stimulated our imagination and nurtured it. I learned how to daydream and that, after all, is what I apply when I work nowadays."

The first black performer to win a best actor Oscar and these days generally acknowledged as Hollywood's first black leading man, Sidney Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, on February 20, 1927. His Bahamian tomato farmer parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, were in the US to sell their produce at the time and only returned to their Cat Island home when their baby son was three months old.

The environment in which he grew up was a poor one and Sidney had only a limited formal education. When he was 15, his father in an attempt to secure a better life for his son sent him to Miami to live with his brother Cyril. But within a year his defiance in the face of racism and the resultant threats from the Ku Klux Klan forced him to relocate and, under cover of night, he set off for New York with $3 in his pocket.

After two years of working as a dishwasher with only a set of summer clothes to keep him warm, Sidney enrolled in the US Army where he served as a physiotherapist until 1945. Once demobbed, his interest in acting led him to seek an audition with the American Negro Theatre. He was rejected because of his accent, but kept going back until after three auditions and having carefully ironed out his Caribbean lilt they said yes. A year later, he made his Broadway debut in an all-black production of Lysistrata.

From there he moved into motion pictures, in which he made his greatest impact in the Fifties and Sixties. His feature debut was in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1950 flick No Way Out, and over the next two decades he knocked out memorable performances in such classics as 1955's The Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones in 1958, and his Oscar-winning turn in Lilies Of The Field in 1963.

At the tail end of the Sixties the actor starred in three major films that dealt directly with the issue of racism in America when it was still, to a large extent, cinematic taboo A Patch Of Blue and In the Heat Of the Night, both made in 1965, and 1967's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.

Although his roles paved the way for the commercial black cinema of the next decade, by the early Seventies Sidney was coming under fire from black community leaders who felt his portrayal of mainstream black America had little to do with reality. To counter the accusations he moved behind the camera, aiming to gain more control over the films he made. He believed directing would enable him to create more positive representations of blacks and thus help the Afro-American community.

In 1972 he made his feature directorial debut with the revisionist Western Buck And The Preacher. He went on to direct a total of five films, including the immensely popular Uptown Saturday Night in which he starred with Bill Cosby, and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder vehicle Stir Crazy.

After a break from the profession, Sidney returned to acting in the late Eighties and has since turned up in the high-tech 1992 caper Sneakers and 1997's political thriller The Jackal. He has also done celebrated turns for the small screen in 1995's Children Of The Dust and as Nelson Mandela in Mandela And De Klerk in 1997.

For his services to motion pictures and to the Commonwealth, the actor was made a Knight Commander for the Order of the British Empire in 1974. In 2002, he was presented with an honorary Oscar for "representing the motion industry with dignity, style, and intelligence throughout the world". On the diplomatic front, Sidney was named the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan in 1997 a post he still holds.

Today the actor lives in California with his wife Joanna Shimkus, whom he met in Paris in 1969. The couple were married in 1976 and have two daughters. Sidney also has three daughters from his first marriage to dancer Juanita Harris.

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