Cult actor had ‘big shoulders’

As a newborn, Sidney Poitier – the legendary actor who died in January aged 94 – was already on the brink of death.

“I wasn’t expected to survive,” says Poitier in the new documentary Sydney, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+. “I was born two months premature.”

The film traces Poitier’s remarkable journey, from his father putting him in a shoebox as an ailing child, to his development into a screen icon and becoming the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1964 with Lilies of the Field won.

“I remember thinking, ‘If he could do that, I wonder what I can,'” says Oprah Winfrey, who produced the documentary, of how Poitier’s groundbreaking career inspired her.

“It was the first time I saw a black man assert his power,” says Halle Berry – who became the first African American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2002 – of Poitier’s influence on her. “I wanted to marry Sidney Poitier!”

Sydney Poitier
Sidney Poitier’s legendary life as an actor, director and producer is chronicled in the new Apple TV+ movie, Sidney.

“He had big shoulders,” adds Denzel Washington, who became the second black man to win an Oscar for best actor in 2008. “He got big shoulders. But he had to carry a lot of weight.”

Although born in Miami, Poitier grew up on Cat Island, Bahamas, as a child of tomato farmers. “The world I knew was pretty simple,” he says in the documentary. “I didn’t know there was electricity or that water could come into the house through a pipe.”

He was also brought up without really understanding the concept of racism. “I’ve never thought about how I look,” he says. “I didn’t know what a – – – – r was.”

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger "In the Heat of the Night."
Sidney Poitier (right) with co-star Rod Steiger (left) on the set of his 1967 classic, In the Heat of the Night.
Corbis via Getty Images

That all changed, however, when he was sent to Miami at 15 to be with his brother’s family. “From the moment I got off the boat, America started saying to me, ‘You’re not who you think you are,'” he says.

The documentary tells how he was delivering a package to a white household and the woman who answered the door told him to go to the back door. Faced with the true ugliness of racism, Poitier placed the package on the front steps and walked away.

He had a proud quality that he carried with him throughout his career and the roles he chose in films like To Sir With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

“There was a habit in Hollywood of taking advantage of black people in the most disrespectful way, and I said, ‘I can’t play that,'” says Poitier.

“I don’t think Sidney has ever played a submissive role,” adds Morgan Freeman, another Oscar-winning black actor who followed in Poitier’s footsteps.

Sydney Poitier
Sidney Poitier moved to New York and began his acting career when he was just 16 years old.

At the age of 16, Poitier moved to New York to pursue acting, but did not find instant success and for a time slept in the Brill Building’s rooftop payrooms. He got kicked out of the American Negro Theater so he took acting classes and lost his Caribbean accent by buying a $14 radio and learning to imitate a news anchor.

The documentary describes how Poitier had a special connection with Harry Belafonte, another black entertainer who was hugely popular during the civil rights movement of the ’60s.

“If there were equal opportunities in this business, there would be 15 Sidney Poitiers and 10 or 12 [Harry] Belafontes,” says Poitier in the document. “But there isn’t.”

Still, Poitier overcame all of that to become not only a box office star, but also a director and producer. “He even empowered black people to have a career behind the camera,” says director Spike Lee. “It’s not easy being first – when you have to represent the entire race.”

In fact, Poitier never let his race limit him as an actor—or as a man.

“When I arrived at 15, almost everything I heard said to me, ‘There are different values ​​here. Here you are not who you think you are,’” he says in the film. “But I came with 15 years of preparation. I was strong enough to say to myself, ‘The me that I’ve been for 15 years – I like the me! This is a free me. I can’t get used to being a limited me.’ ”

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