Sidney Poitier was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to major league baseball: simply put, the man who broke the color barrier. An actor, director, and producer, he forever altered the racial perceptions long held by both motion picture audiences and executives, rising to superstar status in an industry forever dominated on both sides of the camera by whites while becoming the first African-American ever to take home an Oscar for Best Actor. Born February 20, 1927, in Miami, FL, Poitier grew up in poverty in the British West Indies. After quitting school at the age of 13, he later joined the U.S. Army, serving in World War II as a medical assistant. Upon his release from duty he relocated to New York City, where he auditioned for the American Negro Theater. When his heavy Bahamian accent prompted laughter from producers, Poitier spent the next six months honing his elocution skills, practicing his enunciation by repeating radio routines, and finally gaining admission to the theatrical troupe's ranks after his second audition.
Handsome and athletic, Poitier made his Broadway debut in 1946 in an all-black production of Lysistrata, and moved into films four years later with No Way Out. His impressive turn in 1955's gritty The Blackboard Jungle brought him closer to stardom, and in 1958 he earned his first Academy Award nomination opposite Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's social drama The Defiant Ones. The film's focus on racial politics, as well as his increasing popularity with audiences of all racial backgrounds, solidified Poitier's standing as a key figure in the burgeoning civil rights movement, as roles in features including 1959's Porgy and Bess and 1961's Raisin in the Sun established him as the premier black actor of his generation. For 1963's The Lilies of the Field, he made history as the first African-American actor to win an Oscar in a leading role, and with the mainstream success of 1965's A Patch of Blue and 1967's To Sir, With Love, his ascent to superstardom was complete.
Much to his credit, Poitier continued to make racially provocative films; in 1967 he appeared in Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as the black fiancé of a white woman, while in the same year's Best Picture-winning In the Heat of the Night, he starred as a Philadelphia police detective facing prejudice while investigating a murder in the Deep South. In 1969, Poitier founded the First Artists Production Company, and in 1972 -- at the peak of the blaxploitation era which his earlier success made commercially viable -- announced his directorial debut with Buck and the Preacher. He directed and starred in his next three films (1973's Warm December, 1974's Uptown Saturday Night, and 1975's Let's Do It Again) before starring in Ralph Nelson's 1975 South African political thriller The Wilby Conspiracy, after which he returned to the director's chair with 1977's A Piece of the Action.
After directing the 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, Poitier began to decrease his workload; he helmed two more features, 1982's Hanky Panky and 1984's Fast Forward, but then disappeared from filmmaking for the next several years. In 1988, Poitier appeared onscreen for the first time in over a decade in Roger Spottiswoode's thriller Shoot to Kill, followed by a supporting turn in the espionage drama Little Nikita. Upon directing 1990's disastrous Bill Cosby comedy Ghost Dad, he starred as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the television feature Separate But Equal, and in 1992 appeared in the star-studded Sneakers. After another extended absence, Poitier returned in 1995 in the TV movie Children of the Dust, and in 1996 he starred in the long-awaited follow-up to his '67 success To Sir With Love, TV's To Sir With Love 2.
A frequent author in addition to his acting, Poitier's book Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter was published in 2008, and the following year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.