April 13, 1964: Sidney Poitier becomes the first black man to win Best Actor
Sidney Poitier followed Clark Gable (1934), Charlton Heston (1959) and Laurence Olivier (1948). Jack Nicholson (1975), Paul Newman (1986) and Tom Hanks (1993) would follow him. But when Sidney Poitier joined the exclusive list of men who had won the Best Actor Oscar on April 13, 1964, he achieved not just an industry accolade but a Civil Rights milestone. Poitier was the first black man to take home Best Actor since the award’s start 36 years earlier.
He won for the role of the resolute Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field, which had a forgiveness theme. Poitier’s character employed understated charm and grit to help nuns build a church. The Oscar victory was especially sweet since at the time American activists were fighting for Civil Rights in a grim and sometimes deadly battle. Lilies came out in 1963, the same year John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Blackboard Jungles and racist dinner tables
Born in 1927 on Cat Island in the Bahamas, Poitier grew up in Nassau before his family moved to Miami. As a teen, he headed to New York City to complete the bus boy-construction worker-sleep in bus stations rite of passage. He crushed his role as a juvenile delinquent in his first mainstream picture, 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle. Other controversial roles included a white daughter’s black fiance dining with Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the not-at-all-light comedy, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and a black detective helping a racist Southern sheriff solve a murder in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.
Poitier’s plight when the cameras stopped rolling
Poitier off screen had to tread lightly and spent 11 years in psychoanalysis. “I had to think twice or three times about every step I took,” he told The Guardian in 2000. “I had no forces behind me… The America I am speaking of was a different place back then: the dominant culture did not care about my survival as a human being.” There would be another striking pause before a second black man won Best Actor: Denzel Washington in 2001’s Training Day. Poitier received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.