Remembering Sidney Poitier: His most memorable roles

Sidney Poitier To Sir with Love
(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier passed away at the age of 94 on Thursday, Jan. 6. CNN confirmed the news. Poitier was an icon of the silver screen and one of its most historic figures, becoming the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

Sidney Poitier was born in the Bahamas and began working in Hollywood in earnest in the 1950s, where over the next 20 years he would become one of the biggest stars and, sadly, one of the few Black leading men of the era. However, his prominence also made him a trailblazing figure, as many of his most famous roles saw him take on issues of race and other cultural norms, including in films like The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Poitier was also a breaker of barriers, including at the Academy Awards. As mentioned, in 1963 he was the first Black man to ever win the Oscar for Best Actor, for Lilies of the Field.  A few years prior he also was the first Black man to be nominated for Best Actor for his performance in The Defiant Ones. Despite more great performances, Poitier would not be nominated for another Oscar in his career, though he was presented with an honorary Oscar in 2002 for “his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence,” as described by the Academy. Fittingly, the night Poitier was honored, Denzel Washington became the second Black man to win Best Actor and Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar (for Monster's Ball). It felt like (and was) a watershed moment but the pace of change is glacial — 20 years later, Berry remains the only Black woman to win Best Actress.

Poitier would continue to work until 2001, though some of his most memorable roles after the 1960s were on TV, including playing Thurgood Marshall in the TV miniseries Separate But Equal and as Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela and de Klerk.  He was nominated for Emmys for both performances.

Hollywood has come out on social media to honor Poitier, here are just a few of the tributes:

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There are few ways better to honor Sidney Poitier than by watching his work, whether it is the first time or the 100th. Here are some of his most memorable roles:

Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Sidney Poitier Blackboard Jungle

(Image credit: MGM)

One of his first major roles, Blackboard Jungle saw Sidney Poitier star as a tough high school student (even though he was in his late 20s at the time, but he pulls it off) who at first gives a new teacher (Glenn Ford) a hard time before eventually gaining respect and helping him reach out to the other students. No matter his age or the character he was playing, Poitier had a commanding presence on the screen that was evident from the beginning.

How to watch: Blackboard Jungle is available to rent online.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Sidney Poitier The Defiant Ones

(Image credit: United Artists)

Sidney Poitier’s role in The Defiant Ones is historic as it made him the first Black man nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and deservedly so. Poitier stars as one of a pair of convicts, the other played by Tony Curtis, chained together as they try to make their escape. The two at first come to blows as they struggle to bury their prejudices, but eventually come to rely on each other as they strive for freedom. Poitier is searing in the film, with him and Curtis clearing raising each other’s game to new levels. The Defiant Ones was critical in making Poitier the star he would become.

How to watch: The Defiant Ones is available to stream on Prime Video or Pluto TV, it is also available to rent online.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Sidney Poitier A Raisin in the Sun

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, Sidney Poitier plays the lead role Walter Lee Young, the patriarch of a family that finds out they will be receiving a substantial insurance payment that could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin. With a cast that included Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Steven Perry and Louis Gossett Jr., Poitier leads the way with his powerful performance as the father frustrated who is untrusting of this chance at a new life. Though the Oscars didn’t come calling this time, the BAFTA’s recognized Poitier’s fantastic work with a nomination.

How to watch: A Raisin in the Sun is available to rent online.

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Sidney Poitier Lilies of the Field

(Image credit: MGM)

Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning role saw him star as Homer Smith, a travelling handyman who helps a group of white nuns build a chapel in their small desert town and forms a strong connection with them and the larger community. Lilies of the Field is a lovely film made all the brighter by Poitier’s big, contagious smile and touching performance. He faced some stiff competition that year as well, beating out Paul Newman, Rex Harrison, Richard Harris and Albert Finney for Best Actor.

How to watch: Lilies of the Field is available to watch for free on Prime Video, YouTube, Pluto TV and Tubi.

To Sir, with Love (1967)

Sidney Poitier To Sir with Love

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Twelve years after he starred in Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier took on a similar story from the other side in To Sir, with Love, as he played the teacher determined to reach a group of difficult students in London. Again, Poitier gives a performance that is powerful at times but sweet and touching when required, a difficult feat that he mastered in his career. To Sir, with Love would also be one of three movies that made 1967 the biggest year in Poitier’s career. He would reprise his role in a TV movie in To Sir, with Live II directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who also recently passed away.

How to watch: To Sir, with Love is available to rent online.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night

(Image credit: United Artists)

Even though Sidney Poitier’s Oscar comes from Lilies of the Field, his most iconic role is that of Virgil Tibbs in the Best Picture-winning movie In the Heat of the Night. Poitier stars as a Philadelphia detective who finds himself enlisted in a murder investigation with a local police officer (Rod Steiger) in a small Mississippi town broiled in a heat wave and racial tension. In the movie Poitier gets to smack a racist who talks down to him and deliver the classic line of “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”, which would be used as the title when he played the character again in a 1970 movie. Poitier should have received another Oscar nomination for In the Heat of the Night, but those two scenes are worthy of statues all their own.

How to watch: In the Heat of the Night is available to watch for free on The Roku Channel and with premium subscriptions (Cinemax add-on) on Prime Video and Hulu. It is also available to rent online.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Sidney Poitier Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Rounding out Sidney Poitier’s 1967 was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where he starred alongside other Hollywood icons Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, as well as Katharine Houghton, Roy Glenn and Beah Richards. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner deals with the issue of interracial marriage, a truly revolutionary topic for a film in the 1960s. It is incredible to see Poitier act alongside Tracy and Hepburn, and though Tracy may get the big monologue at the end of the movie, Poitier more than stands toe-to-toe with them.

How to watch: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is available to stream with a premium subscription (Starz add-on) on Hulu, Prime Video and The Roku Channel. It can also be rented online.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.