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Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:
Talented, passionate actor whose pioneering screen work in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for countless other black performers. Born in Miami, Poitier was raised in the Bahamas by tomato growers, living in poverty and completing only a few years of formal education. Making his way back to his birthplace as a teenager, he labored in several menial jobs before entering the Army. Afterward, he joined the American Negro Theater, eventually finding his way to New York and appearing on Broadway in "Anna Lucasta" (1948). He first appeared on the big screen in No Way Out (1950), in a plum role as a hospital intern who locks horns with racist punk Richard Widmark, and went on to costar with veteran black actor Canada Lee in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), which was filmed on location in South Africa. His subsequent films were a mixed bag, but he made a vivid impression as a rebellious student in Blackboard Jungle (1955), and did excellent work as a good-hearted dock worker in Edge of the City (1957). In 1958 he received his first Oscar nomination, for his portrayal of an escaped convict in The Defiant Ones With that film he became Hollywood's first black leading man-and star. A string of hits followed, including Porgy and Bess (1959), All the Young Men (1960), A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues (both 1961), Pressure Point (1962), and Lilies of the Field (1963); this last picture brought Poitier his only Oscar to date.
Throughout the rest of the decade, Poitier served as a symbol of black progress during the civil rights era. In 1967, his peak year, Poitier starred in three boxoffice smashes: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as the handsome suitor who forces in-laws Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to reconsider their attitudes toward blacks; To Sir With Love as a teacher in a tough London school who wins the respect of his working-class students; and In the Heat of the Night as police detective Virgil Tibbs, opposite Rod Steiger (playing a redneck Southern cop). Night's success spawned two sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). With this formidable parlay of films, Poitier became a top box-office attraction, breaking further ground and opening more doors. In 1968 he wrote the story for (and starred in) another pioneering effort, a black romantic comedy, For Love of Ivy then made his directing debut with Buck and the Preacher (1972), in which he also starred, alongside longtime friend Harry Belafonte. He then starred in and directed a trio of broad (and extremely popular) allblack comedies, Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977). It was a giant leap from the "serious" Poitier vehicles of the sixties.
Poitier all but abandoned screen acting in the 1980s to concentrate on directing, guiding Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy (1980), then Wilder and his wife Gilda Radner in Hanky Panky (1982), and a bunch of break-dancing kids in Fast Forward (1985). Poitier essayed another tough-cop characterization in Shoot to Kill (1988), and played an FBI agent in Little Nikita that same year. In 1990 he returned to the field of movie farce to direct Bill Cosby in the dreadful Ghost Dad then found his best role in years, as future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in the made-for-TV movie Separate but Equal (1991). The following year he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, and was back onscreen with Robert Redford in Sneakers (1992).
His autobiography, "This Life," was published in 1980. It is impossible to overstate the influence Poitier had on blacks and whites in the 1950s and 1960s, as both role model and image-maker. He has never betrayed that trust.