If there’s one person in Hollywood who is considered a true trailblazer, it’s Sidney Poitier. The longtime actor broke barriers onscreen with films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night and during the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964, he became the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. During Black History Month, Oprah Winfrey is opening up to ET’s Kevin Frazier about the 94-year-old actor’s legacy and how he laid the groundwork for herself and many others within the industry.
“When I tell you profoundly, I could start weeping right now, I was profoundly, deeply, sincerely moved by that moment,” Winfrey says, looking back on Poitier’s historic Oscar win for Lilies of the Field. At the time, the future talk show host was only 10 years old. “We were being called colored people at the time. [And] I had never seen a colored man look like that or present like that. And I just thought if he could do that, I wonder what I could do.”
She adds, “And because he did that, I was able to do what I have been able to do in the world, and every single other Black person who followed. It only happened because he was able not just to do that, but to be that. It's what he represented: his dignity, integrity, presence, grace, sense of honor, choice of characters only doing, and choosing roles that were going to reflect the best of what a Black person could be in the world.”
Prior to his Oscar win, Poitier's breakthrough performances on film included The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, and Paris Blues. And in the years that followed, he starred in A Patch of Blue, To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner before eventually stepping behind the camera as a director.
The latter, a family comedy, starred Poitier and Katharine Houghton as an interracial engaged couple, Dr. John Wade Prentice and Joanna Drayton. Its release in December 1967 came only months after the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, ruling that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
For Winfrey, this film still resonates with her today, noting the scene where Dr. Prentice says, “Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
“That is who he is. That's one of my favorites of his because I know that is the essence of who he is,” she says, adding that she also loves To Sir, With Love and Lilies of the Field. “Back in the day -- yes, back in the day -- when Sidney Poitier was on anything, either Sidney Poitier or Diana Ross and The Supremes, it didn't matter what it was, people would call everybody and say. ‘Colored people on! Colored people, turn on the TV right now. Colored people.’ It wouldn't matter what film he was in, we were gonna watch it.”
While most of Poitier’s filmography is not available to stream on any of the major services, his films can be rented via Apple or Amazon. And Winfrey recommends that other 10-year-olds discovering the actor to start with To Sir, With Love. In the 1967 film, which deals with social and racial issues in an inner city school, Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a British Guiana immigrant in the U.K. who takes up a teaching job at a school in East End of London while he awaits for approval on an engineering job he applied for.
“I think a 10-year-old starting out with To Sir, With Love would be really good,” Winfrey says, adding, “I think allowing young people to see his early work, but more importantly to read his book, This Life, or read his book, The Measure of a Man, where he talks about the measure of a man is his willingness to honor and take care of his family and that is what he believed in terms of the roles that he took and also his personal life and how he lived life as someone who was a representative of ‘I am Reginald Poitier’s son.’”
Being someone who was mindful of his reputation and how his work reflected upon himself and his family, Poitier turned down an early film role because of how it depicted the character and his relationship with his daughter.
“He did not feel that playing a janitor was a bad thing but the janitor's daughter in this particular scene was murdered and the body thrown on the lawn. And in the script, he had no recourse as his father to say anything about that,” Winfrey recalls. “And he would not take the role. He said because he was Reginald Poitier’s son and Reginald would not allow that to happen to a child of his.”
Looking back on his filmography and what Poitier achieved as an actor, especially during the Civil Rights movement, Winfrey points out that “beneath the surface of all of his work, underlying all of his work was the cry for, the plea for, the working towards racial justice in the world in a way that he was able to humanize Black people.”
She adds, “And that was his intention and his goal.”
Poitier, Winfrey continues, is the person who opened the door for Black people in Hollywood and onscreen, from film to TV. “His very being and presence in the world -- not just as an actor but as a father and as a human being -- has laid the groundwork for people like me and generations to come that will benefit from his work,” she says. “There would be no Kevin Frazier, sitting up on Entertainment Tonight without a Sidney Poitier… We’re part of the chain but he was the first link.”
While Winfrey has now known Poitier for many years, which has turned into weekly calls she’s coined “Sundays With Sidney,” she says that it’s one of the greatest joys in her life, especially for the 10-year-old version of herself. “[I] not only got to meet him, but got to know him in such a way that he enhanced my life,” she gushes. “So, I mean, love him, just love him.”