Total Recall

Sidney Poitier's 7 Most Memorable Performances

On his 92nd birthday, we look back at the films of the history-making Hollywood great.

by | February 20, 2019 | Comments

(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

The great Sidney Poitier turns 92 on February 20, 2019, just shy of 55 years since he became the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. As one of the first African-American film stars, Poitier boasts a career littered with accolades, historical moments, and iconic performances too numerous count. To celebrate the actor’s 92nd year, we at RT thought it the perfect time to single out just a few of our favorite performances from the iconic actor. With 60-plus credits spanning over 60 years, it was a near impossible feat, but here are our seven favorite Sidney Poitier performances.


Blackboard Jungle (1955) 75%

This was the role that put Poitier on the map. The struggles of educators and students are well documented in this violent and controversial film, based on Evan Hunter’s seminal novel about inner-city school conditions. Modern audiences might struggle to sympathize with the tactics employed by Poitier’s character, Gregory Miller, but the cultural impact his performance had on both society and education are undeniable.


The Defiant Ones (1958) 81%

Poitier garnered his first Oscar Nomination for his portrayal of Noah Cullen, an escaped black convict shackled to white fellow escapee John “Joker” Jackson, played by Tony Curtis. Motivated to survive and escape, the foes are forced to work together and eventually come to respect one another. The conflict and eventual cooperation between the two men plays out against the backdrop of Jim Crow, underscoring the institutions of oppression that existed at the time that would have prevented their friendship from developing. The final scene of Noah defiantly singing to Joker remains a near perfect ending to the prison break caper.


A Raisin in the Sun (1961) 94%

In the film adaptation of the eponymous stage play, Poitier plays Walter, the patriarch of the Youngers, a young black family living in 1950s Southside Chicago, trying to better themselves through family and a commitment to give their children a better life. Acting as a cinematic counterpoint to the idealized American dream, the Youngers struggle to combat institutions and individuals dead set on never allowing them to rise above. Walter is met with hostility and apprehension from those outside and within his community as he strives to achieve, but through it all, he and his family persevere.


Lilies of the Field (1963) 91%

In this Oscar-winning role, Poitier plays Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who stumbles upon a group of German nuns. The nuns believe Homer was sent by God to help them build a chapel, and by the final frames, the audience is all but convinced of the same. Even Queen Oprah Winfrey found herself without words during her Golden Globe acceptance speech as she tried to explain what it was like watching Poitier win that Oscar. Instead, she opted to quote his line from the film and simply said, “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” To which, I say no one could have put it better.


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) 71%

If the first role you most closely associate with Poitier is not In the Heat of the Night, the likely winner is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Playing a black man meeting his white fiancée’s liberal and affluent parents, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the first positive portrayals of interracial marriage to hit the big screen. Acting alongside Hollywood legends Spencer Tracey nd Kathleen Hepburn, Poitier made his mark on a verifiable American cinematic masterpiece. The influences and themes of Guess Who Coming to Dinner can be seen in several modern-day adaptations — Jordan Peele brilliantly subverted those themes for social commentary and comedic effect in Get Out.


In the Heat of the Night (1967) 96%

“They call me Mister Tibbs!” Poitier spoke those words in In the Heat of the Night, and both the film and the line have become synonymous with the actor’s career. Sitting at number 16 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes” list, the rebuke to racist Mississippi Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is a thing of beauty. Playing Virgil Tibbs, a Pittsburgh detective charged with solving a homicide in the Deep South, Poitier navigates prejudice and incompetence to gain the respect of his would-be adversary. And with his help, the police attempt to solve the suspenseful, complicated whodunit.


Sneakers (1992) 78%

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

In a refreshing change of pace later in his career, Poitier starred in this ensemble suspense comedy. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, and Poitier all play former spies working as security consultants. The crew inadvertently get caught up in a web of deception involving a former associate (Ben Kingsley) when they’re tasked with the high stakes retrieval of a very powerful piece of government equipment. Playing Donald Crease as an aging, more-than-over-it former CIA agent and the team’s voice of reason, Poitier showed us that he can be, in fact, quite hilarious.

Tag Cloud

Esquire Song of Ice and Fire LGBTQ Mindy Kaling Winners Musicals Opinion Comedy Central serial killer Oscars Comic Book Toys adventure 2017 Mystery Set visit justice league psychological thriller Binge Guide Epix crime thriller Syfy Tomatazos anime WarnerMedia OWN Logo Chernobyl cops Shudder GIFs Warner Bros. romance DC streaming service Freeform unscripted Emmy Nominations Watching Series Ghostbusters Trophy Talk nature Writers Guild of America Sony Pictures facebook Holidays Hulu New York Comic Con Britbox police drama 21st Century Fox revenge Heroines ITV green book 2018 Apple Lifetime YA Pet Sematary cinemax A&E psycho Cartoon Network Marathons GoT Emmys Columbia Pictures El Rey television Valentine's Day Winter TV elevated horror Adult Swim Amazon Prime Video children's TV CW Seed Brie Larson political drama San Diego Comic-Con Fantasy VH1 Paramount Network AMC Ovation 2019 boxoffice SundanceTV Disney Channel SDCC WGN theme song witnail Amazon Prime composers Shondaland Tumblr Biopics award winner cooking Amazon Stephen King animated Awards Tour Bravo richard e. Grant Certified Fresh Extras ESPN Family finale FOX FXX Horror 2016 hist golden globes movies Vudu HBO ABC Elton John Premiere Dates 24 frames Pop docudrama casting Awards See It Skip It Trailer YouTube Red Rocky strong female leads zero dark thirty Ellie Kemper Polls and Games spinoff Countdown President what to watch technology vampires Thanksgiving Showtime ratings Mary poppins transformers TruTV Paramount Lucasfilm Star Wars Pixar USA The Witch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Spring TV true crime dc Netflix Universal Tarantino Summer teaser adaptation Rock Mary Tyler Moore Disney HBO Max Food Network aliens FX Star Trek Rocketman crossover CMT streaming Action Podcast kids biography Starz SXSW comic blaxploitation festivals Character Guide DirecTV cults Comedy Reality E! MSNBC Nickelodeon Nominations Trivia CBS TNT sitcom Pirates MCU Video Games USA Network E3 singing competition DC Universe 20th Century Fox 007 Captain marvel TCA harry potter DC Comics supernatural YouTube Premium jamie lee curtis Infographic quibi Grammys Interview Photos natural history Christmas sequel IFC TLC TCA 2017 zombie Reality Competition LGBT Crackle Box Office Sneak Peek spider-man X-Men dramedy historical drama History war diversity Western CNN APB Film Rom-Com PBS Musical RT History Masterpiece dragons dceu Nat Geo Sundance Animation Creative Arts Emmys Drama Quiz book Election Schedule Superheroes talk show travel tv talk series Pride Month The Arrangement The CW crime drama PaleyFest 45 Fall TV MTV Anna Paquin zombies Spike Film Festival discovery Music ghosts Year in Review period drama BBC America Mudbound Country TV Land science fiction American Society of Cinematographers Lionsgate Comics on TV Cosplay Spectrum Originals Superheroe Sundance Now Fox News Sci-Fi VICE Red Carpet Dark Horse Comics TV TIFF thriller medical drama Kids & Family based on movie NBC First Look crime IFC Films Marvel Mary Poppins Returns CBS All Access cats mockumentary sports social media Super Bowl disaster robots Teen BET toy story Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Cannes RT21 ABC Family DGA miniseries space Calendar BBC cars mutant TCM Black Mirror doctor who comiccon politics GLAAD NYCC Women's History Month Walt Disney Pictures anthology 2015 game show National Geographic Acorn TV Martial Arts binge spy thriller Disney streaming service Best and Worst TBS