Poitiers Dramatic, Trailblazing Career

Poitiers Dramatic, Trailblazing Career

June 19, 2008

Sidney Poitier
Keynote Speaker
2:30 p.m.

HR professionals feeling daunted by work challenges may find inspiration from Sunday’s SHRM conference general session speaker, Sidney Poitier.

    The legendary actor is set to tell the dramatic story of his life. The son of poor tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to New York as a teenager with $3 in his pocket, according to a biography by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which gave Poitier a lifetime achievement honor in 1995.

    After failing an audition for the American Negro Theatre, Poitier tried again six months later and eventually landed work with the company. His first film, No Way Out in 1950, launched a screen career in which Poitier regularly challenged racial barriers. Among his noteworthy movies are Lilies of the Fields, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He earned the 1963 Academy Award for best actor for his role in Lilies of the Fields, in which he plays a handyman who helps a group of German nuns build a church.

    "For 20 years, beginning in the early ’50s, he was the top and virtually sole African-American film star—the first black actor to become a hero to both black and white audiences," the Kennedy Center biography states. "... Sidney Poitier’s characters are men of control, men who tame volcanic rage with reason and intellect. Men who know that there are bridges to build, doors to open."

    Poitier also embarked on a career as a director. In 1980, he directed Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy—that year’s biggest financial success in film.

    In 1991, Poitier returned to television for the first time in 35 years to portray Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the miniseries Separate but Equal.

    "With his unique career, a career he forged without any precedent or model, Sidney Poitier helped change many stubborn racial attitudes that had persisted in this country for centuries," the Kennedy Center biography says.

    He also received an honorary Oscar in 2002 "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen, and for representing the motion picture industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world." SHRM attendees familiar with Poitier’s cultural career may not know that he also has made a mark in the diplomatic arena. He serves as the Bahamas’ ambassador both to Japan and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

    According to SHRM’s advance billing of the keynote, Poitier "speaks with passion about the importance of diversity and about the humanitarian causes that most deeply concern him, in motivating others to make a difference in the world around them."

    But don’t expect Poitier to preach. In his 2000 book, The Measure of a Man, Poitier conveys a humble tone: "I have no wish to play the pontificating fool, pretending that I’ve suddenly come up with the answers to all life’s questions." He may not have the answers to HR professionals’ questions, but attendees may well leave Poitier’s speech more revved up to solve problems on their own.