They call me Mister Tibbs!” Sidney Poitier famously declared in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, but these days, his loved ones use more familiar names. “Most of us call him Papa,” his godson Mike Jordan tells Closer. “Every once in a while, we joke and call him Big Sid.”
Call him whatever you want — having turned 93 on February 20, the man is a living legend. “It’s always interesting when we go out in public, even 2-year-olds who have no concept of who he is recognize that he is someone,” says Mike. “He’s exactly who you think he is — the only difference is he curses a little more, but it’s very dignified!”
Dignity has been the key to Sidney’s personality from his earliest days on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He grew up as the youngest of seven children in a tomato-farming family. They didn’t have electricity or running water, but Sidney’s parents instilled something much more valuable in him. “My dad was a remarkable man, a good person, a principled individual, a man of integrity,” Sidney says. “And my mother was the most amazing person. All that I am, she taught me.”
Living in the Bahamas until he was 15, “I didn’t think about the color of my skin,” Sidney says. “Not any more than I would have bothered to wonder why the sand was white or the sky was blue.” But when his struggling parents gave him $3 and put him on a boat to Miami to live with an older brother in the early ’40s, Sidney says, “Nothing had prepared me to surrender my pride and self-regard sufficiently to accept the humiliations” of racism.
After he refused to deliver a package to the back door of a wealthy home, the Ku Klux Klan came looking for him. Yet Sidney wasn’t intimidated. “Fear, doubt and desperation are very real forces,” he says. “And there is nothing you can do about them except to stand up to them.” Sidney moved to New York City and started working as a dishwasher at a restaurant. He saw an ad for a theater group and auditioned but was rejected due to his thick Bahamian accent. “There’s something inside me — pride, ego, sense of self — that hates to fail at anything,” Sidney says. “So I set out on a course of self-improvement.” With the help of an elderly Jewish waiter, Sidney (who had only a year-and-a-half of formal education) learned to read. He taught himself how to speak proper English by listening to newscasters on the radio and repeating what they said. When he returned to the theater company and auditioned again, he landed a role — and his acting career was born. Still, Sidney was determined that “the work I did would never bring dishonor to my father’s name,” so he turned down roles he didn’t consider sufficiently dignified.
In 1950 — the same year he officially made his film acting debut as a principled doctor in No Way Out — Sidney wed model and dancer Juanita Hardy. “I had faith in myself and faith in the future — enough of each to marry a beautiful young girl,” he says. The first of their four daughters was born two years later, when Sidney was still working in a barbecue joint to subsidize his acting career. “Times were so tough that I used to take milk from the restaurant home for my kid,” he recalls.
Sidney became Hollywood’s first black matinee idol, thanks to hits like Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones, and in 1964, he took home an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field. “Sidney was so excited — he was running around the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel barefoot, waving his Oscar and saying, ‘I won it!’” friend Budd Burton Moss tells Closer. “It was an amazing moment.” Yet success took a toll on his home life. “Fame thrust all these opportunities upon him,” says author Aram Goudsouzian (Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon). “Sexual temptations were a factor in Sidney and Juanita drifting apart.”
The couple separated, and “that breakup was a long, painful, scarring period for all concerned,” Sidney says. “Juanita had no interest in dismantling the family. She knew there was great dissatisfaction on my part, but she was a good Catholic girl.” There was an additional issue: “I was in love with another woman” — Diahann Carroll.
They had met as co-stars on the set of 1959’s Porgy and Bess. “He exuded such sexuality and such commanding power that I felt completely unmoored by his presence,” Diahann said. She was also married at the time and made an agreement with Sidney that each would leave their spouses. But he kept getting cold feet. “There were all these broken promises,” Goudsouzian says. “The whole saga lasted almost a decade.”
Diahann and Sidney never wed, but he and Juanita divorced in 1965. Three years later, he fell for actress Joanna Shimkus on the set of the movie The Lost Man and found lasting love. They wed in 1976 and remain happily together to this day. “There is one key ingredient my wife has helped me to recognize over the years, and that is the importance of articulating love for one another on a daily basis,” gushes Sidney. Adds Joanna, “He is the most wonderful, generous, kind, honest man with the most integrity that I’ve ever known in my life.”
With Joanna, Sidney had two more daughters, Sydney and Anika, and he considers his family his greatest achievement. “Where I’ve invested most in the future of this planet,” he says, “is through the lives of six talented and intelligent young women, truly beautiful human beings, whom I burst with pride to call my daughters.”
In the late ’60s, Sidney endured a backlash, as some critics complained his idealized roles weren’t radical enough to suit the turbulent era. “It was hurtful — it was far from the truth, but I understood the times,” he said. “I decided I had to [reconfigure] my career.” He focused on directing films, making hits like Uptown Saturday Night and Stir Crazy.
Sidney returned to acting briefly in the late ’80s and early ’90s but had trouble finding the kind of socially relevant roles he’d always sought. “He was very picky,” Gregg Champion, who directed Sidney’s final two TV movies, tells Closer. “But he was so kind to everybody on the set.”
He retired from film work nearly 20 years ago and has spent the time since writing books and being with his family. “He’s a big softie,” says godson Mike. “He’s just hanging back and chilling and enjoying his grandkids and great-grandkids.”
They all gathered around him to celebrate his recent birthday, and Sidney couldn’t help but consider his legacy. As he says, with typical humility, “If I’m remembered for having done a few good things, and if my presence has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”
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