Sidney Poitier was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to major league baseball: simply put, the man who broke the color barrier. An actor, director, and producer, he forever altered the racial perceptions long held by both motion picture audiences and executives, rising to superstar status in an industry forever dominated on both sides of the camera by whites while becoming the first African-American ever to take home an Oscar for Best Actor. Born February 20, 1927, in Miami, FL, Poitier grew up in poverty in the British West Indies. After quitting school at the age of 13, he later joined the U.S. Army, serving in World War II as a medical assistant. Upon his release from duty he relocated to New York City, where he auditioned for the American Negro Theater. When his heavy Bahamian accent prompted laughter from producers, Poitier spent the next six months honing his elocution skills, practicing his enunciation by repeating radio routines, and finally gaining admission to the theatrical troupe's ranks after his second audition.
Handsome and athletic, Poitier made his Broadway debut in 1946 in an all-black production of Lysistrata, and moved into films four years later with No Way Out. His impressive turn in 1955's gritty The Blackboard Jungle brought him closer to stardom, and in 1958 he earned his first Academy Award nomination opposite Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's social drama The Defiant Ones. The film's focus on racial politics, as well as his increasing popularity with audiences of all racial backgrounds, solidified Poitier's standing as a key figure in the burgeoning civil rights movement, as roles in features including 1959's Porgy and Bess and 1961's Raisin in the Sun established him as the premier black actor of his generation. For 1963's The Lilies of the Field, he made history as the first African-American actor to win an Oscar in a leading role, and with the mainstream success of 1965's A Patch of Blue and 1967's To Sir, With Love, his ascent to superstardom was complete.