He is an African American actor. From Miami, Florida he was the son of Bahamian parents. He grew up in poverty on Cat Island in the Bahamas where his parents were poor tomato farmers. He was their seventh and last child. The family's struggles hammered home a lesson he has always live by: Survival requires everybody to carry a load.
In fact, by the age of 13, he was working full-time to support the family. At 16, he arrived in New York City, totally alone, with three dollars in his pocket. In order to escape the cold, he lied about his age and joined the army. It was a short stint that lasted less than a year. Back in New York he worked as a dishwasher and basically stumbled into acting while looking for a second job to make ends meet. Without any experience or training, and barely able to read, he auditioned for the American Negro Theatre.
He was humiliated off the stage, but six months later, better prepared, he auditioned again. His first production, Days of Our Youth, led to nearly 10 more roles with the company, a national tour of Anna Lucasta in and, two years later at 22, came his first film No Way Out.. It launched the career that, in the words of his good friend Harry Belafonte, "put the cinema and millions of people in the world in touch with a truth about who we are. A truth that could have for a longer time eluded us had it not been for him and the choices he made.
He acted in the first run of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in , and in its Hollywood adaptation in He also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film Lilies of the Field and was the first actor of African descent to win this award.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II by right and recommendation of his Bahamian citizenship in Married first to Juanita Hardy from April 29, through , and he is currently married to Canadian-born former actress Joanna Shimkus. He has four children by his first marriage and two children by his second marriage. His fifth daughter is actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
A Spiritual Autobiography , he is mentioned extensively in John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, when one of the characters falsely claims to be his son. He has been hailed as a breakthrough star whose acclaimed performances, which consciously defied previous racial stereotyping, gave a new dramatic credibility for black actors to mainstream film audiences in the Western world.