Sidney Poitier's Oscar win -- 30 years later, the actor is still the only black man to win Best Actor

By Alan Carter
Updated April 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sidney Poitier’s Oscar win

The critics hadn’t been kind to the movie. ”It’s Going My Way with a Negroe,” wrote critic Bosley Crowther in The New York Times. ”The screen soon overflows with so much brotherhood [and] piety [it will make you] retch,” sneered a critic in Newsweek.

The oddsmakers for that year’s Oscar race were also cool about the chances of Lilies of the Field‘s star, who played an itinerant workman who helps a group of nuns in the Southwest: They put him far behind Albert Finney in Tom Jones. So on April 13, 1964, when Anne Bancroft opened the Best Actor envelope and read the name in it, there was near-pandemonium. The audience screamed. Bancroft jumped up and down. The winner admitted, ”I leaped six feet from my seat when my name was called,” and once on stage, eh forgot his speech. When he did collect himself, Sidney Poitier said, ”It’s been a long journey to this moment.”

It certainly had. In 36 years, only one black woman had won an Oscar — Hattie McDaniel as Best Supporting Actress in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. And in 1947, James Baskette was awarded an honorary Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus in Song of the South. To this day, only 26 black performers have been nominated for Oscars (six in the last five years); five have won, but Poitier remains the only black man named Best Actor.

”For me as an actress, Sidney Poitier was the absolute standard-bearer,” says Angela Bassett, who was nominated for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It. ”He’s talent, strength, dignity, and integrity personified.”

Not everyone was so generous at the time. Several critics and editorials suggested that Poitier’s Oscar came mostly as a result of the civil rights movement. Less than a week after the Academy Awards, Poitier snapped at reporters, ”Why is it everything you guys ask refers to the Negroness of my life and not my acting?” He grew so fed up that today he still refuses to talk about his Oscar.

Poitier went on to the hits A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love, but he never received another nomination.

Today, at 67, he acts sparingly (1992’s Sneakers) and concentrates on directing (1990’s Ghost Dad is the latest of his nine films). But thanks to him, the journey to the podium for blacks on Oscar night isn’t quite as long as it once was.