Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, Florida. When he was 16 years old, Poitier moved to New York City, where he held a string of jobs as a dishwasher. During one of these jobs, a waiter sat with Poitier every night for several weeks and helped him learn to read.

After lying about his age, he enlisted in the Army during World War II, in 1943. He briefly served as a mental hospital attendant before feigning insanity to get discharged. Poitier returned to work as a dishwasher until he successfully landed a spot with the American Negro Theatre.

Following several failed attempts, Poitier was given a leading role in the Broadway production Lysistrata. By the end of 1949, Poitier accepted an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the film No Way Out. His memorable performance in this film led to even more interesting and prominent roles. Poitier’s breakout role came in the 1955 social-commentary, Blackboard Jungle.

The positive feedback he received from Blackboard Jungle led to performances in Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident, and A Patch of Blue. His most successful draw at the box office, as well as the peak of his career, came with the popular films Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir, with Love, and In the Heat of the Night. The last film resulted in two subsequent sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization.

Did you know that Poitier’s impressive career marked a first for the African-American community? Poitier was not only the first African-American male to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award (1958), but he was the first African-American male to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. This honor was presented to him in 1963 for his role as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field.

Thirty-eight years later, Poitier was chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to receive an Academy Honorary Award. This was in recognition of his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”