Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

In 1959, when LIFE magazine profiled the star of a new production of A Raisin in the Sun, Sidney Poitier, he was 32 and as the magazine then put it, “already accepted almost without question as the best Negro actor in the history of the American theater.” In the months leading up to that assessment, Poitier had played Porgy in Porgy and Bess and become the first black actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, for his work in The Defiant Ones. (He lost that time around but would win a few years later for Lilies of the Field.)

“Whenever Poitier walks on stage, excitement walks on with him,” wrote entertainment editor Tom Prideaux. “He seems to be taking it easy most of the time but with the hidden tension of a coiled spring. In appearance he veers between man and boy. His open grin and handsomely boyish head set off a powerful body. He can be as appealing as a child or show a shattering range of deep adult emotion. Today, acting and Poitier seem made for each other.”

Here, LIFE presents some of the magazine’s most striking images of the star, who appeared in its pages in a 1950 story about the film No Way Out, went on to be featured on the cover in 1966 and became a mainstay of the magazine’s coverage of Hollywood as well as the civil rights movement. As these pictures make clear, Poitier’s career has been one of breadth as well as depth.

“It has been a long journey,” as Poitier said when he accepted his Oscar in 1964, “to this moment.”

 

Sidney Poitier in scene from film "Cry The Beloved Country," 1952.

Sidney Poitier in a scene from the film “Cry The Beloved Country”, 1952.

Yale Joel The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier at the prayer pilgrimage in Washington D.C., 1957.

Sidney Poitier at the prayer pilgrimage in Washington D.C., 1957.

Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier with his wife at home, 1959.

Sidney Poitier with his wife at home, 1959.

Gordon Parks The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier in a dramatic scene from play "A Raisin in the Sun", with Ruby Dee, 1959.

Sidney Poitier in the play “A Raisin in the Sun”, with Ruby Dee, 1959.

Gordon Parks The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier in "A Raisin in the Sun," 1959.

Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun,” 1959.

Gordon Parks The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

"Raisin in the Sun" party at Sardis with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, 1959.

The “Raisin in the Sun” party at Sardis with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, 1959.

Gordon Parks The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier in a scene from "Porgy and Bess," 1959.

Sidney Poitier in a scene from “Porgy and Bess,” 1959.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Folk singer Odetta at a civil rights rally at Statue of Liberty with Sidney Poitier, 1960.

Folk singer Odetta at a civil rights rally at the Statue of Liberty with Sidney Poitier, 1960.

Al Fenn The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier speaking at a pre-Inaugural gala for President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

Sidney Poitier spoke at a pre-Inaugural gala for President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963.

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Anne Bancroft backstage at the Academy Awards with Sidney Poitier who holds his Oscar statuette for Best Actor in a Leading Role, given for his performance in the film 'Lilies of the Field,' 1964.

Sidney Poitier, backstage at the Academy Awards with Anne Bancroft, held his Oscar for Best Actor, given for his performance in Lilies of the Field, 1964.

Julian Wasser The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier in a TV program, "Strolling Twenties," a story about Harlem of that era, 1965.

Sidney Poitier in a TV program, “Strolling Twenties,” a story about Harlem of that era, 1965.

Henry Groskinsky The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier filming scenes in "The Lost Man," 1968.

Sidney Poitier during the filming of “The Lost Man,” 1968.

Charles Bonnay The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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