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.”
Poitier died on January 6, 2022 at the age of 94. 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.”