Poitier, who was nominated that year for his leading role in “Lilies of the Field,” was vying for Best Actor against Hollywood heavyweights Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Rex Harrison and Paul Newman.
Poitier had also been nominated in this category once before, for 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” but lost to David Niven. So on the night of April 13, 1964, at the 36th Oscar ceremony in Santa Monica, Poitier expected merely to “experience” the event and applaud for his friends and fellow actors, he once said.
“I knew, I just felt that I was not going to win,” Poitier once told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recalling that the award was “the farthest thing” from his mind, even during the film’s production.
“Well, when my name was called, I had no idea it was going to happen,” Poitier said. Nevertheless, a shocked Poitier took the stage — just as poised as ever — and delivered a short, moving acceptance speech.
“Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people,” he said before thanking the film’s director, screenwriter, the author of the source material, his agent, and the Academy.
“For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you,” he said at the end of his speech, his voice beginning to break.
Decades later, upon receiving an honorary Oscar at the 2002 ceremony, Poitier’s speech felt like an extension of his first. He elaborated on the “long journey” he briefly mentioned in 1964, starting with his arrival in Hollywood at the age of 22, at a time when “the odds against my standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favor.”
He thanked filmmakers and friends who “had a hand in altering the odds for me and for others,” but also the artists whose unwavering commitment to their craft had helped to break barriers for all actors.
“Without them this most memorable moment would not have come to pass, and the many excellent young actors who have followed in admirable fashion might not have come as they have to enrich the tradition of American filmmaking as they have,” he said. “I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”
Poitier would later say the feeling of receiving the honorary award “trumped” his first Oscar, because it represented all the people he worked with throughout his career.
Of course, Poitier’s awards were also celebrated by the actors that admired him most — including Denzel Washington, who took the opportunity to riff with Poitier during his own Best Actor acceptance speech that same night in 2002.
“Forty years, I’ve been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me. What do they do? They give it to him the same night,” joked Washington after receiving his award for “Training Day.” Poitier, smiling back from his seat, stood up and saluted Washington, both of them holding their Oscars high.
“I’ll always he chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” Washington said. “There’s nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do.”