Berlin Flashback: In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt Gave Sidney Poitier His Silver Bear

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Eleanor Roosevelt (left) gave Sidney Poitier (with first wife Juanita Hardy) his Silver Bear.

He received the honor for his role in 'The Defiant Ones,' about two shackled prisoners in the American South who escape from a transport truck and, despite their mutual racial animus, learn to respect and even like each other.

When Sidney Poitier starred opposite Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones — about two shackled prisoners in the American South who escape from a transport truck and, despite their mutual racial animus, learn to respect and even like each other — he could have had no idea that the precursor to Green Book would resonate so wildly with European audiences.

The movie had its world premiere at the 1958 Berlin International Film Festival, where European critics were utterly entranced by the film. Poitier was awarded the Silver Bear award, given to the festival’s best actor, with the jury noting that “his human warmth and modesty, combined with dignity and honesty, gave an unusual demonstration of tolerance and kindheartedness, which is indispensable between people of good will.”

One month after the festival, Eleanor Roosevelt presented the trophy to Poitier at her New York home. (The former first lady was a huge fan of Poitier’s and praised him one year later in her syndicated “My Day” column for his landmark performance on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun.)

But Hollywood was equally enthused about the film’s prospects, with The Hollywood Reporter saying that both of the movie’s stars “should get Academy nominations for the season’s top performances.” (Both did, though neither won. Still, Poitier’s nom made history, as he became the first African American nominated for best actor.)

Kramer, who went on to direct Poitier in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, assessed Poitier thusly after working with him on Defiant Ones: “He has the greatest range of any young actor since Marlon Brando.”

Now 91, the Miami-born Poitier, son of Bahamian tomato farmers, lives with his wife of more than 40 years, Joanna Shimkus Poitier, in Los Angeles.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 11 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.