In 1959, when LIFE magazine profiled the star of a new production of A Raisin in the Sun, Sidney Poitier was 32 and “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, he 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. 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,” wrote entertainment editor Tom Prideaux. “Today, acting and Poitier seem made for each other.”
As Poitier approaches his 90th birthday on Monday — he was born Feb. 20, 1927 — LIFE presents a look back at some of the magazine’s most striking images of the star, who appeared early one in its pages in a 1950 story about the film No Way Out, went on to appear on the cover in 1966 (at left) and became a mainstay of the magazine’s coverage of Hollywood as well as the civil rights movement. As these pictures make clear, his 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.”