(January 9, 2022). That Sidney Poitier was considered a true American hero is an understatement beyond measure. He was a giant among giants who took on his acting roles with a grace and poise that few others could emulate. His legacy of excellence, both in film and in life, was one that rarely has been matched since, if ever.
When Mr. Poitier’s death was announced Friday morning (he passed away in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 6 at the age of 94), tributes came pouring in from fans and fellow celebrities across social media.
Iconic figures who, like the legendary actor himself, were the first in their fields to achieve some pretty historic milestones, honored Mr. Poitier who was the first Black man to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (The Defiant Ones, 1958) and the first to win one (Lilies of the Field, 1963).
Mr. Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president called Poitier a “singular talent who epitomized dignity and grace.” Oprah Winfrey, the first Black female billionaire, said that “the greatest of ‘great trees’ has fallen.” She continued by offering the “highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious and eloquent life.”
Denzel Washington, the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor (for Training Day) since Poitier (ending a 38-year gap), said Poitier was a “gentle man” who “opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years.” Halle Berry, who in 2002 also became the first Black female to win for Best Actress (Monster’s Ball), may have said it best when she paid tribute on Instagram, noting that Sidney “left an indelible mark with (his) extraordinary talent, paving the way for Black people to be seen and heard in the fullness of who we are.”
Indeed, Mr. Poitier was a trailblazing icon whose accomplishments helped reshape how Blacks were viewed and portrayed in this country, and several generations of folks that have come since may never fully recognize his true impact.
Not only were Mr. Poitier’s acting roles legendary, with many of them touching on race relations in ways that were unprecedented for their times, some of them were for films whose soundtracks were part of history as well. And while Mr. Poitier was not a singer himself and likely didn’t have much input into which music was selected for the films he created, he is inextricably connected to those films and, as such, to the history he—and they—helped create.
Notably, after several earlier films in his career, Sidney Poitier’s breakout role was arguably in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, in which he portrayed a troubled high school student (even though he was already 28 when he made the movie) in an interracial inner-city school. The film is mostly remembered for its use of rock and roll music in its soundtrack, particularly the song “Rock Around The Clock,” which Bill Haley & His Comets took to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in July 1955.
The song is largely viewed for its cultural significance of having kicked off the “rock and roll era” of popular music—an era that lasted for the next four-and-a-half decades (before hip-hop took over). As such, it is considered the first No. 1 song of that historic era and, by extension, the first No. 1 song from a motion picture during the rock era.
In the ensuing years, more and more movies featured music that became synonymous with the films they soundtracked. And many of those songs topped the Billboard charts. Some actors (and singers) were fortuitous enough to be associated with multiple films that had chart-topping hits.
For instance, Elvis Presley had No. 1 songs with the title tracks to the two films Love Me Tender (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957). Similarly, the Beatles had No. 1 hits for their two films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), plus the Let It Be documentary in 1970.
But, early on, few actors who weren’t also musicians were able to accomplish the feat of starring in multiple movies with No. 1 hits. In 1960, actor Richard Egan became the first to do it (during the rock and roll era) when the song “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’” topped the chart. Egan had top billing in both A Summer Place and Presley’s début vehicle Love Me Tender four years earlier.
The second actor to pull off this feat? None other than Sidney Poitier, who added to “Rock Around The Clock” when “To Sir, With Love,” the title song to his iconic film about a Black teacher in a school for troubled, mostly white students, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. Thus, Mr. Poitier became the first actor in seven years and the first Black actor to be associated with two films whose theme songs went to No. 1.
In an ironic twist, Poitier, whose character in the film—Mr. Thackeray—demanded that his students refer to him as “Sir” after he became fed up with their juvenile classroom antics, became a true “Sir” when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1974, another rarity for Black men throughout history.
More than forty actors since 1967—of any race—have accomplished the milestone of starring in two films with No. 1 songs. But only a couple handfuls—seven to be exact, excluding the Beatles—have been able to pull off the feat three times.
The first to do it was Arthur McConnell. He starred in the film April Love, whose title track by the legendary Pat Boone topped the chart in 1957. McConnell later starred in the film Ben, another movie whose title track—sung by Michael Jackson—went to No. 1 in 1972. McConnell’s third film with a No. 1 hit was The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster movie featuring the No. 1 song “The Morning After,” albeit in a non-film version by singer Maureen McGovern.
The second actor to star in three different movies with No. 1 pop hits was, again, Sidney Poitier, who achieved his third with a film he directed titled Let’s Do It Again. In 1975, that comedy vehicle, which paired Poitier with Bill Cosby, included the famous Curtis Mayfield soundtrack and the title tune that topped the Hot 100 at the end of the year, making Poitier, again, the first Black actor to accomplish this feat three times.
What’s more, if you account for the fact that the version of “The Morning After” heard in The Poseidon Adventurewasn’t by the artist with the No. 1 version, Poitier’s Let’s Do It Again makes him the first true actor of any race to pull off this feat three times with songs officially featured in the movie.
Since then, big Hollywood names like Robert Redford, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise and Christopher Walken have joined Poitier (and McConnell and The Beatles) in this exclusive category. And if you throw in a cameo role as a bike messenger by actor Eddie Griffin in the 1998 film Armageddon, then he is added to this unique category as well (and becomes only the second Black actor to do it).
But no one has ever topped this feat with four movies that touted No. 1 hits, which makes Poitier’s trailblazing accomplishment—albeit one that has little to do with his acting ability—pretty impressive to this day!
Below is a table listing the more than 40 actors (plus the Beatles) with multiple films that included No. 1 hits on Billboard’s premier pop list (the Hot 100 and its predecessors) since the rock era began in 1955. They’re listed in chronological order beginning with each actor’s first film to do it, followed by their second and, where applicable, third movies (and songs) with this achievement.
|Actor(s)||1st movie w/ No. 1 song (song, year)||2nd movie w/ No. 1 song (song, year)||3rd movie w/ No. 1 song (song, year)|
|Sidney Poitier||Blackboard Jungle (“Rock Around The Clock” – Bill Haley, 1955)||To Sir With Love (“To Sir With Love” – Lulu, 1967)||Let’s Do It Again (“Let’s Do It Again” – Staple Singers, 1975)|
|Elvis Presley||Love Me Tender (“Love Me Tender” – Presley, 1956)||Jailhouse Rock (“Jailhouse Rock” – Presley, 1957|
|Richard Egan||Love Me Tender (“Love Me Tender” – Presley, 1956)||A Summer Place (“Theme from A Summer Place” – Percy Faith, 1960)|
|Leslie Nielsen||Tammy and the Bachelor (“Tammy” – Debbie Reynolds, 1957)||The Poseidon Adventure (“The Morning After” – Maureen McGovern, 1973)|
|Debbie Reynolds||Tammy and the Bachelor (“Tammy” – Debbie Reynolds, 1957)||The Bodyguard (“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston, 1992) (Reynolds made a cameo appearance as herself)|
|Arthur O’Connell||April Love (“April Love” – Pat Boone, 1957)||Ben (“Ben” – Michael Jackson, 1972)||The Poseidon Adventure (“The Morning After” – McGovern, 1973)|
|Beatles||A Hard Day’s Night (“A Hard Day’s Night” – Beatles, 1964)||Help! (“Help!” – Beatles, 1965)||Let It Be (“Let It Be,” “The Long And Winding Road” – Beatles, 1970)|
|Faye Dunaway||The Happening (“The Happening” – The Supremes, 1967)||Don Juan DeMarco (“Have You Really Ever Loved A Woman” – Bryan Adams, 1995)|
|Katharine Ross||The Graduate (“Mrs. Robinson” – Simon & Garfunkel, 1968)||Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” – B. J. Thomas, 1970)|
|Robert Redford||Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” – Thomas, 1970)||The Way We Were (“The Way We Were” – Barbra Streisand, 1974)||Up Close & Personal (“Because You Loved Me” – Celine Dion, 1996)|
|Jack Albertson||Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (“The Candy Man” – Sammy Davis, Jr., 1972)||The Poseidon Adventure (“The Morning After” – McGovern, 1973)|
|Gene Wilder||Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (“The Candy Man” – Davis, 1972)||The Woman In Red (“I Just Called To Say I Love You” – Stevie Wonder, 1984)|
|Barbra Streisand||The Way We Were (“The Way We Were” – Streisand, 1974)||A Star Is Born (“Evergreen (Love Theme From ‘A Star Is Born’) – Streisand, 1977)|
|James Woods||The Way We Were (“The Way We Were” – Streisand, 1974)||Against All Odds (“Against All Odds” – Phil Collins, 1984)|
|Billy Dee Williams||Mahogany (“Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” – Diana Ross, 1976||Batman (“Batdance” – Prince, 1989)|
|Melanie Mayron||Car Wash (“Car Wash” – Rose Royce, 1977)||You Light Up My Life (“You Light Up My Life” – Debby Boone, 1977)|
|Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith||Rocky (“Gonna Fly Now” – Bill Conti, 1977)||Rocky III (“Eye Of The Tiger” – Survivor, 1982)|
|John Travolta||Saturday Night Fever (“How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” – Bee Gees; “If I Can’t Have You” – Yvonne Elliman, 1977-78)||Grease (“You’re The One That I Want” – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John; “Grease” – Frankie Valli, both 1978)|
|Olivia Newton-John||Grease (“You’re The One That I Want” – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John; “Grease” – Frankie Valli, both 1978)||Xanadu (“Magic” – Newton-John, 1980)|
|Stockard Channing||Grease (“You’re The One That I Want” – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John; “Grease” – Frankie Valli, both 1978)||Up Close & Personal (“Because You Loved Me” – Celine Dion, 1996)|
|Richard Gere||American Gigolo (“Call Me” – Blondie, 1980)||An Officer And A Gentleman (“Up Where We Belong” – Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes, 1982)||Pretty Woman (“It Must Have Been Love” – Roxette, 1990)|
|Héctor Elizondo||American Gigolo (“Call Me” – Blondie, 1980)||Pretty Woman (“It Must Have Been Love” – Roxette, 1990)|
|Tom Cruise||Endless Love (“Endless Love” – Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, 1981)||Top Gun (“Take My Breath Away” – Berlin, 1986)||Cocktail (“Don’t Worry Be Happy” – Bobby McFerrin; “Kokomo” – Beach Boys, both 1988)|
|James Spader||Endless Love (“Endless Love” – Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, 1981)||Mannequin (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Starship, 1987)|
|Bill Murray||Ghostbusters (“Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr., 1984)||Charlie’s Angels (“Independent Women Part 1” – Destiny’s Child, 1990)|
|Prince||Purple Rain (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince, 1984)||Under The Cherry Moon (“Kiss” – Prince & the Revolution, 1986)|
|Madonna||Vision Quest (“Crazy For You” – Madonna, 1985)||A League Of Their Own (“This Used To Be My Playground” – Madonna, 1992)|
|Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy||The Breakfast Club (“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – Simple Minds, 1985)||St. Elmo’s Fire (“St. Elmo’s Fire” – John Parr, 1985)|
|Christopher Walken||A View To A Kill (“A View To A Kill” – Duran Duran, 1985)||At Close Range (“Live To Tell” – Madonna, 1986)||Batman (“Batdance” – Prince, 1989)|
|Crispin Glover||Back To The Future (“The Power Of Love” – Huey Lewis & The News, 1985)||At Close Range (“Live To Tell” – Madonna, 1986)|
|Andrew McCarthy||St. Elmo’s Fire (“St. Elmo’s Fire” – John Parr, 1985)||Mannequin (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Starship, 1987)|
|Gregory Hines||White Nights (“Separate Lives” – Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin; “Say You, Say Me” – Lionel Richie, both 1985)||Waiting To Exhale (“Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” – Whitney Houston, 1995|
|Kim Basinger||Batman (“Batdance” – Prince, 1989)||8 Mile (“Lose Yourself” – Eminem, 2002)|
|Eddie Murphy||Boomerang (“End Of The Road” – Boyz II Men, 1992)||The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (“Doesn’t Really Matter” – Janet Jackson, 2000)|
|Lela Rochon||Boomerang (“End Of The Road” – Boyz II Men, 1992)||Waiting To Exhale (“Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” – Houston, 1995|
|Kevin Costner||The Bodyguard (“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston, 1992)||Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (“All For Love” – Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting|
|Whitney Houston||The Bodyguard (“I Will Always Love You” – Houston, 1992)||Waiting To Exhale (“Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” – Houston, 1995|
|Janet Jackson||Poetic Justice (“Again” – Jackson, 1993)||The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (“Doesn’t Really Matter” – Janet, 2000)|
|Nicole Kidman||Batman Forever (“Kiss From A Rose” – Seal, 1995)||Moulin Rouge (“Lady Marmalade” – Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya & Pink, 2001)|
|Michelle Pfeifer||Dangerous Minds (“Gangsta’s Paradise” – Coolio, 1995)||Up Close & Personal (“Because You Loved Me” – Celine Dion, 1996)|
|Eddie Griffin||Armageddon (“I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” – Aerosmith, 1998)* (Griffin had a cameo role)||Double Take (“Stutter” – Joe, 2001)||A Star Is Born – (“Shallow” – Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, 2018)|
|Kevin Kline||Wild Wild West (“Wild Wild West” – Will Smith, 1999||The Pink Panther (“Check On It” – Beyoncé, 2006|
And, finally, to the late Sidney Poitier, whom I’ve admired since I could remember what movies and music were, may you rest in power, for yours was a life fully and masterfully lived!
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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