Sidney Poitier an Oscar winner and trailblazer, has died.
Sidney Poitier, the revolutionary actor and eternal inspiration who changed the way Black people were depicted on cinema by becoming the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance and the first to be a top box-office attraction, has passed away. He was 94 years old at the time.
Poitier, who won an Academy Award for best actor in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field,” died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles, according to Latrae Rahming, the Bahamas Prime Minister’s director of communications. Harry Belafonte, a close friend and great contemporary of his, released a statement on Friday commemorating their remarkable moments together.
“Sidney and I laughed, wept, and caused as much mischief as we could for almost 80 years,” he wrote. “He was genuinely my brother and a collaborator in making the world a better place.” He made a huge difference in my life.”
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Few actors, black or white, had such power both on and off the screen. No Black actor had a continuous career as a main actor or could have a picture made primarily on his own star power until Poitier, the son of Bahamian tomato growers. Few Black actors were allowed to break free from the clichés of bug-eyed maids and grining performers until Poitier. Hollywood filmmakers seldom sought to convey a Black person’s narrative until Poitier.
Poitier’s death sparked a torrent of tributes and condolences on social media, with Oscar winner Morgan Freeman describing him as “my inspiration, my guiding light, my buddy,” and Oprah Winfrey praising him as a “Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher.” Former President Barack Obama spoke about his accomplishments and how “film have the potential to bring us closer together.”
Poitier’s ascension paralleled the country’s major transformations in the 1950s and 1960s. Poitier was the artist to whom a wary industry went for tales of change as racial views altered during the civil rights period and segregation laws were challenged and repealed.
In “The Defiant Ones,” he played an escaped Black criminal who befriends a prejudiced white prisoner (Tony Curtis). In “A Patch of Blue,” he played a courtly office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl. In “Lilies of the Field,” he played a handyman who constructs a church for a group of nuns. In Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” he played the ambitious young father whose goals collided with those of other family members in one of the great roles of theatre and cinema.
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Poitier’s tale is often brought up in discussions about diversity in Hollywood. For years, he was not only the most popular Black movie actor, but the only one, thanks to his attractive, faultless face, focused look, and disciplined style.
In a 1988 Newsweek interview, he said, “I did pictures when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine guy.” “I was somewhat like the town’s lone wolf.”
Poitier’s career peaked in 1967, with roles in three of the year’s most notable films: “To Sir, With Love,” in which he played a schoolteacher who won over his rowdy students at a London secondary school; “In the Heat of the Night,” in which he played the determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which he played a prominent doctor who wishes to marry a young white woman
Poitier was chosen the No. 1 star of 1967 by theater owners, marking the first time a Black actor had topped the poll. President Barack Obama, whose calm demeanor has been likened to Poitier’s, bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him in 2009, noting that the actor “not only entertained but educated… showing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”
His appeal brought him hardships similar to those faced by Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the past. Bigotry from whites and charges of compromise from the Black community greeted him. Poitier was held to higher standards than his white colleagues, and he held himself to them as well. He refused to play cowards and instead portrayed individuals of nearly angelic virtue, particularly in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” His most famous statement from “In the Heat of the Night” — “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” — encapsulates his steady, yet determined, and sometimes amusing character.
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“To all those who perceive unworthiness in me and are led to devalue me as a result, I respond, ‘I’m not talking about becoming as good as you.’ In his book, “The Measure of a Man,” released in 2000, he declared, “I thus pronounce myself better than you.”
He was chastised for being out of touch even in his prime. He was dubbed a “million-dollar shoeshine guy” and Uncle Tom. “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So Much?” by Black dramatist Clifford Mason was published in The New York Times in 1967. Poitier’s films were rejected by Mason as “a psychotic flight from historical reality” and the actor as a pawn for “white man’s idea of what’s wrong with the world.”
Poitier’s celebrity didn’t protect him from prejudice and disdain. When he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three civil rights activists were slain there, he had trouble obtaining accommodation in Los Angeles and was pursued by the Ku Klux Klan. Journalists often overlooked his work in interviews and instead questioned him about race and current affairs.
During a 1967 news conference, he yelled, “I am an artist, man, American, modern.” “I’m a lot of things, therefore I’d appreciate it if you treated me with the respect I deserve.”
Poitier was not as politically active as Belafonte, which resulted in clashes on occasion. However, he participated in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights activities, and as an actor, he stood up for himself and put his career on the line. During the 1950s, when Hollywood was banning suspected Communists, he refused to take loyalty oaths and turned down parts he felt insulting.
“Nearly every employment opportunity reflected the stereotyped view of Blacks that had infiltrated the whole country’s mind,” he remembered. “I didn’t have the capacity to perform such things when I arrived.” It wasn’t in my nature. I had made the decision to let my job reflect my principles.”
The classic Poitier character, from “In the Heat of the Night” through “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” was as a Black man of such decency and calm — Poitier became associated with the phrase “dignified” — that he wins over the whites who oppose him.
Obama tweeted on Friday, “Sidney Poitier embodied decency and elegance.”
As political groups, both black and white, got more radical, and movies became more explicit, his cinematic career declined in the late 1960s. He stopped acting, gave fewer interviews, and started directing, with credits including “Stir Crazy,” a comedy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, “Buck and the Preacher,” and the Bill Cosby comedies “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
He appeared in the feature films “Sneakers” and “The Jackal” as well as several television movies in the 1980s and 1990s, receiving Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Separate But Equal” and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in “Mandela and De Klerk.” Theatergoers were reminded of the actor by John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” a critically praised piece about a scam artist pretending to be Poitier’s son.
Oprah Winfrey, who picked “The Measure of a Man” for her book club, introduced him to a new generation in recent years. Meanwhile, he praised Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Danny Glover, saying, “It’s like the cavalry arriving to relieve the soldiers!” “You have no clue how happy I am,” he expressed his gratitude.
Poitier earned multiple honorary honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a special Academy Award in 2002, the same night that Black actors Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won best acting Oscars for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively.
During his acceptance speech, Washington, who had previously given Poitier with the honorary prize, declared, “I’ll always be pursuing you, Sidney.” “I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” says the narrator. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing, sir, nothing I’d rather be doing.”
Poitier had four children with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, and two with his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, with whom he co-starred in “The Lost Man” in 1969. Sydney Tamaii Poitier, her daughter, has starred in shows including “Veronica Mars” and “Mr. Knight.” Gina Poitier-Gouraige, a daughter, died in 2018.
His life ended with acclaim, but it started with adversity. Poitier was born preterm, weighing just 3 pounds, in Miami, while his parents were on their way to produce tomatoes from their farm on Cat Island, Bahamas. He grew raised on a secluded island with a population of 1,500 people and no power, and he dropped out of school at the age of 12 1/2 to help support his family. He was transferred to live with a sibling in Miami three years later because his father was afraid that the street life of Nassau was a detrimental influence. Sidney sailed steerage on a mail-cargo ship with $3 in his pocket.
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“The stench in that area of the boat was so bad that I spent a large amount of the journey heaving over the side,” he told The Associated Press in 1999, adding that Miami quickly taught him on racism. “I immediately discovered that there were certain areas I couldn’t go, and that if I ventured into other districts, I’d be questioned.”
Poitier traveled to Harlem and was so overwhelmed by his first winter there that he volunteered in the Army, lying about his age and claiming to be 18 when he was only 17. Poitier was sent to a mental hospital on Long Island and was horrified by the physicians and nurses’ treatment of the army patients. He described how he deserted the Army by faking illness in his 1980 autobiography, “This Life.”
Back in Harlem, he was searching for a dishwashing job in the Amsterdam News when he came across an ad for performers at the American Negro Theater. When he arrived, he was given a screenplay and ordered to take the stage. Poitier had never seen a play before and struggled to read. The director marched him to the door as he struggled through his lines in a strong Caribbean accent.
“What mortified me as I went to the bus was the idea that all he saw in me was a dishwasher.” “If I succumb to him, I will be assisting him in making that view prophetic,” Poitier later told the Associated Press.
“I was so enraged that I said, ‘I’m going to be an actress — whatever that means.'” I don’t want to be an actress, but I need to learn how to be one in order to show him that I’m more than a dishwasher.’ That became my objective.”
As he sounded out words from the newspaper, the process took months. Poitier tried again at the American Negro Theater, but was refused down. Then he struck a deal: in exchange for acting lessons, he would serve as the theater’s cleaner. When he was freed, his classmates pleaded with the professors to include him in the class play. Belafonte, a Caribbean, was cast in the major role. When Belafonte’s housekeeping responsibilities prevented him from attending a preview performance, his understudy, Poitier, took his place.
A Broadway producer was in the audience, and he put him in an all-Black rendition of “Lysistrata.” The play only ran for four nights, but Poitier’s performance earned him a role as an understudy in “Anna Lucasta,” and he subsequently played the lead in the touring company. He made his cinematic debut in 1950 with “No Way Out,” in which he portrayed a doctor whose white patient dies and is thereafter tormented by the patient’s racist brother, played by Richard Widmark.
Poitier’s early films were “Blackboard Jungle,” in which he played a tough high school student at a violent school (he was already into his 20s at the time), and “The Defiant Ones,” which earned him his first best actor nomination and the first for any Black guy. Poitier plays a Baptist handyman who constructs a chapel for a group of Roman Catholic nuns who are refugees from Germany in “Lilies of the Field,” a fun film about cultural contrasts. He offers them an English lesson in one unforgettable moment.
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Before Poitier, the only Black actor to win an Oscar in a competitive category was Hattie McDaniel, who won best supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. No one, including Poitier, believed “Lilies of the Field” was his finest picture, but the circumstances were ripe (Congress would soon adopt the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Poitier had pushed for), and the actor was preferred even above Paul Newman for “Hud” and Albert Finney for “Tom Jones.” Newman was one of the supporters of Poitier.
The crowd roared so loudly when presenter Anne Bancroft declared his triumph that Poitier forgot his speech for a second. He remarked, “It’s been a long trip to this point.”
Poitier never claimed that his Oscar was a “magic wand” for Black actors, as he put it afterward, and he shared his critics’ dissatisfaction with some of the parts he played, admitting that his characters were often so unsexual that they were “neuter.” But he also saw himself as lucky, and he encouraged others who followed in his footsteps.
“To the young African American filmmakers who have entered the fray, I am ecstatic that you have arrived. “I’m sure, like me, you’ve realized it was never impossible; it was simply tougher,” he declared in 1992 upon receiving the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.