Sidney Poitier, whose groundbreaking acting work in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for generations of black movie stars, has died at the age of 94. His death was Announced Friday by Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell.
Bahamian Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said he was “conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of Sir Sidney Poitier’s passing.”
And he added: “Sadness because he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration because he did so much to show the world that those of the most humble beginnings can change the world and that we give him their flowers. while he was with us.
“We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure. “
Poitier, who was born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, was the first black Oscar winner for best actor for Lilies of the Field and, along with Harry Belafonte, was a pioneering black presence in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Hollywood figures paid tribute to Poitier’s achievements. Oprah Winfrey posted a photo of herself with Poitier, adding: “The greatest respect and praise for her most magnificent, graceful and eloquent life. I treasure it. I adored him. He had a huge soul that I will always cherish. “
Actor / director Tyler Perry wrote: “The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his life, the example he set for me, not just as a black man but as a human being, will never be forgotten.” Whoopi Goldberg wrote: “If you wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would rise a thousand feet high. For the Lord, with love. Sir Sidney Poitier RIP Showed us how to reach for the stars. “Westworld star Jeffrey Wright I call it “An actor of reference. One of a kind. What a beautiful, kind, warm and genuinely regal man. RIP, sir. With love.”
Actress Viola Davis added: “There are no words to describe how her work radically changed my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence, and sheer electricity they brought to their roles showed us that we, as blacks, matter! “Questlove, musician and director of Summer of Soul, wrote:” King Sidney. One of the greatest actors of his generation. “
Born to Bahamian parents while visiting Miami to sell tomatoes in 1927, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, then a British colony, before returning to the US at age 15 and working a series of low-paying jobs before serving briefly. in the army. during WWII (and trying to feign insanity to get a medical discharge).
Somewhat aimlessly, Poitier auditioned for the high-profile Harlem-based American Negro Theater, and although he was turned down, he worked hard to improve his acting skills and lose his Bahamian accent. After he was allowed to attend classes, Poitier stepped in when Belafonte, then a star student, was unable to perform. After being discovered by a Broadway director, Poitier subsequently carved out a fledgling career on the black theater circuit of the time.
Poitier then landed his first significant film role, in the 1950 black film No Way Out, in which he played a hospital doctor whose racist patient (played by Richard Widmark) starts a racial riot. With its outspoken depiction of racial conflict, No Way Out was deemed too controversial to be shown in the southern states, but it established Poitier’s signature personality as a sensitive and tolerant figure, smarter than the white characters around him.
Although films examining the tense state of race relations were popular at the time, there were still limited roles for black actors in the US As one of the few who had made an impact, Poitier later went to South Africa to film. the British adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country; his experience of apartheid there pushed him towards activism.
Poitier’s breakthrough role returned in the US, with another social commentary image: Blackboard Jungle, in 1955, in which he played a rebellious high school student. The film was a success, with the use of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock securing a large teenage audience; in the UK it inspired the infamous 1956 teddy boy Elephant and Castle riot.
Poitier continued to win applause: He played a dockworker who advises John Cassavetes’ homeless man on Edge of the City, and then garnered a groundbreaking Best Actor Oscar nomination for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones film about social cooperation in the city. who interpreted. a convict who escapes into the Deep South while chained to Tony Curtis. (Both Curtis and Poitier were nominated; they lost to David Niven by separate tables.)
She went on to take on ideology-laden roles, including Porgy in Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess film, and the lead in A Raisin in the Sun, the adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-admired play on family life in segregated Chicago. (Poitier had appeared in the same role in the original stage production in 1959). He finally won his Oscar for the serious drama Lilies of the Field in 1964; He played a handyman helping a group of German nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert.
After the interracial romance A Patch of Blue (which, again, was censored in the South with scenes of Poitier kissing his white co-star Elizabeth Hartman being eliminated), Poitier would possibly experience his acting watermark in 1967, with three blockbuster films. . To Sir with Love, was a British production response to Blackboard Jungle, with Judy Geeson and Lulu in its cast; In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison, starring Poitier as sunglasses-wearing detective Virgil Tibbs investigates a murder in a racist Mississippi town; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ?, which again tackled the thorny issue of interracial romance.
Yet despite two other Tibbs films (They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! In 1970 and The Organization the following year), Poitier found himself suddenly out of favor, as a more controversial and politicized attitude gained traction in the wake of the fighting. for civil rights; Poitier responded by reinventing himself as a director. For his debut, Buck and the Preacher, he appeared alongside Belafonte in a civil war western; but after that, his production as a director would largely consist of comedy pieces. He cast then-comedian Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977), though his best-known directorial entry is Stir Crazy, the 1980 prison comedy starring Gene. Wilder and Richard Pryor.
Poitier largely retired from film in the late ’80s and’ 90s, directing Cosby in Ghost Dad and taking bizarre roles in such films as the surveillance thriller Sneakers; he assumed the role of senior statesman in film and diplomatic circles. After being knighted in 1974 (due to his Bahamian citizenship), he was appointed Bahamian Ambassador to Japan in 1997 and received an honorary Oscar in 2002. In 2009 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2016 a Bafta Fellowship.
Poitier was married twice: to Juanita Hardy between 1950 and 1965 (with whom he had four children), and later to Joanna Shimkus in 1976 (with whom he had two more).