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Sidney Poitier, Oscar-Winning actor and activist who made history, dead at 94

The groundbreaking Hollywood star became the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field

By Jon Blistein

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier (Picture: AP)

Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing actor and activist who became the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards, has died. He was 94.

A source close to Poitier’s family confirmed the actor’s death, though no cause was given.

Poitier became a legitimate Hollywood star in the thick of the Civil Rights era, when there were few roles available for Black actors and many were rooted in ugly, still all-too-prevalent stereotypes. He broke out in the mid-Fifties with turns in films like 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, 1958’s The Defiant Ones (for which he became the first Black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar), and the 1959 adaptation of Porgy and Bess. He made history when he won Best Actor Oscar for his turn in 1963’s Lilies of the Field, in which he played a handyman helping a group of nuns build a chapel. 

On top of his prolific acting career, Poitier directed numerous films and authored three books. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 (though born by chance Miami, he was raised in the Bahamas where he was also a citizen), got the Kennedy Center Honors treatment in 1995, received an honorary Academy Award in 2001, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

On top of his prolific acting career, Poitier directed numerous films and authored three books. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 (though born by chance Miami, he was raised in the Bahamas where he was also a citizen), got the Kennedy Center Honors treatment in 1995, received an honorary Academy Award in 2001, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Poitier also directed numerous films, authored three books, and played a visible role in the Civil Rights Movement. He appeared alongside protestors at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 — he also attended King Jr.’s funeral five years later — and traveled the South with fellow activist and actor Harry Belafonte. But acting was also part of his activism.

“I go in front of a camera with a responsibility to be at least respectful of certain values,” Poitier once told the Museum of Living History. “My values are not disconnected from the values of the Black community.” 

He was initially wary of the adaptation of Porgy and Bess, saying in 1957 after the film was announced that he’d originally turned down the role because of “the fear that if improperly handled, Porgy and Bess could conceivably be, to my mind, injurious to Negroes” (per Variety). While working on the Best Picture-winning 1965 mystery In The Heat of the Night, Poitier demanded a key change to the script so that his Detective Virgil Tibbs slaps a white suspect who first slapped his character.

Later in life, Poitier dedicated himself to philanthropy, activism and diplomacy. The actor, who maintained his Bahamas citizenship, served as the West Indies island’s ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007. He was awarded a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1974, and has received nearly every award possible for his work in cinema: Lifetime achievement awards from both the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs, and the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995. 

In 2009, Poitier was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest award bestowed upon a civilian — by President Barack Obama. “It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies; he makes milestones,” Obama said. “Milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress. On screen and behind the camera… Poitier not only entertained but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”

Last year, after Arizona State University renamed its film school after the actor — The Sidney Poitier New American Film School — his daughter, Sydney Poitier Heartsong, said her father’s longtime goal was for Black people to have opportunities in all aspects of the film industry, “I know at the time, the thing that angered him the most was that he was the only one. He was the only one standing up there. He was the only one with an Academy Award. And he fought so that others could be included as well. He wanted to see his story and his likeness represented on the screen, and he was also keenly aware of the fact that that wasn’t going to fully happen, in the way that it should, unless there were people also behind the camera.”

Poitier was born Feb. 20, 1927, a couple of months premature during a trip to Miami, where his parents — farmers on the Bahamian island Cat Island — would frequently travel to sell produce. While Poitier was raised in the Bahamas, he moved to the United States as a teenager, living first in Florida before heading north to New York City. During World War II, he enlisted in the Army and worked at a hospital on Long Island treating veterans; but frustrated by the work and the conditions in the hospital, he faked insanity and managed to obtain a discharge.

Poitier’s acting career began at the American Negro Theatre in New York City, though he wasn’t immediately welcomed into the troupe. As he recalled to CNN in 2002, his initial audition was a flop due to his still-thick Bahamian accent; the director, Poitier remembered, told him to be a dishwasher, a job Poitier already held. “[That] implied to me that that was his perception of me,” Poitier said. “So I decided before I got to the bus stop at 135 Street and Seventh Avenue that I was going to become an actor. But it was to show him that he was wrong in that prognostication of me. That I was going to be an actor.”

Poitier finally managed to join the troupe — first as a janitor, though he received acting lessons in exchange. Soon, he was starring in company productions of Lysistrata and Anna Lucasta, and film work quickly followed. Poitier secured his first substantial role in 1950’s No Way Out, in which he played a doctor treating a racist white patient. On top of the numerous films he appeared in throughout the Fifties, Poitier continued to act on the stage, most notably originating the lead role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, A Raisin in the Sun, in 1959 (he reprised the role in the film adaptation two years later).

By the mid-Sixties, especially after his Oscar win, Poitier was a bona fide Hollywood star, and in 1967 he appeared in three of the year’s top-grossing films: In the Heat of the Night (which spanned the iconic line “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”), To Sir, With Love, and the groundbreaking-for-its-time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In the latter, Poitier and Katharine Houghton play a young interracial couple trying to get the approval of the white daughter’s parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn); it was the rare positive depiction of an interracial relationship, and in a testament to how novel that was at the time, the Supreme Court had only struck down laws banning interracial marriage a few months before the movie’s release.

But with the power and fame he accumulated during the Sixties, Poitier did what he could to change that in the following decade. During the Seventies, he not only remained a prominent onscreen presence, but directed a string of films as well, starting with the 1972 western Buck and the Preacher. Poitier showed a penchant for comedy, in particular directing and starring in Uptown Saturday NightLet’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action (alongside Bill Cosby). Though Poitier stepped back from acting as the decade drew to a close, he continued to direct in the Eighties, working with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor on 1980’s Stir Crazy, and then directing Wilder and Gilda Radner in Hanky Panky two years later.

Poitier returned to acting in 1988, when he starred in two thrillers, Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita (the latter was one of two films Poitier made with River Phoenix, along with 1992’s Sneakers). He picked up a few more gigs, but ultimately made his final film appearance in 1997, at the age of 70, in the action flick The Jackal.

In 2002, while receiving his honorary Oscar, Poitier reflected on his remarkable, odds-defying career, saying, “I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22 in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds against my standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favor. Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow.” He added, “I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”