Sidney Poitier, who broke through racial barriers as the first black Best Actor Oscar winner for his role in Lilies of the Field and inspired a generation in the civil rights movement, has died aged 94, an official with the Bahamian Ministry of Justice. That is what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday.
Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the State Department, confirmed Poitier’s death.
Sidney Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in one year with three films from 1967 at a time when segregation was prevalent in much of the United States.
In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he played a black man with a white fiancée and In the Heat of the Night, he was Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer who confronted racism during a murder investigation. He also played a teacher at a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.
Poitier had won his historic Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, as a handyman helping German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years earlier, Poitier was the first black man to be nominated for an Oscar for lead actor for his role in The Defiant Ones.
His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalized in two sequels: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organization in 1971 – becoming the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.
His other classic films of the time were A Patch of Blue in 1965, in which his character befriends a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also played on Broadway.
Born in Miami on February 20, 1927, Sidney Poitier grew up on a tomato farm in the Bahamas and had only one year of formal schooling. He battled poverty, illiteracy and prejudice and became one of the first black actors to be known and accepted in important roles by mainstream audiences.
Poitier chose his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood notion that black actors could only appear in degrading contexts as shoe shiners, train conductors and maids.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier in a public ceremony.
As a director, Poitier worked with his friend Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night in 1974 and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy in 1980.
STARTED ON THE STAGE
Sidney Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before moving to New York at age 16. acting classes.
The young actor got his first breakthrough when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy on Days of Our Youth and took over when the star, Belafonte, who would also become a trailblazing black actor, fell ill.
Poitier became successful on Broadway in 1948 in Anna Lucasta and two years later got his first film role in No Way Out with Richard Widmark.
In all, he starred in more than 50 films and directed nine of them, beginning in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher, in which he co-starred with Belafonte.
In 1992, Poitier received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, along with recipients including Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.
“I also have to thank an elderly Jewish waiter who took the time to help a young black dishwasher learn to read,” Poitier told the audience. ‘I can’t tell you his name. I never knew. But I read quite well now.”
In 2002, an honorary Oscar recognized “his outstanding achievements as an artist and as a person”.
Sidney Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three books – This Life (1980), The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000) and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great Granddaughter (2008).
“If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you won’t get very far,” he told the Washington Post. “The journey has been incredible from the start. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by sheer arbitrariness.”
Poitier wrote three autobiographical books and in 2013 published Montaro Caine, a novel described as part mystery, part science fiction.
The actor was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan and UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency. He also served on the board of directors of Walt Disney Co. from 1994 to 2003.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest American civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.
The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Sidney Poitier’s historic Oscar, and he was there to present the Best Director award.