Sidney Potier, the first black man to win Oscar, dies at 94

Legendary Hollywood actor Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar for best actor, has died. He was 94.  

His passing was confirmed on Friday morning by Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Bahamas, where Poitier grew up. His cause of death is not yet known.  

Poitier’s trailblazing acting career saw him win an Oscar in 1964 for his role in Lilies of the Field him, and earn two further Academy Award nominations, ten Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination. 

Twice-married, he had four daughters with his first wife Juanita Hardy and two with his second wife Joanna Shimkus, as well as eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

During his first marriage, he began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll, whom he met when they worked together on the 1959 movie Porgy and Bess. The fallout from the affair ended the marriages of both Carroll and Poitier, whose subsequent second marriage to Shimkus was more enduring, lasting 45 years until his death.  

In 2016, Poitier was awarded a BAFTA fellowship, but did not attend the event due to ill health.  

Poitier received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995 and an received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009. 

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are seen filming The Defiant Ones in 1958. The film earned his his first Oscar nomination

He was also awarded an Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. 

Upon news of his death, tributes flowed in from around the world, including words of praise and admiration from Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, and Anika Noni Rose.

Actor Jeffrey Wright tweeted: ‘Sidney Poitier. What a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love.’ 

Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg tweeted a touching message, reciting the lyrics to the theme song from Poitier’s 1967 film To Sir, with Love.

‘If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high.. To Sir… with Love,’ she wrote, adding: ‘Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars.’

The 1967 British drama film dealt with social and racial issues in an inner city school, with Poitier playing teacher Mr Mark Thackeray.

Star of Dreamgirls and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose tweeted: ‘RIP Sidney Poitier. Thank you for being so kind, for every door you broke down and every slap you gave in return.’

‘This is a big one,’ said Oscar-winner Viola Davis. ‘No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life.’

‘The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!! It was an honor for my husband and I to share lunch with you at Spagos.’

‘You told us,’If your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough’! I put this quote on my daughter’s wall. Rest well Mr. Poitier. Thank you! Thank you for leaving a legacy. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote: ‘Sidney Poitier. An absolute legend. One of the greats.’ 

Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed 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 confronting racism during a murder investigation. 

He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.

At the time, Poitier had already won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. 

Five years before that Poitier had been the first black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar 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 – and became the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins. 

His other classic films of that era included A Patch of Blue in 1965 in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway.

Poitier was born in Miami on February 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling. 

He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.

Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.

‘I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,’ Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at 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 1980’s ‘Stir Crazy.’

Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the Army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.

The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy in ‘Days of Our Youth’ and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering black actor, fell ill.

Poitier went on to success on Broadway in ‘Anna Lucasta’ in 1948 and, two years later, got his first movie role in ‘No Way Out’ with Richard Widmark.

In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with ‘Buck and the Preacher’ in which he co-starred with Belafonte.

In 1992, Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, joining recipients such as Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.

‘I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young black dishwasher learn to read,’ Poitier told the audience. ‘I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.’

In 2002, an honorary Oscar recognized ‘his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.’

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).  

Poitier’s second marriage to Shikmus endured happily for 45 years, and he was known as doting family man to his daughters, who recalled in a 2013 interview how he used to play along when they dressed him up as children.

‘He’d be on location and we’d put barrettes in his hair,’ his youngest two daughters told the Hollywood Reporter. ‘We’d make him call room service. And he’d have to open the door with pink barrettes and lipstick on.’ 

‘If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you’re not going to get very far,’ he told the Washington Post. ‘The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.’

Poitier wrote three autobiographical books and in 2013 published ‘Montaro Caine,’ a novel that was described as part mystery, part science fiction.

Poitier was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency. He also sat on Walt Disney’s board of directors from 1994 to 2003.

In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.

The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.

One comment

  • Leslie Benjamini

    This makes me very sad. He was a great actor. Another legend gone.

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