Groundbreaking Hollywood Icon Sidney Poitier Dead At 94

Sidney Poitier, the Bahamian-American actor who broke quite a few Hollywood limitations within the 1950s and 1960s — most famously in 1964 when he grew to become the primary Black man to win the Oscar for greatest actor — has died, Bahamian information shops reported Friday, citing the nation’s minister of overseas affairs. He was 94.

Details on the timing and method of his loss of life weren’t instantly out there.

Over his profession, Poitier was repeatedly the “first.” He grew to become the primary Black man to win a world movie award on the Venice Film Festival in 1957; the primary to be nominated for Best Actor on the Academy Awards in 1958; and, in fact, he grew to become the primary to win it for “Lilies of the Field.”

“I had a sense of responsibility not only to myself and to my time, but certainly to the people I represented,” Poitier mentioned in 2008. “So I was charged with a responsibility to represent them in ways that they would see and say, ‘OK, I like that.’”

In 1969, whereas reviewing the Poitier movie “The Lost Man,” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones.” In half, Canby meant the road as a jab at Poitier, who continued to work with males whom Canby seen as “second-rate directors.” But it was additionally an unquestionable nod to the lengthy checklist of firsts already related to Poitier’s identify by that point.

President Barack Obama cited the road in 2009 when he bestowed Poitier with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising the actor’s work on “milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress.”

“Poitier not only entertained but enlightened,” Obama mentioned, “shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”

The ultimate scene from 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”

Poitier pushed in opposition to the standard roles of Black males in Hollywood. In 1961’s “Paris Blues,” he performed the primary Black romantic lead in a serious image. Together with Katharine Houghton, he portrayed the primary constructive depiction of an interracial couple in a serious Hollywood movie with 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In 1968, he grew to become the primary Black man to be named Hollywood’s high field workplace star. In 1975, he appeared within the first movie to take a stance in opposition to apartheid, “The Wilby Conspiracy.” And for 1969’s “The Lost Man,” he demanded that at the very least half of the movie crew be Black, the primary time such a factor had ever been carried out.

His activism prolonged past the display screen as properly. In 1963, he attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the place Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his well-known “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1968, Poitier went again to D.C. as soon as extra to help the Poor People’s Campaign, which was organized partially by King earlier than he was assassinated.

No lower than Dr. King himself celebrated Poitier’s contributions to society, saying of the actor in 1967, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”

Actors Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster and Sidney Poitier at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Actors Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster and Sidney Poitier on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

Express through Getty Images

Yet regardless of the inroads he made in his personal business within the age of Jim Crow, Poitier got here to be castigated by some, unfairly or not, as somebody who selected secure roles that made white folks really feel snug, somewhat than ones that extra instantly confronted racial prejudice.

“There was more than a little dissatisfaction rising up against me in certain corners of the black community,” Poitier wrote in his 2000 autobiography, “The Measure of a Man.” “The issue boiled down to why I wasn’t more angry and confrontational. New voices were speaking for African-Americans, and in new ways. Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, the Black Panthers. According to a certain taste that was coming into ascendancy at the time, I was an ‘Uncle Tom,’ even a ‘house Negro,’ for playing roles that were non-threatening to white audiences, for playing the ‘noble Negro’ who fulfills white liberal fantasies.”

Poitier on the set of "Lilies of the Field."
Poitier on the set of “Lilies of the Field.”

Michael Ochs Archives through Getty Images

“He just wasn’t of those times,” mentioned Al Young, a scriptwriter who briefly labored with Poitier within the 1970s. “His was an era of polite gentlemanly etiquette. Hollywood was warming to blaxploitation movies like ‘Shaft.’ I remember going to his house in 1976, and Sidney and his wife left me in the garden. I sat down on the grass and started reading a copy of Rolling Stone magazine ― I was a writer for them. Suddenly, the upstairs window opened and there was Sidney. ‘Al,’ he exclaimed. ‘What are you doing?’ I told him I was sitting on the grass. ‘But we never do that!’ he yelled. ‘My God! Can I get you a chair?’”

In truth, there was one thing stirring in Poitier in these days. But solely later, in his autobiography, would Poitier reveal the anger he fought to maintain hidden in the course of the early years of his profession. “I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me,” he wrote. “There is a certain anger: it reaches such intensity that to express it fully would require homicidal rage ― it’s self-destructive, destroy-the-world rage ― and its flame burns because the world is so unjust. I have to try to find a way to channel that anger to the positive, and the highest positive is forgiveness.”

Poitier supporting the Poor People's Campaign at Resurrection City, a shantytown set up by protestors in Washington, D.C., in 1968. The Poor People's Campaign sought economic justice for America's poor and was organized by by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Poitier supporting the Poor People’s Campaign at Resurrection City, a shantytown arrange by protestors in Washington, D.C., in 1968. The Poor People’s Campaign sought financial justice for America’s poor and was organized by by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Chester Sheard through Getty Images

Poitier was born two and a half months untimely, on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, the place his Bahamian dad and mom had been vacationing on the time. The youngest of seven youngsters, Poitier grew up poor. His father was a tomato farmer, and by the age of 13, Poitier was working a full-time job to assist his household. Within two years, his household had determined to ship him on a ship to the U.S. to pursue a greater life. In Poitier’s reminiscence, his father gave a younger Sidney three {dollars} and mentioned, “Take care of yourself, son.”

Later, Poitier would keep in mind trying again at his father from the boat and say, “He was thinking about whether he and my mother had given me enough before I had to go out into the world. And I think now that they did. He gave me infinitely more than the three dollars he put in my hand.”

In Florida, Poitier was launched to a kind of racism that he had by no means earlier than skilled, and that he had no plans to stick to. He later instructed Oprah, “The law said, ‘You cannot work here, live here, go to school here, shop here.’ And I said, ‘Why can’t I?’ And everything around me said, ‘Because of who you are.’ And I thought, I’m a 15-year-old kid — and who I am is really terrific!”

By the age of 16, Poitier had gotten to New York City, the place he lied about his age with a purpose to be a part of the military throughout World War II. When he returned, he discovered work as a dishwasher. Then, at some point, one thing occurred. “I was at 125th Street [in Manhattan], actually, looking in the newspaper for a dishwashing job. And there were none,” he later instructed Larry King. “I began to fold the paper and put it into the street bin for trash and something on the opposite page caught my eye. And what caught my eye was two words ― ‘actors wanted.’”

The American Negro Theatre wished actors, and Poitier wished to check out. But with no performing expertise and a thick Bahamian accent, the audition went horribly, a lot in order that he was instructed, “Stop wasting your time — get a job as a dishwasher!” Half a yr later, he tried out once more, this time efficiently, incomes a job in a play referred to as “Days of Our Youth.” He was filling in for Harry Belafonte, a person who would turn out to be one in all his lifelong associates.

From there, his profession blossomed ― and quick. By the time he was 19, in 1946, he was on Broadway within the all-black manufacturing of “Lysistrata.” By the time he was 23, he had made it to Hollywood with the 1950 noir movie “No Way Out.”

For all of the criticism he confronted later in his profession, it was not at all times simple for Poitier, even at his highest moments. After profitable the Oscar for greatest actor on the 1964, actor Ann Bancroft, the award’s presenter, gave him a small kiss on the cheek, which precipitated one thing of a scandal at a time wherein anti-miscegenation legal guidelines had been nonetheless in place in lots of states, making it unlawful for a Black man and white lady to get married. Just a number of years later, he would share Hollywood’s first-ever interracial kiss with Katharine Houghton in 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Moreso than maybe some realized, Poitier thought-about the social ramifications of the roles he performed. In 1957, whereas discussing the movie “Porgy and Bess,” the actor revealed that he had initially turned down the position of Porgy out of “fear that if improperly handled, ‘Porgy and Bess’ could conceivably be, to my mind, injurious to Negroes.” A decade later, he performed a black Philadelphia cop named Virgil Tibbs within the Oscar-winning thriller drama “In the Heat of the Night,” a film wherein Tibbs tries to resolve a homicide case in small-town Mississippi amid racial bigotry. Even in 1967, Tibbs’ willingness to defiantly stand proud within the face of racial animosity was surprising to white audiences. In one scene, Poitier slaps a person within the face after being slapped himself. In one other, when requested what he’s referred to as in Philadelphia, he proudly replies, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” a line that AFI would later identify the 16th best film quote of all time.

While Poitier’s societal contributions had been misplaced on some, his pal Harry Belafonte was not one in all them. Belafonte as soon as mentioned Poitier “put the cinema and millions of people in the world in touch with a truth about who we are. A truth that could have for a longer time eluded us had it not been for him and the choices he made.”

In his later years, Poitier could be handed numerous honors, together with an honorary award on the 2001 Oscars and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. In 1997, he was named the ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas. But he appeared extra involved with bettering the lives of these round him, in addition to the lives of those that watched him on-screen, than with honors.

“If I’m remembered for having done a few good things and if my presence here has sparked some good energies,” he mentioned in 2008, “that’s plenty.”

Poitier leaves behind his spouse, Joanna Shimkus, and 5 of his six youngsters, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Anika and Sydney Tamiia. His daughter Gina Poitier died in 2018.


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