Sidney Poitier has died, it was confirmed Friday by the press secretary for the Bahamas’ Deputy Prime Minister. The Oscar winner was 94.
Poitier, known for memorable roles in films like Lilies of the Field, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love broke barriers for actors of color in Hollywood. His first Oscar nomination came for his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 drama The Defiant Ones, in which he co-starred with Tony Curtis as escaped prisoners who are shackled together and must work together to survive.
Five years later, Poitier’s role in Ralph Nelson’s 1963 drama Lilies of the Field as a good-hearted handyman helping nuns build a chapel earned him his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Poitier won the Oscar, becoming the very first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Poitier was the youngest of seven children, born in Miami in 1927 to Bahamian farmers Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier. Raised in the Bahamas with no running water or electricity, he returned to Miami at the age of 15 with no education. Months later, he moved to New York City with just $3 to his name.
After a short stint in the Army, Poitier, then working as a dishwasher, answered an ad seeking actors, placed by the American Negro Theater. Rejection only served as motivation, as Poitier’s dedication to his craft earned him a role in a play at the theater company soon after. The performer, who lifted himself from extreme poverty, made his big-screen debut as an extra in 1947, and subsequently appeared in over 40 films. He was a star of the stage and screen, and made a name for himself with roles in films like 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun, among others. He made his feature film directorial debut in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher, in which he co-starred with Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte. He would go on to direct eight other features in his career.
In addition to his acclaimed performances, Poitier was a trailblazer in Hollywood as the first Black actor to become a notable draw at the box office, including for movies highlighting racism and race-related issues. Three of Poitier’s most memorable films, To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, all released in 1967, dealt with race relations.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Poitier earned 10 Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination. In 1974, he was granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.In 2002, he received an honorary Academy Award for his extraordinary body of work, unique presence on screen, and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, in 2009. In his remarkable life, Poitier even served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007.
In his acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar in 2002, Poitier reflected on his legacy as an actor, director and activist, and the “handful of visionary” filmmakers that helped him along the way.
“Each [had] a strong sense of citizenship responsibility to the times in which they lived; each [was] unafraid to permit their art to reflect their views and values, ethical and moral, and moreover, acknowledge them as their own,” he said. “They knew the odds that stood against them, and their efforts were overwhelming and likely could have proved too high to overcome.”
“Still those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us,” Poitier continued. “And I’ve benefited from their effort. The industry benefited from their effort. America benefited from their effort. And in ways large and small, the world has also benefited.”
Poitier was the father of six daughters, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina (from his first marriage to Juanita Hardy), and Anika and Sydney (from his second marriage to Joanna Shimkus).