Sidney Poitier, First Black Man To Win Oscar For Best Actor, Dies At Age 94

The trailblazer won an Academy Award for his work in 1964.
Throughout his career, Sidney Poitier continued to do things no Black man had ever done in Hollywood before.
Throughout his career, Sidney Poitier continued to do things no Black man had ever done in Hollywood before.
Larry Busacca/VF14 via Getty Images

Sidney Poitier, the Bahamian-American actor who broke numerous Hollywood barriers in the 1950s and 1960s — most famously in 1964 when he became the first Black man to win the Oscar for best actor — has died, Bahamian news outlets reported Friday, citing the country’s minister of foreign affairs. He was 94.

Details on the timing and manner of his death were not immediately available.

Over his career, Poitier was repeatedly the “first.” He became the first Black man to win an international film award at the Venice Film Festival in 1957; the first to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards in 1958; and, of course, he became the first 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 said 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, while reviewing the Poitier film “The Lost Man,” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones.” In part, Canby meant the line as a jab at Poitier, who continued to work with men whom Canby viewed as “second-rate directors.” But it was also an unquestionable nod to the long list of firsts already associated with Poitier’s name by that time.

President Barack Obama cited the line 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 said, “shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”

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

Poitier pushed against the typical roles of Black men in Hollywood. In 1961’s “Paris Blues,” he played the first Black romantic lead in a major picture. Together with Katharine Houghton, he portrayed the first positive depiction of an interracial couple in a major Hollywood film with 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In 1968, he became the first Black man to be named Hollywood’s top box office star. In 1975, he appeared in the first film to take a stance against apartheid, “The Wilby Conspiracy.” And for 1969’s “The Lost Man,” he demanded that at least half of the film crew be Black, the first time such a thing had ever been done.

His activism extended beyond the screen as well. In 1963, he attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1968, Poitier went back to D.C. once more to support the Poor People’s Campaign, which was organized in part by King before he was assassinated.

No less 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 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Express via Getty Images

Yet despite the inroads he made in his own industry in the age of Jim Crow, Poitier came to be castigated by some, unfairly or not, as someone who chose safe roles that made white people feel comfortable, rather than ones that more directly 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 via Getty Images

“He just wasn’t of those times,” said Al Young, a scriptwriter who briefly worked with Poitier in 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 fact, there was something stirring in Poitier in those days. But only later, in his autobiography, would Poitier reveal the anger he fought to keep hidden during the early years of his career. “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 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.
Chester Sheard via Getty Images

Poitier was born two and a half months premature, on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, where his Bahamian parents were vacationing at the time. The youngest of seven children, Poitier grew up poor. His father was a tomato farmer, and by the age of 13, Poitier was working a full-time job to help his family. Within two years, his family had decided to send him on a boat to the U.S. to pursue a better life. In Poitier’s memory, his father gave a young Sidney three dollars and said, “Take care of yourself, son.”

Later, Poitier would remember looking back 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 introduced to a type of racism that he had never before experienced, and that he had no plans to adhere to. He later told 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, where he lied about his age in order to join the army during World War II. When he returned, he found work as a dishwasher. Then, one day, something happened. “I was at 125th Street [in Manhattan], actually, looking in the newspaper for a dishwashing job. And there were none,” he later told 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 wanted actors, and Poitier wanted to try out. But with no acting experience and a thick Bahamian accent, the audition went horribly, so much so that he was told, “Stop wasting your time — get a job as a dishwasher!” Half a year later, he tried out again, this time successfully, earning a role in a play called “Days of Our Youth.” He was filling in for Harry Belafonte, a man who would become one of his lifelong friends.

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

For all the criticism he faced later in his career, it was not always easy for Poitier, even at his highest moments. After winning the Oscar for best actor at the 1964, actor Ann Bancroft, the award’s presenter, gave him a small kiss on the cheek, which caused something of a scandal at a time in which anti-miscegenation laws were still in place in many states, making it illegal for a Black man and white woman to get married. Just a few 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 perhaps some realized, Poitier considered the social ramifications of the roles he played. In 1957, while discussing the film “Porgy and Bess,” the actor revealed that he had initially turned down the role 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 played a black Philadelphia cop named Virgil Tibbs in the Oscar-winning mystery drama “In the Heat of the Night,” a movie in which Tibbs tries to solve a murder case in small-town Mississippi amid racial bigotry. Even in 1967, Tibbs’ willingness to defiantly stand proud in the face of racial animosity was shocking to white audiences. In one scene, Poitier slaps a man in the face after being slapped himself. In another, when asked what he is called in Philadelphia, he proudly replies, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” a line that AFI would later name the 16th greatest movie quote of all time.

While Poitier’s societal contributions were lost on some, his friend Harry Belafonte was not one of them. Belafonte once said 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 would be handed countless honors, including an honorary award at 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 seemed more concerned with improving the lives of those around him, as well as the lives of those who 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 said in 2008, “that’s plenty.”

Poitier leaves behind his wife, Joanna Shimkus, and five of his six children, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Anika and Sydney Tamiia. His daughter Gina Poitier died in 2018.

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