(NewsNation Now) — Sidney Poitier, the first Black man to ever win a best actor Oscar and a legendary star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, has died, an official from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday. He was 94.
The Bahamian-American actor was known for films including “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Poitier won his Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 film “Lilies in the Field,” playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years prior, Poitier had been the first Black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in“The Defiant Ones.”
His other classic films included “A Patch of Blue” in 1965, in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl and “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Poitier also performed on Broadway. Poitier also starred in “To Sir, With Love,” “Blackboard Jungle” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”
Few movie stars, Black or white, had such an influence both on and off the screen. Before Poitier, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, no Black actor had a sustained career as a lead performer or could get a film produced based on his own star power. Before Poitier, few Black actors were permitted a break from the stereotypes of bug-eyed servants and grinning entertainers. Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely even attempted to tell a Black person’s story.
Poitier’s rise mirrored profound changes in the country in the 1950s and 1960s. As racial attitudes evolved during the civil rights era and segregation laws were challenged and fell, Poitier was the performer to whom a cautious industry turned for stories of progress.
In total, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine. Poitier received two more Academy Award nominations and 10 Golden Globe nominations. In 2001, Poitier received an honorary Oscar for his acting and humanitarian work.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, in 1992.
“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.”
Poitier had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, and two with his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, who starred with him in his 1969 film “The Lost Man.” Daughter Sydney Tamaii Poitier appeared on such television series as “Veronica Mars” and “Mr. Knight.”
Poitier never pretended that his Oscar was “a magic wand” for Black performers, as he observed after his victory, and he shared his critics’ frustration with some of the roles he took on, confiding that his characters were sometimes so unsexual they became kind of “neuter.” But he also believed himself fortunate and encouraged those who followed him.
“To the young African American filmmakers who have arrived on the playing field, I am filled with pride you are here. I am sure, like me, you have discovered it was never impossible, it was just harder,” he said in 1992 as he received his honor from the American Film Institute.
“Welcome, young Blacks. Those of us who go before you glance back with satisfaction and leave you with a simple trust: Be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey.”