Sir Sidney Poitier, the celebrated thespian who became the first Black male actor both to be nominated for and to win a competitive Academy Award for Best Actor, has died at the age of 94. Bahamian minister of foreign affairs Fred Mitchell announced Poitier’s death in a statement, saying, “We’ve lost a great Bahamian and I’ve lost a personal friend.” Vulture reached out to Poitier’s reps for further information. Known for his roles in social-issues dramas including In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, With Love; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier’s depth and nuance as a performer and his choice of projects broadened the roles available for Black men in Hollywood. He was the oldest living Best Actor Academy Award winner.
Born to Bahamian parents in Miami in 1927, Poitier spent his early years in the Bahamas before moving to the United States in his teens. He began his acting career in New York theater, soon earning roles in the social-drama film Blackboard Jungle (1955) and the Tony Curtis two-hander The Defiant Ones (1958), the latter earning Poitier his first Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actor. The following year, Poitier originated the lead role of Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, opposite Ruby Dee. It was the first Broadway production written by a Black woman. He would later reprise the role in the film adaptation.
“Firsts” like these defined so much of Poitier’s career. He was the first African American man to win an Oscar, in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. Poitier had a string of critical and box-office successes in the 1960s, playing detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night and starring in films tackling social issues, like To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, both in 1967. The latter film debuted only six months after interracial marriage was legalized in all states.
Beyond his screen roles, Poitier was involved in civil-rights activism, working with his close friend Harry Belafonte to help organize the March on Washington and later plan the memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination. He served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007; from 2002 to 2007, he also served as the Bahamian ambassador to UNESCO. He received an honorary Oscar in 2002, the same year Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made history as the first two Black performers to win leading roles in the same night. Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus Poitier; his daughters; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.
Actors and activists remember the impact of his work. “For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” said Belafonte in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.” Robert Redford “appreciated his kindness, elegance and his sense of humor” in a statement.
Washington told THR in a statement that Poitier was “a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years,” adding, “God bless him and his family.” From icons of Black Hollywood Whoopi Goldberg, Debbie Allen, Jeffrey Wright, and Viola Davis to a new generation of leading men like Colman Domingo, Billy Porter, and more, find tributes to Sidney Poitier below.
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