Iconic Actor, Civil Rights Trailblazer and Academy Award Winner Sidney Poitier Passes Away At 94! RIP.
Sidney Poitier Dies: Trailblazing Actor, Civil Rights Activist Was 94
Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing and iconic actor, director, civil rights activist and humanitarian, has died, the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced Friday.
Details of his death were not immediately available.
The first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor — for 1964’s Lilies of the Field — Poitier was towering figure in Hollywood and beyond, starring in such classics as A Raisin in the Sun, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir With Love, to name a select few, while taking on a global profile for his unceasing calls for civil rights, racial equality and human dignity.
Offscreen, Poitier’s work and support for civil rights in the 1960s put him at the forefront of the movement and made him one of its most prominent public faces. He attended, along with his lifelong friend Harry Belafonte, the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s delivered the historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1967, King would say of Poitier, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”
“He was to Hollywood what Jackie Robinson was to baseball,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton today. “He broke the color barrier at the top level. The first Black to win an Oscar for acting. And I think that this country, this world and certainly the world of cinema could never pay the debt that is owed to Sidney Poitier.”
Born into a large Bahamian family while his parents were visiting Miami, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas but moved to America when he was 15, settling in New York City a year later. He later joined the North American Negro Theatre, beginning a stage career that would reach a peak in 1959 with his powerful, Tony-nominated performance as Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. As an inner-city Chicago man struggling to provide for his family and faced with the decision of how to spend an inheritance, Poitier gave a career-making performance that he would reprise in the now-classic 1961 film version.
Poitier would return to Broadway, briefly, as a director in 1968 with the short-lived racial satire Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, starring Louis Gosset, Cicely Tyson, Johnny Brown, Diane Ladd and David Steinberg. But it was in film that the actor and director would make his most profound mark. As early as 1950, Poitier was being courted by Hollywood with a role in No Way Out. Within five years he was starring in Blackboard Jungle.
Three years after his breakthrough role in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was co-starring with top Hollywood draws like Tony Curtis, with whom Poitier appeared in The Defiant Ones. Both Poitier and Curtis were Oscar-nominated for the 1958 film – Poitier’s first and the first nomination for a Black actor. Poitier would win the award six years later, for his indelible performance as a handyman building a chapel for a group of nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963).
Poitier’s groundbreaking early-career performances included roles in Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and, in 1965, A Patch of Blue.
From the start of his Hollywood career, Poitier’s roles – in Blackboard Jungle, A Raisin in the Sun, Lillies of the Field and A Patch of Blue – dealt head-on with issues of race, a theme that would continue to define his career choices and raised the bar for depictions of social justice and racial equality. The actor’s performances in To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night – all in 1967 – were revolutionary in their presentations of Black men as strong and heroic figures of immense dignity, portrayals that would set a standard that continues to this day.
In To Sir, With Love, Poitier played Mark Thackeray, a teacher from British Guyana who wins over a classroom of unruly and racist students in London’s East End. His role as half of an interracial couple in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was Hollywood’s first major depiction of such a relationship (and included the first kiss between a Black man and white woman in a major film), and In the Heat of the Night included a then-shocking scene of Poitier’s character, Detective Virgil Tibbs, responding to being slapped by a white man in the Deep South by slapping him back. Poitier’s powerful delivery of a line of dialogue in the film – “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” – was a defining moment for the movie and a rallying cry for justice and respect within the culture at large. (The phrase would become the title of the film’s 1970 sequel, also starring Poitier.)
In the 1970s, Poitier’s role pivoted to comedy and expanded to directing; he took on both duties for the hugely popular films Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977). The shift to comedy directing reached an apex in 1980 with the massive hit Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryer and Gene Wilder, a movie that ushered in a decade-long public fascination with mismatched buddy comedies.
Stir Crazy also was the first film from a Black director to gross $100 million.
Hanky Panky, starring Wilder and Gilda Radner, followed in 1982, Fast Forward in 1985 and, in 1990, his final directorial effort, the unsuccessful Ghost Dad starring Bill Cosby.
In 1991, he starred in the TV miniseries Separate But Equal as Thurgood Marshall, and in 1992 starred in Sneakers with Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix. Subsequent credits would include the TV-movie sequel To Sir, With Love II in 1996, The Jackal in 1997 and, for his final credit, the 2001 TV film The Last Brickmaker in America.
Among his many honors and awards, Poitier received the Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in film in 2001, and in 1992 received the AFI Life Achievement Award. He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974.
Poitier also was active in the Directors Guild. He was a member of the its Eastern Directors Council in the 1970s, and the DGA African American Steering Committee honored Poitier for his many contributions in 2001.
Poitier chronicled his own life in the 1980 memoir This Life, following up with The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000) and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008).
In December, a group of Broadway producers, including Poitier’s daughter Anika Poitier, announced that The Measure of a Man will be adapted into a stage play titled Sidney, to be written by Charles Randolph-Wright and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (casting, creative team and production timeline will be announced at a later date.)
In addition to Anika Poitier, survivors include the actor’s wife Joanna Shimkus. Complete details on survivors was not immediately available.
Deadline further reported the Poitier family’s statement on his passing.
Sidney Poitier Family Statement: “A Devoted And Loving Husband, Adoring Father, Always Put Family First”
Following a day of tributes to the actor Sidney Poitier, his large family has issued a more personal statement on their fond memories of his warm relations with them. They also noted that his faith in humanity never faltered, “…so know that for all the love you’ve shown him, he loved you back.
Statement from the Poitier family:
“There are no words to convey the deep sense of loss and sadness we are feeling right now. We are so grateful he was able to spend his last day surrounded by his family and friends. To us Sidney Poitier was not only a brilliant actor, activist, and a man of incredible grace and moral fortitude, he was also a devoted and loving husband, a supportive and adoring father, and a man who always put family first. He is our guiding light who lit up our lives with infinite love and wonder. His smile was healing, his hugs the warmest refuge, and his laughter was infectious.
“We could always turn to him for wisdom and solace and his absence feels like a giant hole in our family and our hearts. Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us. He will live on in us, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren—in every belly laugh, every curious inquiry, every act of compassion and kindness. His legacy will live on in the world, continuing to inspire not only with his incredible body of work, but even more so with his humanity.
“We would like to extend our deepest appreciation to every single one of you for the outpouring of love from around the world. So many have been touched by our dad’s extraordinary life, his unwavering sense of decency and respect for his fellow man. His faith in humanity never faltered, so know that for all the love you’ve shown him, he loved you back.”