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Sidney Poitier, Who Blazed a Path for Black Actors in Hollywood, Has Died at 94


LOS ANGELES—Sidney Poitier, a trailblazing movie star in the racially charged 1950s and 1960s who became the first Black actor to command top billing in Hollywood films and win an Oscar for a leading role, has died. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, an official with the Bahamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said it was confirmed by a member of the nation’s consulate corps in California.

After moving to New York City as a teenager and struggling as a jack-of-all-trades sporting a Bahamian accent, Mr. Poitier broke into the city’s vibrant theater scene. His career took a meteoric rise when he transitioned from theater to the big screen and Hollywood stardom, as filmmakers began tackling issues of race head on during the early years of the Civil Rights movement.

Mr. Poitier made an impression on moviegoers with a trademark delivery that was both charming and dignified regardless of how tense the scene was. His Hollywood career spanned more than five decades as he excelled as both an actor and director, knocking down many of the barriers which had stood in the way of Black performers who came before him.

Whether he was playing a physician meeting his white fiancée’s parents for the first time in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” or a Philadelphia homicide detective forced to team up with a bigoted Mississippi police chief to solve a murder in “In the Heat of the Night,” Mr. Poitier’s roles both entertained and challenged racial stereotypes.

With many of his early movie roles, Mr. Poitier waded into America’s ongoing conversation about race and equality. The nation’s divisiveness on race issues, laid bare by the Civil Rights movement, was approaching a fever-pitch just as his career took flight in the late 1950s.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., actor Harry Belafonte, labor organizer Asa Philip Randolph and Sidney Poitier, in a portrait dating from around 1960.



Photo:

Glasshouse/Zuma Press

“Poitier was Hollywood’s lone icon of racial enlightenment,” wrote Aram Goudsouzian in his 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” assessing the actor’s early impact. He pointed to the unique qualities of Mr. Poitier’s performances, writing that his “cool boil struck a delicate balance, revealing racial frustration, but tacitly assuring a predominantly white audience that blacks would eschew violence and preserve social order.”

Making his big-screen debut in the 1950 film “No Way Out,” Mr. Poitier captivated audiences and Hollywood producers with his cool demeanor and graceful intensity in the role of a young doctor bombarded with racial slurs. Then in 1959, starring alongside Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones,” he became the first Black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in a leading role.

Mr. Poitier made cinematic history five years later when he was the first Black actor to win the award, for his portrayal of a traveling handyman who answers the prayers of five white nuns in “Lilies of the Field.”

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Sidney Poitier won his best actor Oscar for his 1963 performance in ‘Lilies of the Field,’ as an unemployed construction worker who befriends nuns in the American West.



Photo:

United Artists/Entertainment Pictures/Zuma Press

“I was happy for me, but I was also happy for the ‘folks,’” Mr. Poitier later wrote in “This Life,” a memoir published in 1980. “We black people had done it. We were capable. We forget sometimes, having to persevere against unspeakable odds, that we are capable of infinitely more than the culture is yet willing to credit to our account.”

It took nearly 40 years before a Black actor repeated Mr. Poitier’s feat. When Denzel Washington nabbed his Oscar for best actor in 2002, he paid tribute to Mr. Poitier’s accomplishments. “Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country,” said Mr. Washington. “But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture. He was the reason a movie got made; the first solo, above-the-title, African-American movie star.”

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Mr. Poitier with his Oscar at the 1964 ceremony with French actress Annabella (who accepted the best actress award for winner Patricia Neal), flanked by presenters Gregory Peck and Anne Bancroft.



Photo:

Associated Press

Mr. Poitier’s star power often made the difference in getting a movie off the ground. Throughout the early part of his career he held his own opposite Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Glenn Ford, some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 1960s.

Few if any of them sprouted from more humble beginnings than Mr. Poitier, born in 1927, two months premature. His parents, tomato farmers in Miami, Fla., feared the three-pound infant’s life would be cut short. His father purchased a coffin the size of a shoe box. His mother sought the counsel of a fortune teller.

Mr. Poitier later wrote of the encounter, recalling the soothsayer’s words to his mother: “He will survive and he will not be a sickly child,” his mother had told him. “He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous.”

Mr. Poitier survived those precarious first days and grew up healthy and isolated on remote Cat Island in the Bahamas. Mr. Poitier was raised in a three-room stone hut with an outhouse out back.

With most authority figures on the small island either Black or of mixed race, Mr. Poitier grew up free of the systemic racism and segregation he would later confront in the U.S.

Born in Florida, Mr. Poitier was a U.S. citizen. At age 16, he decided to move to New York City. After a brief stop in Miami, he was alone in the vast metropolis. Hamstrung by poor reading skills, he bounced from one low-wage job to the next before joining the Army and serving briefly in a medical unit stationed stateside during World War II.

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Mr. Poitier in 1983 with his wife, the Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus, and their daughters, Sydney and Anika, at an opening in Los Angeles.



Photo:

Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Mr. Poitier didn’t like the Army and secured a discharge; then, on impulse, he auditioned for the American Negro Theater company in Harlem. Although he claimed to possess acting experience, he was promptly shown the door after struggling to read some lines and delivering them in his pronounced Bahamian accent.

Discouraged, Mr. Poitier committed himself to both learning to read and refining his speech. The young man listened to the radio for hours on end, mimicking the broadcasters’ clear diction and pace, and retooled his voice, eventually affecting the silky, unidentifiable accent that would later become his trademark.

The makeup of Mr. Poitier’s roles changed over time, in parallel with U.S. society’s evolving perception of Black Americans.

In 1950’s “No Way Out,” Mr. Poitier as a doctor refuses to respond physically when the film’s white antagonist spits in his face. In 1967, playing a confident Philadelphia detective in “In the Heat of the Night,” he retaliates after being assaulted, slapping a white Southern aristocrat in the face. That same year, Mr. Poitier also played a teacher leading a class of troublemaking students in “To Sir, with Love”; more than a decade earlier, in 1955, he played the part of a rebellious student causing problems for a white teacher in “Blackboard Jungle.”


Sidney Poitier directed ‘Stir Crazy,’ a hit comedy in the 1980s starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

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Mr. Poitier didn’t limit himself to acting. He also directed several Hollywood films, including “Stir Crazy,” the 1980 box-office hit starring comedic heavyweights Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Mr. Poitier proved to be an accomplished writer, publishing a handful of books including a New York Times best-selling memoir.

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Sidney Poitier received the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2009.



Photo:

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

Mr. Poitier returned to acting in the 1980s and 1990s, playing historical figures

Nelson Mandela

and Thurgood Marshall in made-for-television movies. He received Emmy nominations for both roles.

Married twice, Mr. Poitier had six children. From 1997 to 2007, he served as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan and met Japanese Emperor Akihito. U.S. President

Barack Obama

awarded Mr. Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, noting the actor’s impact on fostering improved racial tolerance through the roles he chose to play.

Several years before receiving the presidential honor, Mr. Poitier both acknowledged his Hollywood history and offered advice to future generations.

“Those of us that go before you glance back with satisfaction and leave you with a simple trust,” he said at a 1992 event held in his honor. “Be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey.”

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Sidney Poitier and his daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier at the 2014 Oscars ceremony.



Photo:

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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