Hollywood icon Sidney Poitier who broke barriers for black actors dies at 94

Renowned Hollywood actor, director and activist Sidney Poitier, who took charge of the screen, reinvented culture and featured in classics such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for countless other black actors paved the way with ”, a source close to the family told NBC News on Friday, “has died.

He was 94 years old. The cause of death of the actor was not immediately disclosed.

In an illustrious film career spanning decades, Poitier has established himself as one of the finest actors in America. He made history as the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and at the peak of his fame, he became a major draw at the box-office.

Poitier, who rejected film roles based on offensive racial stereotypes, produced iconic, curious, 1960s titles such as “Lilies of the Field,” “A Patch of Blue,” “To Sir, with Love,” “In” earned praise for portraying wise men from Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

He said he felt a responsibility to represent black excellence at a time when most film stars were white and many black actors were cast away for subordinate or sly roles. He came to be seen as a tall politician in the film industry, celebrated for his social conscience and admired for his principled demeanor.

“I felt like I was representing 15, 18 million people with my every move,” Poitier once wrote About the experience of being the only black person on a film set.

He won a Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for his portrayal of a former soldier who helps an East German nun build a chapel in “Lilies of the Field”. The first black person to win that honor, he remained the only one until Denzel Washington in 2002—the same year Poitier received an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his remarkable achievements as an artist and a human.”

During his public life, Poitier was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, two Golden Globe Awards (including a lifetime achievement honor in 1982), and a Grammy for recounting his autobiography. “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography,” published in 2000.

Poitier was born prematurely on February 20, 1927, in Miami, to Bahamian parents, while he was on vacation in the United States. He grew up in the Bahamas, spending his early years on Cat Island around his father’s tomato farm, before the family relocated to Nassau. Teenage Poitier returned to America, where he enlisted in the US Army and briefly served in a medical unit.

He eventually made his way to New York City and discovered a passion for the performing arts. He applied to the American Negro Theatre, but was rejected because of his accent, so he spent the next several months practicing the American accent. When he reapplied, he was accepted into the company, and in 1946, he made his Broadway debut in “Lisistrata.”

Poitier made his debut in the 1950 film noir “No Way Out” and the following year appeared in “Cry, the Beloved Country”, a British film set in apartheid-era South Africa. He gained more attention as a troubled but musically gifted student at an inner-city high school in the 1955 play “Blackboard Jungle”.

He broke up with “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, teaming up with Tony Curtis for the story of two runaway prisoners forced to survive while bonding together. The film was a critical smash, and both Poitier and Curtis were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. (He lost to David Niven for “Different Table”.)

“The Defiant Ones” opened up exciting career opportunities for Poitier. He gained acclaim as the crippled beggar Porgy in Otto Preminger’s musical “Porgy and Bess” (1959), adapted from a George Gershwin opera, and as Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), set in Lorraine. Adapted from Play Gooseberry.

Gregory Peck, who presented the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress, Annabella, who accepted an Oscar for Patricia Neal for her role in the film Hud, Sidney Poitier, Best Actor for her performance in the film Lilies of the Field, and Actress Anne Bancroft, who presented Poitier an Oscar, backstage at the 1964 Academy Awards in Los Angeles.Bateman Archive

In the 1960s, Poitier took advantage of his Oscar wins for “Lilies in the Field” and his rising national celebrity. He refused roles based on racist caricatures and turned to films that celebrated the dignity, grace, intelligence and respect of the lead character.

When he began acting, he said in a 1967 interview, “The kind of negroes who acted on screen were always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling of butlers, really misfits. This was the background when I was 20. Years ago came and I decided not to be on the side of stereotypes.

“I want people to feel that life and human beings are meaningful when they leave the theater,” Poitier said. “That’s my only philosophy about the pictures I do.”

“A Patch of Blue”, released in 1965, was a path-breaking portrait of the relationship between Poitier’s educated office worker and Elizabeth Hartman’s blind white woman. This film established him as one of the major leading figures in Hollywood.

Two years later, in 1967, Poitier scored the most incredible run of his career. She played a tough but kind school teacher in “To Sir, With Love” in Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama “In the Heat of the Night” and a widower engaged to the daughter of white San Francisco liberals in “Guess”. played the role of. Who’s coming for dinner?”

Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the 1967 film “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner.”Courtesy Everett Collection

The three films addressed race relations with varying degrees of intensity. “In the Heat of the Night,” anchored by Poitier’s galvanizing performance (“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”), won the Oscar for Best Picture. When interracial marriage was still illegal in many states, the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was one of the few to portray interracial love favorably at the time.

However, Poitier’s work from this period drew its share of criticism. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, released as American film history, was on the cusp of a stylistic revolution (“Easy Rider,” “The Graduate,” and so on), impressing some audiences as immediately dated and square. Did. Poitier, for his part, was sometimes flawed at playing idealized characters with few personal weaknesses.

In the early 1970s, Poitier went behind the camera. He made his directorial debut with the western “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), casting himself alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. Poitier re-directed Belafonte on “Uptown Saturday Night”, where he was joined by comedian Bill Cosby.

Poitier directed Cosby in “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), “A Piece of the Action” (1977), and the family-gear misfire “Ghost Dad” (1990).

Poitier stepped away from acting for most of the 1980s, though he directed the hit Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor friend comedy “Stir Crazy” (1980) and joined Wilder two years later in “Hanky ​​Panky,” co-starring Re-casted for “Saturday Night Live”. “Alum Gilda Radner.

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House on August 12, 2009.Jay Scott Applewhite / AP File

In the late 1980s, Poitier returned to acting, starring in both “Shoot to Kill” and “Little Nikita,” released in 1988. He made a memorable supporting turn in the cult comedy “Sneakers” (1992), and he went on to play Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela in made-for-TV movies.

By the 2000s, Poitier had effectively retired from screen acting, but he remained creatively productive. He published the autobiography “The Major of a Man” in 2000; A follow-up book, “Life Beyond Major: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter,” in 2008; And in 2013 a novel, “Montaro Cane”.

He served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan for a decade from 1997 to 2007, and he continues to inspire young talent in the performing arts.

Poitier is survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus, a retired Canadian actress; and six daughters: two – Anika and Sidney Tamiya – with Shimkus; and four – Beverly, Pamela, Sherry and Gina – with his first wife, Juanita Hardy.