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Barrier-breaking Sidney Poitier, 1st Black actor to win Best Actor Oscar, dead at 94

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Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing leading man who in the Civil Rights era loomed as large as an inspirational figure as he did a movie star, died Thursday. He was 94.

The family confirmed his death on Friday after the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs first shared the news. "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," his family said in a statement.

"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. ... Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us."

In 1964, Poitier became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar.

HOLYYWOOD, CA  MARCH 24:    Actor Sidney Poitier holds his Oscar statuete backstage at the 74th Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., March 24, 2002. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/GettyImages)
Sidney Poitier, at the 2002 Academy Awards, has died. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/GettyImages)

Poitier's film credits include In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones and Lillies of the Field. All but the latter, which brought Poitier the Academy Award, were explicitly about the defining topic of his career, if not his times: race.

To Black artists who came of age during Poitier's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the actor was their North Star. Poitier was, after all, not merely mainstream Hollywood's first Black movie star; in the mid-20th century, he was the only Black movie star.

"He meant everything to me," Denzel Washington, the first Black actor since Poitier to claim Best Actor, said at the 1992 American Film Institute tribute to his mentor. "He was a positive example of elegance and good taste."

Poitier's grace was exhibited under intense pressure. If his films weren't being banned by local (white) governments, then his rise to box-office prominence was taken down a notch by (Black) critics who saw his movie roles as too accommodating.

"I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people," Poitier said in 1989. "It was a terrific burden."

Born Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, Poitier was raised in the Bahamas. As an impoverished young teen, he returned to Florida, and for the first time was confronted with the racial-segregation laws that then ruled the South. Poitier soon moved north to New York City.

There, he scraped by as a dishwasher and janitor. He was in and out of the Army. At the end of his rope, he wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked for $100 so he could return to the Bahamas. He never heard back from the White House. Instead, he found Harlem's American Negro Theatre, the launching pad of Black stars such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte. While going on stage in place of Belafonte, his future lifelong friend and fellow trailblazer, he caught a producer's eye. In 1946, at age 19, he made his Broadway debut.

Poitier's fortunes were changing about as rapidly as United States society. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In 1948, the U.S. Army was ordered to end segregation in its ranks. And in 1950, the 24-year-old Poitier played a doctor in his first major Hollywood film, No Way Out.

(Photo: Everett Collection)
Sidney Poitier (Photo: Everett Collection)

Poitier was not naive to think his breakthrough was anything but a beginning, and a fitful one at that. Cities such as Chicago banned No Way Out fearing its storyline, which pitted Poitier's character against white racists, "could cause trouble." Poitier, meanwhile, felt stunted by the same stereotypes that had always stunted Black film actors.

"Hollywood as a rule still doesn't want to portray us as anything but butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners or maids," Poitier told the New York Times in 1951.

Poitier exerted control over his career the only way he could: He said "no."

"I decided in my life that I would do nothing that did not reflect positively on my father's life. That is where I got the 'I will not do this, I will not do that.' I just said no," Poitier said to the Associated Press in 1999.

Early movies Poitier said "yes" to included 1954's Blackboard Jungle, a classroom drama that introduced audiences to rock 'n' roll and juvenile delinquents; and, 1958's The Defiant Ones, a parable about a Black convict (Poitier) and a white convict (Tony Curtis) who are forced to work things out when they are literally chained together.

(Photo: Everett Collection)
Poitier in 1967's In the Heat of the Night. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Poitier was nominated for Best Actor for The Defiant Ones, a historic nod. He was only the fourth African American to crack the acting categories (after Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and Ethel Waters); he was the first-ever African American male to do so.

For Poitier, though, there was almost always a price to pay for success: In order to land The Defiant Ones, for instance, he had to agree to star in the big-screen adaptation of Porgy and Bess, the George and Ira Gershwin musical that introduced standards such as "Summertime," but long troubled African-Americans with its depiction of poor, Black Southerners. Prior to Poitier coming on board, Belafonte rejected the movie, indicating he'd never play any role that required him to "spend all his time on his knees."

Porgy and Bess underwhelmed at the 1959 box office, but it and the Defiant Ones Oscar nomination definitively established Poitier as a movie star. It was lonely at the top.

"To be the only Black person on the entire [studio] lot except for the shoeshine boy," Poitier said in 1987. "It invited an excruciating sense of responsibility."In 1959, Poitier triumphantly returned to New York to star in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. He likewise headlined the 1961 film version.

In 1963, Poitier became the "the first solo, above-the-title movie star," as Washington put it at the 2002 Oscars, with Lillies of the Field. The feel-good drama about a drifter (Poitier) who helps nuns build a chapel was a popular and critical hit, and it won Poitier his groundbreaking Oscar.

"It is a long journey to this moment," a beaming Poitier said as he accepted the Best Actor statuette.

Lillies of the Field set the template for much of what would follow from Poitier in the 1960s: He would play a good man, and often the only Black man in an all-white world; he would mentor or help the film's white protagonists. Signature Poitier movies such as To Sir With Love, A Patch of Blue and The Slender Thread all fit the bill.

A famous 1967 New York Times piece by playwright Clifford Mason, who is Black, held up the model as an indictment of what was wrong with Hollywood, if not Poitier's career.

"He remains unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the anti-septic, one-dimensional hero...[who makes] that fateful decision to solve the problem for 'them,' good n***er that he is," Mason wrote in "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?"

Another memorable broadside was launched in 1969 by Times critic Vincent Canby, who was white, and who wrote, "Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones." The barbs came as the Civil Rights movement was moving from sit-ins to Black-power rallies, as the studio system was giving way to New Hollywood (not to mention the Blaxploitation era), and as Poitier was turning 40 amid a youth culture that was said to distrust anyone over the age of 30.

Shifting ground or no, Poitier held steady.

"I know of no movie star who is a 'heavy' or a 'villain,'" Poitier said in 1968.

That same year, Poitier topped the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when he was ranked the No. 1 box-office draw by the nation's movie-theater owners on the strength of the hits Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night.

Poitier's subsequent films weren't necessarily the stuff of Oscar-night montages, but they reflected his growing power: For Love of Ivy cast Poitier as a romantic lead opposite an African American actress (Abbey Lincoln); They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization had Poitier fronting a franchise (spun off from In the Heat of the Night); Buck and the Preacher, costarring Belafonte, marked his directing debut.

Throughout the 1970s, Poitier focused more on filmmaking than acting. In all, he directed nine films, including the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder hit, Stir Crazy. He costarred with and directed Bill Cosby in a trio of popular 1970s caper-comedies, Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action. He also directed the infamous Cosby flop, Ghost Dad, his final film as director.

Poitier stepped away from the spotlight to write his first memoir, My Life, published in 1980. (A second, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, came out in 2000.)

Poitier returned to acting in the late 1980s. Latter-day credits included Sneakers and The Jackal.

This period also saw Poitier win a Grammy (for his audio recording of Measure of a Man), and earn Primetime Emmy acting nominations for the TV docudramas, Separate But Equal and Mandela and de Klerk.

In his final act, Poitier mostly loomed as a revered elder statesman. He took pride in seeing the rise of African American stars such as Washington; he did not enter the fray when Hollywood's continued lack of diversity was debated.

An unflashy star, Poitier only rarely made off-screen headlines: There was an affair and on-and-off engagement with singer-actress Diahann Carroll that spanned the 1960s, and ended both his and her first marriages; and, there was a scam, memorialized in the play and film, Six Degrees of Separation, that saw a con man charm Manhattan society by pretending to be Poitier's son.

When Cosby, Poitier's longtime friend, was accused of being a serial rapist, a Poitier source let it be known in the tabloid press that Poitier was "terribly disgusted." Poitier did not comment on the matter publicly.

In addition to the AFI tribute, Poitier was presented with an honorary Oscar (on the same night Washington picked up his Best Actor statuette), and celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In 2016, Poitier was honored by the British Film Institute. Said to be too ill to jet to London, Poitier, elegant-looking as ever in a tuxedo, virtually accepted the award from his Los Angeles home. Jamie Foxx, another Oscar-winning actor who benefitted from Poitier's groundbreaking career, stood by the elder star, as did Poitier's daughter, actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Chicago P.D.).

"Sydney Poitier is the great example of what it means to live your life with integrity and power and grace," presenter Oprah Winfrey told the BAFTA audience.

Poitier was married twice. His second marriage, to actress Joanna Shimkus, his costar from 1969's The Lost Man, endured from 1976 to his death.

Long before his death, and long before his career wound down, Poitier's legacy was assured: He was the first. He was the only. Against all odds, he'd found a way.

"Back then," he once said, "no route had been established for where I was hoping to go."