Trailblazing screen legend Sidney Poitier dies aged 94

Sidney Poitier, the actor and director whose groundbreaking performances in the 1950’s and 60’s paved the way for a generation of Black film stars, has died aged 94.

Poitier’s work in films such as To Sir With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In The Heat of the Night provided a focus on race relations and racism. He was the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1963 film Lilies of the Field. 

His death was announced by the Foreign Minister of the Bahamas. The country’s Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said he was  “conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier”.

“Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us.

“We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.” Cooper said.

Poitier’s family ran a tomato farm on Cat Island in Jamaica, it was during a trip to Miami in 1927 to sell their produce that Sidney arrived unexpectedly. He was born two months premature and was not expected to survive, but his parents remained in Miami for three months nursing him to health. His early arrival gave him US citizenship.

He grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas until he was 10 and the family moved to Nassau. It was the first time he encountered electricity, refrigeration, automobiles and films.

When he was fifteen he was sent to live with his brother’s large family in Miami, and the following year he moved to New York where he worked as a dishwasher.

During World War II he lied about his age to enlist in the US Army, he was assigned to work with patients in a mental institution in New York. Upset by how the hospital treated psychiatric patients he feigned his own mental illness to obtain a discharge. He confessed to a psychiatrist that he was faking his symptoms, but they doctor felt sorry for him and granted him the discharge.

He then started to find work as an actor in New York and worked his way  up to leading roles. In 1950 he had his first film role appearing in Daryl F. Zanuck’s No Way Out, and in 1951 travelled to South Africa to appear in Cry, the Beloved Country. His breakout role came in 1955 when he played Grergory W. Miller, a rebellious student in the film Blackboard Jungle. 

Poitier is remembered for a series of films he made with tackled the topic of racism. 1967’s To Sir With Love, based on the autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite, saw Poitier play a school teacher tackling a glass of troublesome students in a British High School. The same year he appeared alongside Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and mystery drama In The Heat of the Night. 

He would play the character of Virgil Tibbs, the detective from In the Heat of the Night, in two additional films 1970’s The Call Me Mister Tibbs, and 1971’s The Organization. 

In the 1970’s Poitier began directing, he helmed nine films between 1972 and 1990. Poitier often pulled double-duty starring and directing in many of his films. In 1980 he scored a massive hit. Stir Crazy starred comedians Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and while Poitier’s name is not in the credits, Pamela Poitier’s name is, with the actor appearing in a drag cameo.

After taking a love break from acting Poitier returned to the screen in the late 80’s and appeared in many memorable roles including the 1988 buddy cop movie Shoot to Kill, appearing alongside River Phoenix in Little Nikita, and the crime comedy Sneakers which starred Pointier, Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDowell, David Strathairn and River Phoenix.

Poitier’s final big screen role was playing FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston in the 1997 thriller The Jackal alongside Brice Willis and Richard Gere. He continued working on television with his final acting role being the 2001 television move The Last Brickmaker in America.

Pointier served as a board member of the Walt Disney Company from 1995 until 2003, and from 1997 until 2007 he served as the Bahamas ambassador to Japan, and between 2002 and 2007 was also the country’s ambassador to UNESCO.

In 2014 he appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony where he presented the award for Best Director, his appearance receiving a standing ovation from his colleagues. Alongside his many awards for acting, Poitier was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Kennedy Centre Honour, and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barrack Obama.

“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.” President Obama said of his passing.

Current President Joe Biden praised Poitier’s life saying “the trail he blazed extended leaps and bounds beyond his background or profession.”, while former President Bill Clinton said “Sidney Poitier changed Hollywood, America, and the world forever through his many unforgettable performances, and through the strength, grace, and dignity he radiated both on screen and off.” 

Actors Halle Berry, Jeffrey Wright, Debbie Allen, Kerry Washington, Mark Ruffalo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sam Neill were among the many people paying tribute to Poitier online.

Oprah Winfey, who had Poitier as a guest on her television program many times, said “one of the “Great Trees” has fallen: Sidney Poitier”.

Pointer is survived by his second wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkis, and their two daughters, alongside four daughters from his first marriage, his eight grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

OIP Staff

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