Sidney Poitier; the ground-breaking Bahamian-American actor, film director, activist, and ambassador that was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964, has passed away. He was 94.

Throughout his illustrious career as an actor; he received two Academy Award nominations, ten Golden Globes nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, six BAFTA nominations, eight Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG) nomination.

Early Life

Born to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He was the youngest of seven children. Raised in the Bahamas where his parents owned a farm on Cat Island, the family would often travel to Miami selling tomatoes and other produce as their livelihood.

They did this until Sidney was ten years old when they left Cat Island and moved to Nassau. It was there where he saw his first car, first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and most importantly, motion pictures. He then moved to New York and did a few odd jobs until WW2 came around.

Interestingly enough, he had lied about his age when he enlisted and was assigned to a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Northport, New York, where he was trained to work with psychiatric patients. Horrified at the treatment of the patients at his assigned station, he didn’t last long in the military and feigned a mental illness to acquire a Section VIII discharge from the Army.

When he left the army, he went to work as a dishwasher until he got a big break when he landed a role in an American Negro Theater production.

Early Career

His “early start” in the theaters wasn’t really something to write home about. It was pretty much a disaster because critics at the time considered him “tone deaf” whenever he sang – so much that even he admitted it to himself. Despite the setbacks, he strived to refine his acting skills. He worked to remove his Bahamian accent for half a year doing so. During this time, he was noticed and landed a leading role in the Broadway production of Lysistrata – which was a flop, but not his fault this time.

And while the play itself was a flop, his talent was noticeable enough for him to be invited as an understudy to Anna Lucasta – which was inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. The original play was written about a Polish American family. The American Negro Theatre director Abram Hill and director Harry Wagstaff Gribble adapted the script for an all-African American cast by Philip Yordan. They presented their first performance on June 16, 1944 – then the play moved from Harlem to Broadway’s Mansfield Theatre, running August 30, 1944 – November 30, 1946.

During the early 1950’s, Poitier did more theater work until he traveled to South America with the African-American actor Canada Lee to star in the film version of Cry, the Beloved Country – his first-ever cited transition to a film role.

His first breakout role was in 1955 as Gregory W. Miller in Blackboard Jungle – which led to more lucrative roles onwards.

It was in 1958 where he starred alongside Tony Curtis in director Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones. The film landed critical acclaim and eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor nominations for both stars, making Poitier the first Black male actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award as best actor.

On a side note, Poitier did win the British Academy Film Award for Best Foreign Actor for that one.

Making History

In 1963, he starred in the film “Lilies of the Field” that made history as he was the first African-American to win the prestigious Academy Award for Best Actor one year later. And in 2020, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film told the story of an itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns, who believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel.

In 1964, Anne Bancroft presents Sidney Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field at the 36th Academy Awards. Hosted by Jack Lemmon.

Later Works

One of his most recognizable (and notable character) in his career was as Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi in the film “In The Heat of the Night”.

The quote “They call me Mister Tibbs!” was listed as number 16 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes, a list of top film quotes. The film also appears on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, a list of the 100 greatest movies in American cinema. 

He later started directing as well. His feature film directorial debut in 1972, was the Western Buck and the Preacher, in which Poitier also starred, alongside Harry Belafonte.  Poitier also directed and starred in the romance drama A Warm December. Then Uptown Saturday Night in 1974. 

One of his more notable films was the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy in 1980 – which was the highest-grossing film directed by a person of African descent at that time for many years.

Ambassador Work

When not acting and directing, Poitier served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company from 1995 to 2003. Poitier was also appointed as ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan, a position which he held from 1997 until 2007.  And from 2002 to 2007, he was concurrently the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO.

Family Legacies

Sidney was first married to Juanita Hardy from April 29, 1950, until 1965. In 1959, Poitier began a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll.  He later married Joanna Shimkus, a Canadian former actress, on January 23, 1976, and they remained married for the rest of his life.

On January 6, 2022, a source close to Poitier’s family confirmed the actor’s death to The Hollywood Reporter, though no cause was given.

Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said at a press conference on Friday and said: “It is with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier. Our whole Bahamas grieves and extends our deepest condolences to his family, but even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian. A cultural icon, an actor and film director, civil and human rights activist, and lastly, a diplomat. We admire the man not only because of his cultural achievement, but also because of who he was: his strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted, and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey.” 

He is survived by his children. He had four daughters with his first wife – Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina. He had two children with his second – Anika and Sydney Tamiia Poitier – who also followed in her father’s footsteps as an actress. His many contributions to theater and film helped pave the way for many African-American actors in the entertainment industry.

According to Denzel Washington:

“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. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture”.

May you rest in peace, sir, on a life well-lived.

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