Sidney Poitier, the Oscar-winning actor who brought a quiet dignity to his characters on screen and helped break down the color barrier in Hollywood, has died at age 94.
Poitier’s death was confirmed by two Bahamian ministers. Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper told ABC News 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,” he said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell also told ABC News, “We’ve lost a great Bahamian and I’ve lost a personal friend.”
Poitier became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1964 for his role in Lilies of the Field. He was perhaps best known for his role as a Black doctor engaged to a white woman in 1967’s groundbreaking film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which he starred opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
That same year, Poitier portrayed his most successful character, Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, working alongside a racist white Southern police chief, played by Rod Steiger, in the crime drama In the Heat of the Night. It was a role Poitier would reprise in two sequels. His third film in 1967, To Sir, with Love, in which he played an inner-city teacher, helped take him to the top of the box office that year.
Born in Miami February 20, 1927, while his Bahamian parents were on vacation there, Poitier spent most of his childhood in the Bahamas. As a teen, he was sent to live with one of his brothers in Miami, and at age 16, moved on his own to New York City. After working a series of menial jobs and a brief stint in the Army, he finally landed a spot at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem.
Poitier made his film debut in 1950 in No Way Out, playing a doctor treating a white bigot. His breakthrough role came in 1955 playing a student in an inner-city school in Blackboard Jungle. By 1958, he had earned his first Academy Award nomination, starring in the crime drama The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis.
Other memorable Poitier film roles included the musical Porgy and Bess, the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, and A Patch of Blue.
Starting in the 1970s, Poitier directed a number of films, including Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do It Again, with Bill Cosby. In 1980, he directed the hit comedy Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
After retiring from acting in 1997, Poitier served as the non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan until 2007.
In 2002, 38 years after receiving his best actor Oscar, Poitier was given an honorary Academy Award for his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” In 2009, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
Poitier is survived by six daughters, four of whom he had with first wife Juanita Hardy. He is also survived by his current wife, Joanna Shimkus, the mother of two of his daughters, including actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
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