Sidney Poitier, Film Legend and First Black Man to Win Best Actor Oscar, Dies at Age 94
By Latifah Muhammad
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Sidney Poitier Dies at 94
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Sir Sidney Poitier, Oscar-winning actor, writer, director and activist, has died. Clint Watson, press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed Poitier's death to ET on Friday.
A source close to the family tells ET that Poitier had been bedridden for some time and passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California. The actor's rep also tells ET that his family was by his side at the time of his death.
The film and TV icon made history in 1964 as the first Black actor, and the first Bahamian, to win an Oscar and Golden Globe in a leading role, which he earned for Lilies of the Field. He became one of Hollywood’s leading men starring in a heap of classic films including,To Sir With Love, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The Bahamian-American actor was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927. Although he was born during his parents’ visit to the mainland, Poitier, the youngest of seven children, grew up on Cat Island, and in Nassau, Bahamas. He had very little schooling as a child and headed back to Miami at 15 to live with his brother. But he left because of the “blatant” racism that he experienced in Florida.
Decades later, Poitier opened up to Oprah Winfrey about how his upbringing helped him battle racial dogmas.
“I was taught that I had basic rights as a human being,” he explained at the time. “I was taught that I was someone. I knew we had no money, still I was taught that I was someone. We had no electricity and no running water, still I was taught that I was someone. I had very little education — a year and a half was all the schooling I was exposed to — still I knew that I was someone.”
At age 16, Poitier moved to New York City and enlisted in the U.S. army in 1943 (he lied about his age to enroll). He was discharged the following year. After leaving the service, Poitier took a job as a dishwasher before landing an audition with the American Negro Theater in Harlem, New York.
In order to follow his acting dreams, Poitier became determined to lose his heavy Caribbean accent. He listened to news broadcasters to change his voice and eventually joined the North American Negro Theater, although he wasn’t immediately embraced due to his lack of a singing voice and reading challenges. Poitier dedicated himself to building a name in theater, and landed a role in the four-day Broadway production of Lysistrata. He made his film debut in the 1950 release of No Way Out, followed by Cry, the Beloved Country and Blackboard Jungle, which isabout a white teacher working in a Black neighborhood (many of Poitier’s early roles were centered around racial topics).
At the time, the U.S. was still in the throws of segregation, and despite breaking barriers on screen, Poitier and other black actors weren’t allowed to share the same spaces as their white counterparts. Nonetheless, Poitier became the first Black male actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for The Defiant Ones, a 1958 film co-starring Tony Curtis. The two portrayed escaped inmates shackled to one another, thus forcing them to work together in order to get around. But criticism over racial tokenism began to overshadow Poitier’s feats, and his Oscar nomination. As a result, Poitier didn’t work much for about a year after the film. In 1959, he starred in Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway play A Raisin the Sun, and later in the 1961 film adaptation.
Throughout the ’60’s, Poitier took on a string of film roles that helped solidify him as a box-office hit. Among them, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. The latter film became one of his most popular roles, as detective Virgil Tibbs, a quick-witted character who eventually expanded to his own spinoff films.
As one of the only mainstream Black actors of the time, Poitier used his celebrity to bring attention to civil rights issues and worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (he was among the attendees of the 1963 March on Washington) but continued to find himself under intense scrutiny. Black audiences criticized him for portraying romanticized versions of Black characters, and while he did attempt to bring complexities to the characters, he feared being pigeonholed. Poitier felt conflicted between taking jobs amid a scarcity of roles, and paying attention to the representation of Black characters in films that were typically written, produced, and directed by whites.
“It was a strange time for me,” he told the Guardian in 2000 while promoting his autobiography, Measure of a Man. “I lived in a country where I couldn't live where I wanted to live. I lived in a country where I couldn't go where I wanted to eat. I lived in a country where I couldn't get a job, except for those put aside for people of my color or caste.”
Poitier sought out to play more versatile characters, even if that meant passing on gigs like the lead in NBC’s Othello, which he rejected in 1966. Nearly a decade earlier, Poitier almost turned down an offer to co-star in Porgy and Bess out of fear that if the role wasn’t handled properly, the end result could be “injurious to Negroes.”
He went on to star in the film as Porgy, a disabled and impoverished Black man struggling to survive in Charleston, North Carolina. The all-Black cast included Dorothy Dandridge (as Bess), Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll. Despite criticism, the Otto Primenger-directed film made millions at the box office, earned multiple Oscar nods and took home the Golden Globe for Best Picture.
With another hit film to his name, the ‘60s became a triumphant era for Poitier’s career. He was a regular face on the big screen, appearing in many of his most memorable films, and winning an Oscar. He kept up the momentum with They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, both spin-offs from In the Heat of the Night. In 1972, Poitier made his directorial debut in Buck and the Preacher starring his good friend, Harry Belafonte, who he first met at the Negro Theater. Poitier also directed and starred in Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action.
In the midst of building his career, Poitier attempted to settle down. He married Juanita Hardy in 1950, and welcomed four daughters: Beverly, Sherri, Pamela, and Gina. But the marriage ended in 1965 because of Poitier’s nine-year affair with Carroll, his former co-star who was married to musician Monte Kay at the time.
“[Carroll] asked me to move out of my home, and I did,” he recalled to PEOPLE magazine in 1980. “She asked me to get a divorce. I went to Mexico and got one. I made one request: to live together for six months while Diahann’s parents looked after her daughter so I wouldn’t be jumping from one marriage straight into another. But she wouldn’t do it. It was then that our relationship started to unravel.”
Poitier married his second wife, Joanna Shimkus, in 1976. The pair welcomed two daughters together, Anika and Sydney Tamiia.
As Black exploitation films began to rise in the industry, Poitier’s career underwent a shift that continued through the ‘80s and ‘90s. He appeared in only a handful of major motion pictures including the crime dramas Shoot to Kill, Nikita, and The Jackal alongside Bruce Willis and Richard Gere. He also starred in TV productions of To Sir, with Love II and Separate But Equal. The latter film, where he portrayed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, earned him an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination. In 1997, Poitier received another Emmy nod for playing Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk.
Besides acting on film and directing a number of films, Poitier narrated several documentaries. He is also a recipient of the coveted Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, multiple NAACP Image Awards, an honorary Oscar, an NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame honor and two GRAMMYs.
Additionally, Poitier served as ambassador to the Bahamas, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and became a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation's highest civilian honor. He received BAFTA’s outstanding lifetime achievement fellowship in 2016.
Poitier is survived by his wife and six daughters.
Poitier's impact on the acting world is definitely still being felt today. In a recent interview with Variety, fellow Oscar-winner Denzel Washington said Poitier was the one actor he wish he collaborated with.
"God bless him," Washington said. "He's still here. But yeah, I missed that opportunity."
"Beneath the surface of all of his work, underlying all of his work was the cry for, the plea for, the working towards racial justice in the world in a way that he was able to humanize Black people," she said.
She got emotional when looking back on Poitier’s historic Oscar win for Lilies of the Field and explained how it laid the groundwork for her own groundbreaking career.
"When I tell you profoundly, I could start weeping right now, I was profoundly, deeply, sincerely moved by that moment," she said. "We were being called colored people at the time. [And] I had never seen a colored man look like that or present like that. And I just thought if he could do that, I wonder what I could do."
"And because he did that, I was able to do what I have been able to do in the world, and every single other Black person who followed," she continued. It only happened because he was able not just to do that, but to be that. It's what he represented: his dignity, integrity, presence, grace, sense of honor, choice of characters only doing, and choosing roles that were going to reflect the best of what a Black person could be in the world."