The Oscar-winning actor, memorable in such films as ‘Lilies of the Field,’ ‘To Sir, With Love’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ broke barriers and served as an inspiration for generations.
Sidney Poitier, the noble leading man whose work in such films as No Way Out, Lilies of the Field and In the Heat of the Night paved the way for minority actors and actresses everywhere, has di’ed. He was 94.
Poitier di;ed Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills, a rep for his family told The Hollywood Reporter.
Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor when he was acknowledged for his portrayal of a good-hearted handyman for Arizona nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963).
He received an earlier best actor nomination for his turn as a convict on the run in The Defiant Ones (1958).
In 2002, he received an honorary Oscar from the Academy “for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the motion picture industry with dignity, style and intelligence throughout the world.”
Poitier was the first actor to star in mainstream Hollywood movies that depicted a Black man in a non-stereotypical fashion, and his influence, especially during the 1950s and ’60s as role model and image-maker, was immeasurable.
His deliberate and lilting voice contained grace and his mesmeric manner made him one of the most beloved stars in Hollywood history.
Poitier also was the first Black actor to become the nation’s top box office draw, attaining that distinction in 1967 when he starred in three memorable films: To Sir, With Love, as a teacher in London; In the Heat of the Night, as Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, as the fiance of a white woman. All were benchmark performances.
“I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy — as was the case at Metro. I was the lone guy in town,” he told Newsweek in 1988.
Since his big-screen debut as an extra in 1947, Poitier appeared in more than 40 films, including Blackboard Jungle (1955) and the landmark A Raisin in the Sun (1961).
In 1969, Poitier teamed with Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand (later joined by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) to launch the independent production company First Artists, broadening his talents to include writing and directing.
He guided Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the box office hit Stir Crazy (1980) and directed other films like the comedy Hanky Panky (1982) and the musical Fast Forward (1985).
Poitier was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927. His parents traveled back and forth from Cat Island in the Bahamas to Miami, where they sold tomatoes from their small farm. A complication in his mother’s pregnancy forced her to enter a hospital, where she delivered Poitier prematurely.
As a child, Poitier had just two years of formal schooling. Around age 11, he became fascinated with movies and while a teenager left for New York City, determined to be an actor. Arriving with virtually no money, he worked such odds jobs as porter, busboy and chicken plucker while living in bus terminals, lavatory booths and on rooftops overlooking Broadway.
After a stint in the Army and while working as a dishwasher, Poitier answered a want ad placed by the American Neg’ro Theater looking for actors. He auditioned, but his performance, marred by his thick accent, did not win him a spot.
He began listening to the radio to perfect his English and auditioned again — and was turned down once more — but he convinced the company to hire him as a janitor. He made his way to understudy and became friends with a classmate, Harry Belafonte.