Sidney Poitier, Oscar Winner Who Helped Tear Down Racial Barriers, Dies at 94
Art and Experience:
Sidney Poitier, whose dignity and self-assertion ushered in a new era in the depiction of African-Americans in Hollywood films as the civil rights movement was remaking America, has died, a spokesperson for the Bahamian Prime Minister confirmed to Variety. He was 94. Poitier was the oldest living winner of the best actor Oscar — just one distinction in a career full of distinctions.
“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, an entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and, latterly, a diplomat,” said Phillip Davis, Prime Minister of the Bahamas in a statement. “We admire the man not just because of his colossal achievements, 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.”
Poitier was Oscar-nominated as best actor for the 1958 film “The Defiant Ones,” a first for a non-white performer in that category. A precursor of the biracial buddy film, “The Defiant Ones” offered a powerful look at racism, teaming Poitier with Tony Curtis as escaped convicts handcuffed together.
In 1964, the year that Martin Luther King won the Nobel Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Poitier won best actor for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” marking another first. “Lilies” was a small film that became a big hit, in which Poitier plays a handyman who helps build a chapel for German-speaking nuns.
It would take 38 years before another Black actor won in that category.
For the better part of his five-decade career, Poitier was a movie star — the first Black Hollywood superstar. Handsome, intelligent, confident, even noble, Poitier could also fume with barely suppressed rage. But Poitier’s disciplined restraint provoked his more militant critics as his career grew.
In 1967, Poitier starred in three major hit films: “In the Heat of the Night,” which won best picture, “To Sir, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” also nominated for best picture. He became the top box office star that year.
The actor’s angry side emerged sharply in “In the Heat of the Night,” one of his finest roles. He played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective accused of murder in a small Mississippi town who teams with the local sheriff to solve the crime. In a signature moment, Tibbs is slapped by a rich white man, and he slaps him right back. Another occurs when the skeptical, racist white sheriff (Rod Steiger) asks him what they call him in Philadelphia. He responds sternly, “They call me MISTER Tibbs.”
That line became the title of a tepid 1970 sequel. Poitier made a third and final appearance as Tibbs in 1971’s better received “The Organization.”
Before filming “In the Heat of the Night,” the actor told director Norman Jewison he wouldn’t work below the Mason-Dixon line. As America’s most recognizable Black actor in the 1960s, Poitier sometimes feared for his life and the safety of his family. His first wife, Juanita, was menaced by racists who burned a cross on her lawn.
In “To Sir, With Love,” Poitier played a schoolteacher who connects with difficult British teenagers. He took a small upfront fee and a percentage of the gross, and the film made Poitier a rich man.
But critics excoriated him for his role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” He was called “a Stepin Fetchit in a gray flannel suit” and far worse for what they saw as yet another reassuring and accommodating role as an ideal Black man. Poitier plays a doctor famed for his work developing health programs in Africa who has come to ask for the hand of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s daughter.
“Nothing about ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ implies subtlety,” Aram Goudsouzian wrote in his largely unsympathetic 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.” “It paints characters, settings and issues in broad, colorful strokes.”
Critics were not enthused, but audiences were. The film became the biggest box office success in Columbia’s history.
With his successes, many wanted to use Poitier as a figurehead in the fight against racism, hoping he and his characters would express more of the late-1960s fury against racial bigotry. However, these critics and opportunists (sometimes they were the same) failed to acknowledge that Poitier had been a racial activist for decades, chipping away at America’s continuing proclivity for Black stereotypes and clichés.
“The issue boiled down to why I wasn’t more angry and confrontational,” Poitier wrote in his memoir, “The Measure of a Man.” “In essence, I was being taken to task for playing exemplary human beings.”
Poitier, who arrived in Hollywood at 22, said that becoming the only prominent Black actor in films “invited an excruciating sense of responsibility — to be the only Black person on the entire MGM lot except for the shoeshine boy.”
In 1989, Poitier told an interviewer: “I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had no control over content, no creative leverage except to refuse to do a film, which I often did.”
Throughout his career, Poitier was careful about the roles he took. He was still sensitive to the many years Black people were portrayed as servile bellhops and butlers or as convicts. In the decades before Poitier arrived, roles offered to Black people were often small supporting ones, in scenes that easily cut for screens in racist markets.
The actor’s long list of powerful or culturally significant performances began with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 noir “No Way Out,” in which the 23-year-old actor played second lead as a doctor trying to save the life of a gunshot victim (Richard Widmark) who is a violent racist.
Poitier appeared in just three pictures over the next four years, including 1952’s “Cry, the Beloved Country.” The actor’s first runaway hit was Richard Brooks’ 1955 film “The Blackboard Jungle.” Poitier played a high school senior. He was 30. Though Poitier’s character joined the class hoodlums in sassing teacher Glenn Ford, he conveyed an intelligence and dignity that made him stand apart.
In the 1957 “Edge of the City,” Poitier’s longshoreman character gives his life defending a friendship with a white man (John Cassavetes). Cassavetes became a lifelong friend who unsuccessfully urged Poitier to do a stage “Hamlet.”
That same year, Poitier played a supporting role in the Clark Gable-starrer “Band of Angels,” a Southern slavery-themed film whose racial and sexual politics are embarrassing today. But Poitier’s strong, charismatic performance rose above the material.
Poitier was a different kind of actor from the beginning. Like his early role models Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, Poitier owned a distinctive voice, with a soft, reassuring timbre developed during his early years growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas.
Poitier was born premature and sickly in Miami, Fla. His poor Bahamian tomato farmer parents had come there to sell their goods. Instead, his father found an undertaker and bought a shoebox-sized casket. When the baby rebounded, his family returned to Cat Island. When he was 10, they moved to Nassau. The youngest of seven, Poitier dropped out of school at 13 to help support the family. He survived by doing menial labor.
Poitier was initially rejected by the American Negro Theater because of his thick accent but was eventually taken on a three-month trial basis. He toned down his heavy Bahamian accent by mimicking American radio announcers after he came to New York as a teenager, hoping to be an actor. In subsequent years his voice emerged as remarkable and distinctive.
He made his Broadway debut in “Lysistrata” in 1946. His nine lines were enough for The Sun’s critic to note, “Sidney Poitier has a few comical utterances as the sex-starved Polydorus.” His acting career was off and running.
Poitier often cited his role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which he played the flawed and mercurial Walter Lee Younger, as among his most complex and rewarding. Lorraine Hansberry’s play debuted on Broadway in 1959 and earned him a Tony nomination; the film bowed two years later. Critic Richard Schickel called his portrayal “a great performance in a glamorless film that did poorly in 1961, when movie audiences were not particularly interested in the quotidian truths of Black experience.”
He appeared in three films in 1965. They included “The Slender Thread,” where Poitier commands the screen as a worker on a crisis hotline. But for his critics, it was yet another role, like those in “The Defiant Ones” and “Edge of the City,” where he was called on to save a white person (in this instance, a suicidal Anne Bancroft). He also starred in “The Bedford Incident” and “A Patch of Blue.” In the former, race isn’t acknowledged; in the latter, the heroine (Elizabeth Hartman), whom Poitier’s character tries to help, is blind.
When his long run as a leading man was hitting speed bumps, he became an actor-director. He was Buck to Harry Belafonte’s Preacher in 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher.” The film, Poitier’s first feature helming effort, became the first Western from a major studio to focus on Black characters or from a Black director. It was the first of nine films he directed.
Poitier worked with Bill Cosby as actor-director in 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” 1975’s “Let’s Do It Again” and 1977’s “A Piece of the Action.” He directed Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980’s “Stir Crazy,” and Wilder again with Gilda Radner in 1982’s “Hanky Panky,” in which Richard Widmark played a supporting role.
During a 10-year layoff in the late 1970s, Poitier wrote his autobiography, “This Life” (1980), without employing a ghostwriter. He also wrote 2000’s “The Measure of a Man,” for which his recorded reading won a Grammy for best spoken-word album. “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter” became an Oprah Book Club selection in 2008.
Poitier returned to acting in 1988 with “Shoot to Kill” and “Little Nikita,” with River Phoenix. He starred opposite Robert Redford in 1992’s “Sneakers” and appeared with Bruce Willis in 1997’s “The Jackal.”
He reportedly rejected offers to star in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Both roles yielded best actor Oscar noms for Morgan Freeman, cementing his status as one of the preeminent contemporary Black character actors.
Along with “A Raisin in the Sun,” Poitier said he was proudest of his 1991 ABC telepic “Separate but Equal,” in which he portrayed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “Poitier embodies the virtues of long, hard study and intellectualism,” a critic for Entertainment Weekly wrote. Poitier also captured the essence of Nelson Mandela in Showtime’s 1997 “Mandela and de Klerk” opposite Michael Caine. New York Times critic Caryn James called it “a great, impassioned performance.”
In 1996, Peter Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the CBS telepic sequel “To Sir, With Love II.”
Poitier is the subject of two documentaries: “Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light” in 2000 for PBS’ “American Masters” series and 2008’s “Sidney Poitier: An Outsider in Hollywood.”
Poitier won the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1982 and SAG’s life achievement award in 2000. In 1992, the actor became the first Black recipient of the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award. He was ranked 22nd on the AFI list of the “25 Greatest Male Stars of All Time” in 1999. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Poitier’s career came full circle in 2002 when the Academy presented him with an honorary Oscar “for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.” On that night, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won top acting honors for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively. It marked the first time an African-American actress won, and only the second for a Black actor.
Washington’s “bad cop” role in “Training Day” was doubtless one Poitier would have rejected. But Poitier beamed when Washington said from the Oscar show stage, “I’ll always be following in your footsteps.”
In 2011 Poitier received the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Looking back on his career, Poitier wrote in “The Measure of a Man”: “There’s a place for people who are angry and defiant, and sometimes they serve a purpose, but that’s never been my role.”
Poitier’s first marriage to Juanita Hardy ended in divorce in 1965, and produced four daughters: Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier and Gina Poitier. Gina Poitier died in 2018 at 57.
He is also survived by his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, and their two daughters, Anika Poitier and actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.