Sidney Poitier, the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, has died at the age of 94. His death was confirmed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas. Poitier was one of the last living members of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a trailblazer who helped open doors for Black actors.
Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, when his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. He grew up in the Bahamas and moved back to America as a teenager. At 16, he lied about his age in order to enlist in the army during World War II. When his service was finished, he worked as a dishwasher in New York City until he joined the American Negro Theater.
In 1946, a 19-year-old Poitier joined an all-Black Broadway production of Lysistrata. He had his first film role in 1950's No Way Out, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Poitier became the first Black man to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, for 1958’s The Defiant Ones. He would ultimately win the award in 1963 for his work in Lilies Of The Field, becoming the first Black man to win in the category.
Poitier also acted in the first Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, and would star in the film adaptation. He also starred in the film adaptation of Porgy And Bess.
In 1967, Poitier starred in three of the year’s top-grossing films: To Sir, With Love, In The Heat Of The Night, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier played a man in a relationship with Katharine Houghton, one of the first times an interracial relationship was portrayed positively on screen. Laws against interracial marriage had only been overturned six months before the film’s release, with the court decision in Loving v. Virginia.
His work frequently addressed important issues around race. Poitier’s 1975 film, The Wilby Conspiracy, took a stand against South African apartheid, and he demanded the crew of his 1969 film The Lost Man be half Black. His activism extended off the screen as well: He attended the 1963 March on Washington and the 1968 march in support of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Poitier in 1967, “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”
Poitier also directed nine films, including 1980’s Stir Crazy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It was the first film by a Black director to make over $100 million at the box office.
In addition to his historic Academy Award win, Poitier was also given an honorary Oscar at the 2001 ceremony. President Barack Obama awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. In 1981, he received the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award award, and in 1999 he was awarded the Screen Actors Guild’s lifetime achievement award. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
Poitier wrote three memoirs: 1980’s This Life, 2000’s The Measure Of A Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, and 2008’s Life Beyond Measure: Letters To My Great-Granddaughter.
Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus, and five of his six children, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, Anika and Sydney Tamiia. His daughter Gina Poitier died in 2018.