Friday, January 7, 2022

Sidney Poitier, trailblazer who broke barriers for Black actors, dies at 94

Sir Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing Bahamian-American actor, director, philanthropist and activist whose work helped reshape the way Hollywood portrayed Black men, has died at the age of 94.

The Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fred Mitchell, confirmed the news of Poitier's passing after local outlets broke the story. No cause of death was given.

Poitier’s best known career achievement came in 1964, when he became the first Black man to win a best actor Oscar for his depiction of an ex-serviceman who helps East German nuns build a chapel in “Lilies of the Field.”

His 71-year career was filled with awards and accolades — including a Grammy, two Golden Globe Awards and a British Academy Film Award — and defined by his refusal to accept roles that reduced Black men to the negative stereotypes that prevailed in much of film, even in the Civil Rights era.

Indeed, in 1967, considered to be the peak of his commercial career as an actor when he was one of Hollywood’s biggest draws, Poitier lent his powerful presence to three iconic films that addressed race relations in new and powerful ways. “To Sir With Love,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night,” showcased his versatility as an actor and presented some of the most compelling and nuanced studies of a Black man committed to celluloid at that point.

The son of tomato farmers and the youngest of seven children, Poitier was automatically granted US citizenship after being born several months premature in Miami while his parents were visiting in February 1927.
After spending his childhood in Bahamas, he moved to America when he was 15 to live with an older brother in Miami. After departing Florida for New York, he earned his first lead film role a year later in 1955’s “Blackboard Jungle.”

In addition to being a great actor, Poitier was a competent director. His biggest success behind the camera came in 1980 when he helmed the Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder comedy “Stir Crazy.” Other directing credits for Poitier include: “Porgy and Bess” (1959), “Paris Blues” (1961), “A Patch of Blue” (1965), “Sneakers” (1992) and “The Jackal” (1997).

In 1997 he was named ambassador to Japan by the Bahamas, a position which he held until 2007.

Poitier is survived by six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He married his first wife, Juanita Hardy, in 1950. They had four daughters before divorcing in 1965. He married his second wife, Canadian actor Joanna Shimkus, in 1976 and spent the rest of his life with her. They had two daughters.

Last January, Arizona State University announced The New American Film School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts would be named in his honor.

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