Sidney Poitier, Oscar-winning actor, filmmaker, activist, and Hollywood trailblazer, has died at the age of 94. The news was shared by Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell out of the Bahamas, where Poitier held dual citizenship.
Representatives for Poitier did not immediately return IndieWire’s request for comment.
Poitier broke the color barrier in Hollywood. Rising to superstar status in an industry that has forever been controlled on both sides of the camera by primarily white men, he was an actor, director, and producer who completely shifted perceptions of race that had long been held, prior to his arrival, by both audiences and studio executives.
Getting his start in the 1940s, as a member of Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, where he met lifelong friend Harry Belafonte, Poitier emerged as one of the most talented actors of his era. He was among the first Black actors to appear alongside white actors, in leading roles in films, let alone star in them. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, most Black actors were relegated to projects with strictly African-American casts.
Poitier paved the way for more complex roles for Black actors, and by the time he became the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Academy Award, for “Lilies of the Field” (1963) — one of the most affecting films about faith and magnanimity — he had become a well-respected performer.
Anne Bancroft, presenting him with the Oscar, kissed Poitier on the cheek, which outraged conservatives at a time when the fight for civil rights was in full bloom. Poitier’s Oscar was meant to be a symbol that Hollywood was changing, although 57 years later, there’s still much that can be done to approach anything that resembles parity.
“I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he wrote in his 2000 memoir, “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Given his star power and isolation at the time as a Black actor in Hollywood, he kind of was.
Born in Miami but raised on Cat Island in the Bahamas, Poitier grew up poor. Though his tomato farmer parents had little money, Poitier knew that expectations were high.
At the age of 15, he moved to Florida, then to New York City, where he earned a living at restaurants, washing dishes, in exchange for acting lessons.
But his thick Caribbean accent and inability to sing and read were major hurdles.
“I didn’t know where I was going next,” Poitier wrote. “But I knew that failure wasn’t an option.”
While other Black actors tended to fulfill stereotypical roles, Poitier, who eventually taught himself to read, and modeled his speaking style on American newscasters, demanded to be treated equally with whites.
In 1946, he understudied for Harry Belafonte — who would eventually become a close friend and confidant — in the play “Days of Our Youth,” before landing a small part in an all-Black production of “Lysistrata,” that same year.
His first film role was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-nominated film, “No Way Out” (1950), which co-starred Richard Widmark.
The film cast him as a young Black doctor who endures the bigotry of his mostly white patients. This pivotal role marked the creation of what would become the quintessential Sidney Poitier character — one that typically faced complicated issues of race with a combination of vulnerability, anger, and dignity.
It was a splashy screen debut for Poitier, which earned him considerable acclaim and recognition. Nevertheless, he was still in the shadows of his white colleagues.
He co-starred with John Cassavetes in Martin Ritt’s feature directing debut, “Edge of the City” (1957), a drama that explored the working-class American experience, via unions and racial integration.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Stardom followed with “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, which arguably laid the foundation for so-called “interracial buddy” films. The story about two convicts on the run (one Black, one white), is a tale of racial reconciliation that was released decades before Oscar-winning films like “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Green Book.” But the film was very much a product of his time, and its themes would come to define the projects Poitier accepted throughout his career.
His performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
Five years later, Poitier was nominated again and won the Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), becoming the first Black actor to win for a leading role.
And what was probably his peak year, 1967, saw him in an electrifying performance as a Black detective from the north trying to solve a murder in a southern town, in Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” likely most remembered for the “slap heard round the world”; and in Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, which was simultaneously groundbreaking for its portrayal of an interracial relationship, but also criticized for its white liberal pandering. Luckily, the actors carried the day, particularly Poitier and Spencer Tracy, in a swan-song performance.
That same year, he relocated to the east end of London for the sentimental high school drama “To Sir, With Love,” forfeiting his usual $1-million salary in exchange for a share of the profits.
Sandwiched between his first film role and his peak year were unheralded titles like the romance “Paris Blues” (1961), another Martin Ritt film, co-starring Paul Newman; and the thriller, “The Slender Thread” (1965), which was Sydney Pollack’s directorial debut, co-starring Anne Bancroft.
But the perception of Poitier as a Black American symbol — a kind of Black saint — and the willingness of whites to want to be affiliated with him, came with complications.
Courtesy Everett Collection
For example, in his 1973 book “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks,” prominent African American film and TV critic Donald Bogle wrote that Poitier’s characters “spoke proper English, dressed conservatively,” and were “almost sexless and sterile […] The perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner.”
Stung by the criticism, Poitier retreated to the Bahamas to reassess his career. When he re-emerged, he adjusted his energies from acting to directing.
As he said in his memoir: “A shift in the tide had taken place, so I bought a boat and a lot of books and just went down to the Caribbean and cooled it for about a year.”
At the time, Poitier, who expressed concern over blaxploitation films, worried that Black youth exposed to a constant stream of Black actors portraying drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes might begin to idolize these characters. He aimed to direct work that would be seen as refreshing, family friendly alternatives.
“Buck and the Preacher” (1972) was a semi-historical account of the emigration of ex-slaves to the western frontier.
“Uptown Saturday Night” (1974) was the first of a trilogy of comedies that was followed by “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977).
In “Stir Crazy” (1980), his role as director was overshadowed by the performances of stars Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. But it was the first movie by a Black director to break $100 million at the box office.
Although, his final directorial effort, “Ghost Dad” (1990) starring Bill Cosby, was a surprisingly misconceived effort that was universally panned by critics and a box office bomb.
The private Poitier was maybe more complicated than the characters he played. His first marriage to Juanita Hardy, a former model and dancer, and mother of their four children, was tested by a nine-year affair with actress Diahann Carroll, which both admitted to.
Courtesy Everett Collection
“The guilt of that was something that 11 years of psychotherapy couldn’t ‘cure’,” he wrote.
Poitier finally divorced Hardy in 1965, after 15 years of marriage.
He eventually remarried Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976. They had two children together, including actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier (“Death Proof”).
Throughout his career, the actor, director, author, ambassador, and philanthropist earned a legion of awards and honors, including a knighthood and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Also a thinker and critic, as a cultural icon, his career depicted the 20th-century history of Black people in American cinema, and his emphasis on playing virtuous characters was renegade.
He broke down barriers, and was recognized as a highly revered actor, and not just a Black actor. His films have become classics, and his screen presence was infinitely captivating. He was, and still very much is, a star in every sense of the word.