Sidney Poitier, first Black actor to win best actor Academy Award, dies at 94

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Sidney Poitier, who broke through racial barriers as the first Black winner of the best actor Oscar for his role in Lilies Of The Field, and inspired a generation during the civil rights movement, has died at age 94, an official from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday (Jan 7).

Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed Poitier’s death.

Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.

In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, he played a Black man with a white fiancee and In The Heat Of The Night, he was Virgil Tibbs, a Black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation.

He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.

Poitier had won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies Of The Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years before that Poitier had been the first Black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.

His Tibbs character from In The Heat Of The Night was immortalised in two sequels – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organisation in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series In The Heat Of The Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.

His other classic films of that era included A Patch Of Blue in 1965, in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin In The Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway.

Poitier was born in Miami on Feb 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling. He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first Black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.

Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that Black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.

“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.

As a director, Poitier worked with his friend Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night in 1974 and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980’s Stir Crazy.

Started on stage

Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the Army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.

The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theatre. He was an understudy in Days Of Our Youth and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering Black actor, fell ill.

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