Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for best actor and who experienced many of the racial tensions exposed in his films in life, has died at the age of 94.
NBC News reported his death, citing a source close to the family, according to Bloomberg.
Poitier’s Oscar for best actor for “Lilies of the Field” (1963) made him a respected figure in Hollywood and beyond. James Earl Jones, Robert Townsend, and Quincy Jones were among those who cited him as inspiration.
“Since you appeared on our screens more than 60 years ago, your talent and integrity have broken barriers and inspired audiences everywhere,” said actress Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards in March 2014, when she and Poitier presented the trophy for the best director.
Poitier was first acclaimed chained to Tony Curtis as a chained fugitive in “Fugitives” (1958). Curtis insisted that Poitier receive the same billing. Both were nominated for an Oscar for best actor, splitting the votes, and David Niven took the award for “Separate Tables.”
“Guess Who’s Coming Tonight” (1967) features Poitier and Katharine Houghton as an interracial couple trying to persuade their reluctant parents to bless their plans to marry. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and Katharine Hepburn, playing Houghton’s mother, won the Oscar for best actress.
Two other films helped make 1967 an eventful year for Poitier. He played a teacher dealing with unruly students in the British production “Rebellion in the Classrooms.” As a Philadelphia detective on a murder case in the Deep South in “In the Heat of the Night,” he uttered the phrase “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs,” which became the title of a sequel.
Stanley Kramer, who directed Poitier in “Runaways” and produced “Guess Who’s Coming Tonight,” said Poitier is “the only actor I’ve ever worked with who has the range of Marlon Brando, from pathos to great power.” .
Poitier’s acting career waned in the 1970s. He was presented with fewer roles after a 1967 New York Times article asked, “Why do white Americans love Sidney Poitier so much?” Using a racial epithet, Clifford Mason, an African-American playwright, accused Poitier of agreeing to be a symbolic black face that Hollywood could exploit.
“He remains unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic and one-dimensional hero,” Mason wrote.
The article was “the most devastating and unfair piece of journalism he has ever seen,” Poitier said in his 1980 autobiography, “This Life.”
He said that the film industry was to blame “for the symbolism of my presence.” “Hollywood hadn’t kept it a secret that it wasn’t interested in providing black people with a variety of positive images,” he said.
In 1995, the Kennedy Center in Washington honored Poitier as “the first black man to become a hero to the black and white public” and for helping to change “stubborn racial attitudes that have persisted in this country for centuries.”
The son of tomato growers in the Bahamas, Poitier was born prematurely in Miami on February 20, 1927. His parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, had come to Florida to sell tomatoes grown on his farm. Poitier returned to the Bahamas with his parents a few months later.
After storms in the Caribbean washed away his crops, the family moved to Nassau about 10 years later. Poitier said it was the first time he had seen cars or electricity and ate ice cream.
By his own account, in his teens he fell into a misdemeanor and was arrested for robbery. After a friend was sent to reformatory for stealing a bicycle, Poitier’s parents sent him at 15 to Miami to live with an older brother.
Coming from a black rural background, Florida was “a shock,” he said in a 2008 interview. “I was introduced to a system that had no room for me.”
“There was racism, there was a separation of people on grounds of color,” he said. “I found out in my first days there that I couldn’t go to certain places.”
After clashes with white cops, he took a job near Atlanta and within six weeks won a bus ticket to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and lived in Harlem.
At 16, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was sent to a medical unit on Long Island, New York, and was discharged after one year for being unfit for service.
He responded to an advertisement for actors in 1945 from the American Negro Theater. Hearing him was a disaster. The theater’s co-director, Frederick O’Neal, said he couldn’t read or pronounce