Sidney Poitier, the actor, director and activist who became a groundbreaking force in Hollywood and beyond, has passed away at the age of 94. He died in the Bahamas, where he was also raised in his early years. Among a career full of achievements, Poitier was the first Black actor win Best Actor at the Oscars – picking up the award for 1963’s Lilies Of The Field, in which he played traveling construction worker Homer Smith, who helps a group of Eastern European nuns build a church in the Arizona desert.
Prior to that, Poitier began his acting career on stage in the 1940s, and moved into feature films with 1950’s No Way Out – though his breakthrough performance came in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, which became known for its rock’n’roll soundtrack, and Poitier’s performance as disruptive school student Gregory Miller. Three years later, he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Defiant Ones – starring alongside Tony Curtis as two prisoners, one Black and one white, forced to go on the run while shackled together.
Following his Oscar win, 1967 proved a significant year for Poitier – he became a majorly bankable Hollywood star with three huge box office hits at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The first was James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love, with Poitier playing an engineering graduate who takes a teaching job at a school in London’s East End and wins over the rambunctious students. Next was Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night, in which he played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who helps investigate a murder in Mississippi after being wrongfully accused of involvement by the local police there. Finally, that year also brought Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – with Poiter playing John Prentice, a man who visits his white fiancée’s parents for the first time.
Later in his acting career, Poitier reprised the role of Virgil Tibbs from In The Heat Of The Night in 1970’s They Call Me Mister Tibbs, and 1971’s The Organization, which were less beloved than the original film. In the ‘90s, he played Thurgood Marshall in 1991 miniseries Separate But Equal, and starred in 1992 crime comedy Sneakers. His final role came in 1997 Bruce Willis thriller The Jackal. Poitier also directed nine films across his career, from 1972’s Buck And The Preacher to 1990’s Ghost Dad.
Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human” in 2001, presented to him by Denzel Washington. He was also given the Fellowship award from BAFTA in 2016, and received the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes in 1981. He was given a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from Barack Obama, and served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan between 1997 and 2007.