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Oscar winner and groundbreaking star Sidney Poitier dies at 94

Sidney Poitier in Beverly Hills, California, in 2008.

Sidney Poitier in Beverly Hills, California, in 2008.  Credit: AP/Matt Sayles

Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing Hollywood icon who became the first Black man to win the Academy Award for best actor and one of the biggest stars of his era thanks to commanding performances in "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner," "In the Heat of the Night" and "To Sir, With Love," died Thursday in the Bahamas. He was 94.

The news came in an announcement from Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Poitier was raised. No cause of death had been given.

Tributes from entertainers across the racial and generational spectrum poured in through social media Friday. Filmmaker Tyler Perry called Poitier his "North Star," while actress Viola Davis wrote "The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!"

Poitier leaves behind numerous pioneering films and galvanizing on-screen moments. As an escaped convict shackled to a white one (Tony Curtis) in the 1958 drama "The Defiant Ones," he became the first Black male nominated for a lead acting Oscar. He won the award playing a former GI who helps a group of nuns build in a church in 1963’s "Lilies of the Field." In 1967’s "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner," he played a Black man meeting his white fiancee’s parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn).

Poitier’s most famous role was arguably Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia policeman investigating a murder in the Deep South in 1967’s "In the Heat of the Night." A scene of Tibbs slapping a white racist caused audiences to gasp at the time. The movie also gave Poitier his most famous line — "They call me Mister Tibbs!" — delivered defiantly to a condescending Southern cop (Rod Steiger). That line, complete with exclamation point, became the title of a 1970 sequel.

Poitier’s awards weren’t limited to Hollywood. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974, received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1992 and earned the NAACP’s Hall of Fame Award for his constant depiction of positive screen images.

Poitier was born Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, where his parents had gone to deliver tomatoes from their farm on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas. Poitier was raised in that remote spot (population 1,500, no electricity) until his teen years, when his father, concerned that local street life might be a bad influence, put him on a cargo ship with $3 in his pocket to live with a brother in Miami.

Hardscrabble as it was, Poitier credited his Bahamian upbringing for inoculating him against American racism. "I had been living in a society where for the first 10 years of my life I was not aware of my race," he told Newsday in 1980. "That’s a good head start to be free of negative influences of defining oneself in terms of color."

Poitier headed to New York, where he settled in Harlem, then joined the Army and briefly worked at a veterans hospital on Long Island, where he was appalled at how badly the patients were treated. He eventually feigned insanity to get out of the service.

Upon returning to Harlem, he spotted a newspaper ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theater. Barely literate and possessed of a thick Caribbean accent, Poitier flunked his audition but made a deal with the director: janitorial work in exchange for acting lessons. Meanwhile, he practiced enunciation by reading words aloud from the newspaper. Poitier nabbed the lead role in a play when another Caribbean actor, Harry Belafonte, couldn’t make it for previews.

A producer in the audience spotted Poitier and cast him in an all-Black version of "Lysistrata" on Broadway. Rave reviews followed, and soon Poitier was making movies, landing roles in 1950’s "No Way Out" as a doctor who treats a white bigot and in 1955’s "The Blackboard Jungle" as a rebellious high schooler. He continued to rack up high-profile credits over the coming years in "Porgy and Bess," "A Raisin in the Sun" and other titles.

Off-screen, Poitier participated in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights events, a risky move for a Black actor. He refused to sign loyalty oaths during the 1950s, when Hollywood was barring suspected communists, and turned down roles he found offensive.

"It just wasn’t in me," he said. "I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values."

Poitier’s aura of confidence, moral certitude and unshakable dignity — not to mention a trace of that Caribbean accent — made him an in-demand actor even at a time of racial unrest in America. His watershed year would be 1967, when he starred in "To Sir, With Love," "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night." Some critics complained that his feel-good roles were sops to white audiences, but theater owners named Poitier the year’s No. 1 star, the first time a Black actor topped the list, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As the blaxploitation genre rose in the 1970s, Poitier turned to directing, though he eschewed the genre’s gratuitous sex and violence. His first effort, 1972’s "Buck and the Preacher," was the rare Western to give lead roles to Black actors (Poitier and longtime friend Belafonte). He also directed a trilogy of breezy caper comedies — "Uptown Saturday Night," "Let’s Do It Again" and "A Piece of the Action" — starring himself and Bill Cosby.

Poitier scored one of his biggest commercial hits helming 1980’s "Stir Crazy," starring the interracial buddy team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor as regular Joes wrongly sent to prison. A broad comedy shot on a $10 million budget, "Stir Crazy" earned mixed reviews but brought in $100 million and spawned a short-lived television series (neither Poitier nor the film’s stars were involved).

Poitier had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, and two with his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, who starred with him in the 1969 film "The Lost Man."

Long after Poitier won his history-making Oscar, Denzel Washington became only the second Black man to win the best actor award, in 2002, for "Training Day." (Halle Berry also won best actress that year for "Monster’s Ball.") "For 40 years, I’ve been chasing Sidney," Washington said in his acceptance speech. "I’ll always be following him. There’s nothing I’d rather do."

Poitier seemed to hold no illusions that he had solved racism or suddenly changed the world. He used a 1992 acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute to give hope and encouragement to young Black filmmakers.

"I am sure, like me, you have discovered it was never impossible, it was just harder," he said. "Welcome, young Blacks. Those of us who go before you glance back with satisfaction and leave you with a simple trust: Be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey."

With AP

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