Few movie stars, black or white, have had such an influence on screen and outside of Sidney Poitier. Before Poitier, no black actor had a sustained career as a lead performer, and it was rarely allowed to break with stereotypes of insect-eyed servants and smiling performers.

The groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration, who transformed the way black people were portrayed onscreen and became the first black actor to win an Oscar for Best Leading Performance and the first to be among the best at the box -office, died Thursday. He was 94 years old.

Poitier, winner of the Oscar for best actor in 1964 for Field lilies, who died at his home in Los Angeles, according to Latrae Rahming, communications director for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas.

Poitier, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, appeared in more than 25 films during the 1950s and 1960s, and his rise followed the growth of the civil rights movement. As racial attitudes evolved and segregation laws were challenged and fell, Poitier was the artist that cautious Hollywood turned to for stories of progress.

He was the escaped black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in The provocateurs. He was the courteous office worker who fell in love with a blind white girl in A stain of blue. He was the handyman in Field lilies who built a church for a group of nuns.


With her flawless beautiful face, intense gaze and disciplined style, Poitier was not only the most popular black movie star, but the only one for years.

“I made films when the only other black in the field was the shoe shiner,” he recalls in a 1988 News week interview. “I was kind of the lonely guy in town.”

Poitier culminated in 1967 with three of the most notable films of the year: to sir, with love, in which he played the role of a school teacher who wins his unruly pupils in a London secondary school; In the heat of the Nightt, as determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and in Guess who’s coming to dinner, as a prominent doctor who wishes to marry a young white woman whom he only recently met, his parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their last film together.

His unique appeal brought him the same burdens as other pioneers such as Jackie Robinson and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was subjected to bigotry from whites and accusations of compromise from the black community. Poitier was held, and held, to standards well above its white peers. He refused to play villains or cads and took on characters, especially in Guess who’s coming to dinner, of an almost divine goodness. He developed an even, but resolute and at times humorous character, crystallized in his most famous line – “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” – from In the heat of the Night.

But even in its heyday, it was criticized for being offline. He was called Uncle Tom and a ‘Million Dollar Shoe Boy’. In 1967, the New York Times published the essay by black playwright Clifford Mason, Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so much? Mason called Poitier’s films a “schizophrenic escape from historical facts” and the pawn actor of “the white man’s sense of what is wrong with the world”.

Fame did not protect Poitier from racism or condescension. He struggled to find accommodation in Los Angeles and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when it visited Mississippi in 1964, shortly after three civil rights activists were murdered there. In interviews, reporters often ignored his work and instead asked him about the race and current events.

“I am an artist, a man, an American, a contemporary,” he said at a press conference in 1967. “I am a bunch of things, so I would like you to pay me back respect from. “

Poitier was not as politically engaged as his friend and contemporary Harry Belafonte, but he participated in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights events, and as an actor he defended himself and risked his career. He refused to sign loyalty oaths in the 1950s, when Hollywood blacklisted suspected Communists and turned down roles it found offensive.

“Almost all of the job offers reflected the stereotypical perception of blacks that had infected the whole consciousness of the country,” he recalled. “I came with an inability to do these things. It just wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.

Poitier’s films generally dealt with personal triumphs rather than big political themes, but Poitier’s classic role, of The provocateurs at In the heat of the Night, seemed to reflect the drama King played in real life: a composed black man – Poitier has become synonymous with the word “worthy” – who puts whites opposed to him to shame.


His career on the screen faded in the late 1960s as political movements, black and white, radicalized and films became more explicit. He performed less often, gave fewer interviews and began directing, his credits including the farce Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder Stir crazy, Buck and the preacher (with Poitier and Belafonte) and the comedies of Bill Cosby Uptown Saturday night and Let’s do it again.

In the 80s and 90s, he appeared in feature films Sneakers and the Jackal and several TV dramas, receiving Emmy and Golden Globe nominations as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Separate but equal and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Mandela and De Klerk. Viewers remembered the actor through an acclaimed play that only featured him in name: John Guare’s Six DEGREES OF SEPARATION, about a crook claiming to be the son of Poitier.

A new generation has known him in recent years thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who idolized Poitier and chose his memories. The measure of a man for his book club. He also welcomed the rise of black stars such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Danny Glover: “It’s as if the cavalry came to relieve the troops! You have no idea how happy I am, ”he said.

Poitier has received numerous honorary awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and a Special Oscar in 2002, the same night black actors won both Best Actor awards, Washington for Training day and Halle Berry for Monster ball.

“I will always pursue you, Sidney,” said Washington, who previously presented the honorary award to Poitier, during his acceptance speech. “I will always follow in your footsteps. There is nothing that I prefer to do, sir, nothing that I prefer to do.

In 2009, President Barack Obama, whose stability was sometimes compared to that of Poitier, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, claiming that the actor “not only entertained but enlightened … revealing the power of the big screen to bring us closer to each other. ”.

Poitier also wrote a novel, Montaro Cain, and looked after family, travel, recreation and diplomacy. As a citizen of the Bahamas, in 1974 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1997, he was appointed Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan and subsequently served as Ambassador to UNESCO.

Poitier had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy, and two with his second wife, actress Joanna Shimkus, who starred with him in his 1969 film. The lost man. Her daughter, Sydney Tamaii Poitier, has appeared in television series such as Véronique Mars and Mr. Chevalier.