Academy Award winner, film director, Sidney Poitier has passed at age 94

President Barack Obama presents Sidney Poitier with Medal of Freedom

Academy Award winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, film director, activist, and ambassador, Sidney Poitier has passed away at age 94.

He died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported, citing Latrae Rahming, the director of communications for the prime minister of the Bahamas, where Poitier was raised.

The son of tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Poitier was born several months premature, in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927 and was automatically granted U.S. citizenship. His parents, Reginald and Evelyn Poitier, had gone to Florida to sell tomatoes grown on their farm. Poitier returned to rural Cat Island in the Bahamas with his parents a few months later. 

Poitier, the youngest of seven, lived with his family on Cat Island until he was ten when Caribbean storms wiped out their crops and they moved to Nassau. There he was exposed to the modern world, where he saw his first automobile, first experienced electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, and motion pictures.

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When he was 15, Poitier’s parents sent him from the Bahamas to live with an older brother in Miami, where they figured he would have better opportunities. His father took him to the dock and put $3 in his hand.

“He said, ‘take care of yourself, son.’ And he turned me around to face the boat,” Poitier told NPR in 2009.

At sixteen, he moved to New York City and held a string of jobs as a dishwasher, where a kind hearted older waiter taught him how to become a stronger reader so he could pursue his dream of acting. 

‘That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week,’ Poitier told CBS News. ‘And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.’

Poitier lied about his age and did a short stint in the US Army where he was assigned to work at a veterans hospital in upstate New York. He feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge and was successful even after admitting he was faking. He returned to Harlem after his discharge in 1944 and responded to a wanted ad for the American Negro Theater. He eventually made it to Broadway, with a role in an all-Black version of the classic Greek drama Lysistrata, kicking off his stage career.

In 1950, Poitier married model and dancer Juanita Hardy. ‘I had faith in myself and faith in the future, enough of each to marry a beautiful young girl,’ he said in his memoir. The first of their four daughters, Beverly, was born two years later, followed by Pamela, Sherri and Gina.

Poitier’s first movie was in famed director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s racially explosive 1950’s No Way Out, a noir film in which he played a young doctor who must treat a racist patient and take a stand against bigotry. It was the first major film to feature a black actor in a stereotype-shattering role as a doctor instead of a servant or criminal. His performance was so powerful, the film was credited with ending British colonial rule in the Bahamas.

That led to increasingly prominent roles as a reverend in the apartheid drama Cry, the Beloved Country, a troubled student in Blackboard Jungle and an escaped prisoner in The Defiant Ones, in which he and Tony Curtis were shackled together and forced to get along to survive. With that 1958 film, Poitier became the first Black man to be nominated for an Oscar.

During filming of Cry, the Beloved Country, Poitier said he became aware of the “pitiful” conditions confronting Black people in South Africa where the movie was filmed. Among other things, he and fellow African-American actors were denied hotel rooms and had to find housing in a private home. 

Poitier also starred in a star-studded adaptation of the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, alongside Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters.

Spurred by his friendship with his outspoken former classmate Harry Belafonte, Poitier also began embracing the civil rights movement. He attended the 1963 March on Washington with Belafonte and Charlton Heston where they witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The civil-rights leader called Poitier a “soul brother” for supporting him over the years. In 1964 he traveled to Mississippi to meet with activists in the days following the infamous slayings of three young civil rights workers, where it was reported he was followed by members of the KKK hate group.

Also in 1963, he starred in Lilies of the Field. His performance earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor and he became the first Black male to win the award. Following his Oscar win, announced by Anne Bancroft during the Academy Awards on April 13, 1964, Poitier said he was so surprised that he “leaped six feet from my seat,” the New York Times reported.

He was the second Black performer in history to win an Academy Award after Hattie McDaniel who won an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role for her performance in Gone With the Wind, released in 1939.

In 1965 he shattered barriers and became the first Black man to kiss a White woman in a movie in the film A Patch of Blue.

By 1967, Poitier was commanding $1 million a movie as a box office draw with three back to back hits: To Sir With Love, Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. 

In Norman Jewison’s mystery drama In the Heat of the Night, Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Philadelphia who investigates a murder in the deep south in Mississippi alongside a cop with racial prejudices played by Rod Steiger. The film was a critical success with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling it “the most powerful film I have seen in a long time.” Roger Ebert placed it at number ten on his top ten list of 1967 films. Poitier received a Golden Globe Award and British Academy Film Award nomination for his performance.

The movie gave Poitier his most famous line , “They call me Mister Tibbs!” which was an indignant cry for respect after a demeaning slur by Steiger’s character.

In another memorable scene, Tibbs is slapped in the face by a racist plantation owner and then slaps him right back. Before agreeing to do the film, Poitier requested a script change to add the retaliatory slap and even rewrote his contract to prohibit the studio from cutting the scene.

“And of course it is one of those great, great moments in all of film, when you slap him back,” CBS News’ Lesley Stahl told Poitier in 2013. He replied, “Yes, I knew that I would have been insulting every Black person in the world (if I hadn’t).”

He directed movies including Buck and the Preacher, in which he and Belafonte starred, and Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Poitier and his wife divorced in 1965 and in 1976, he married Joanna Shimkus, a former model and actress, with whom he had two daughters and the two remained married for the rest of his life. Poitier previously had four daughters with his first wife, Juanita Hardy.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he appeared in the feature films Sneakers and The Jackal and several television movies, receiving an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination 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. Theatergoers were reminded of the actor through an acclaimed play that featured him in name only: John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, about a con artist claiming to be Poitier’s son.

In 1997 he was appointed ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, a position that he held until 2007. He also concurrently served as the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO.

His prolific career would earn him a trove of awards including: an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, BAFTA fellowship for lifetime achievement, Golden Globe Cecil B DeMille Award and the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement trophy.

Poitier humbly accepted a lifetime achievement Oscar at the Academy Awards in 2002: ‘I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors who went before me in the difficult years and on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.’

Poitier was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by Barack Obama in 2009.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center bestowed its highest award on Poitier in 2011. Among the speakers praising him was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who said, “In the history of movies, there’ve only been a few actors who, once they gained recognition, their influence forever changed the art form. There’s a time before their arrival, and there’s a time after their arrival. And after their arrival, nothing’s ever going to be the same again. As far as the movies are concerned, there was pre-Poitier, and there was Hollywood post-Poitier.”

As news of his passing spread, fans, colleagues, and friends flocked to social media to share their tributes:

Poitier, who held dual U.S. and Bahamian nationality, was “an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure,” Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said on his official Facebook page.

The National Civil Rights Museum shared this statement:

The National Civil Rights Museum joins the world in grieving the loss of a great icon and its 2001 Freedom Award honoree, Mr. Sidney Poitier.

Poitier was a trailblazing thespian and staunch civil rights activist that remained true to his principles.  His art reflected his convictions.  Because of that, the world reimagined Black culture during a transformative period that challenged racial prejudice and social norms.

On stage, screen, and in real life, Poitier reflected a myriad of stories that illustrated the multi-faceted aspects of the African Diasporic life. He had a way of portraying characters that transported “race films” and “Blaxploitation” genres beyond integration to classic stories of empowerment across generations.

An Academy Award winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, and author, Poitier walked his talk, participating in the March on Washington and using his platform to fight against discrimination. He dedicated his life to promoting messages of deep passion, pride, respect, and the power of Black culture. His legacy is inscribed in the massive body of dramatic art that will forever demonstrate the importance for humankind to “look beyond the surface appearances.”

Our sincere condolences to his family, friends, and all the lives he impacted. Rest in heavenly peace, Mr. Poitier.

Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus, five daughters, eight grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren.