NEW YORK (AP) — Sidney Poitier, the groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration who transformed how Black people were portrayed on screen, became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance and the first to be a top box-office draw, has died. He was 94.
Poitier, winner of the best actor Oscar in 1964 for "Lilies of the Field," died Thursday in the Bahamas, according to Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas.
Few movie stars, Black or white, had such an influence both on and off the screen. Before Poitier, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, no Black actor had a sustained career as a lead performer or could get a film produced based on his own star power. Before Poitier, few Black actors were permitted a break from the stereotypes of bug-eyed servants and grinning entertainers. Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely even attempted to tell a Black person's story.
Messages honoring and mourning Poitier flooded social media, with Whoopi Goldberg writing on Twitter: “He showed us how to reach for the stars.” Tyler Perry on Instagram wrote: “The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a Black man but as a human being will never be forgotten."
Poitier's rise mirrored profound changes in the country in the 1950s and 1960s. As racial attitudes evolved during the civil rights era and segregation laws were challenged and fell, Poitier was the performer to whom a cautious industry turned for stories of progress.
He was the escaped Black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in "The Defiant Ones." He was the courtly office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in "A Patch of Blue." He was the handyman in "Lilies of the Field" who builds a church for a group of nuns. In one of the great roles of the stage and screen, he was the ambitious young father whose dreams clashed with those of other family members in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
Debates about diversity in Hollywood inevitably turn to the story of Poitier. With his handsome, flawless face; intense stare and disciplined style, he was for years not just the most popular Black movie star, but the only one.
"I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy," he recalled in a 1988 Newsweek interview. "I was kind of the lone guy in town."
Poitier peaked in 1967 with three of the year's most notable movies: "To Sir, With Love," in which he starred as a school teacher who wins over his unruly students at a London secondary school; "In the Heat of the Night," as the determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," as the prominent doctor who wishes to marry a young white woman he only recently met, her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their final film together.
Theater owners named Poitier the No. 1 star of 1967, the first time a Black actor topped the list. In 2009 President Barack Obama, whose own steady bearing was sometimes compared to Poitier's, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying that the actor "not only entertained but enlightened ... revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together."
His appeal brought him burdens not unlike such other historical figures as Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was subjected to bigotry from whites and accusations of compromise from the Black community. Poitier was held, and held himself, to standards well above his white peers. He refused to play cowards and took on characters, especially in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," of almost divine goodness. He developed a steady, but resolved and occasionally humorous persona crystallized in his most famous line — "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" — from "In the Heat of the Night."