Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role, died Thursday at his home in the Bahamas, an official for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas confirmed.
Poitier was born in Miami as the youngest of nine children but grew up in the island nation, then a British colony. The son of tomato farmers, he moved to New York City as a teenager, working as a dishwasher and other odd jobs while breaking into the theatrical world. An older employee at a restaurant where he was worked mentored him in the evenings, teaching him to read and improve his diction by reading newspapers together.
Poitier’s silver screen break came when he was cast as doctor who must attend to racist patients in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, “No Way Out.” From there, he blazed a trail in Hollywood, becoming renowned for the grace and dignity of his performances in classic films like “Lilies of the Field,” “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“I made films when the only other [b]lack on the lot was the shoeshine boy,” he told Newsweek in 1988. “I was kind of the lone guy in town.”
Poitier’s rise coincided with the civil rights movement, and he became in many American’s eyes a symbol of racial equality. As Aram Goudsouzian wrote in his 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” as a performer, Poitier embodied a “cool boil” that “struck a delicate balance, revealing racial frustration, but tacitly assuring a predominantly white audience that blacks would eschew violence and preserve social order.”
He broke barriers for black actors with his first Academy Award nomination in 1959, starring alongside Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones,” and made history in 1964 when he won “Best Actor” for his portrayal of a handyman who helps a group of German immigrant nuns restore their chapel in “Lilies of the Field.”
In 1967, theater owners named him the number one movie star — a first for a black performer.
Denzel Washington summed up Poitier’s impact in his own 2002 Oscar acceptance speech, saying, “Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country. But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture. He was the reason a movie got made; the first solo, above-the-title, African-American movie star.”
In 2000, Poitier told Oprah Winfrey that his awareness of his legacy as black pioneer led him to live his life and conduct himself in such a way to bring honor to the black community. “It’s been an enormous responsibility,” he said, “and I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
He added, “I had in mind what was expected of me — not just what other blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.”
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