Obituary: Sidney Poitier, Oscar winner and groundbreaking actor

Sidney Poitier, actor. Born: 20 February, 1927 in Miami, Florida. Died: 6 January, 2022 in Los Angeles, California, aged 94

Sidney Poitier transformed how black people were portrayed on screen
Sidney Poitier transformed how black people were portrayed on screen

Sidney Poitier was a groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration who transformed how black people were portrayed on screen, becoming the first black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance and the first to be a top box-office draw.

Before Poitier, winner of the best actor Oscar in 1964 for Lilies Of The Field, 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.

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.

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.

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Cinema owners named Poitier the number one star of 1967, the first time a black actor topped the list. In 2009 President Barack Obama 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".

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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 crystallised in his most famous line – “They call me Mr Tibbs!” – from In The Heat of The Night.

Stardom did not shield Poitier from racism and condescension. He had a hard time finding housing in Los Angeles and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three civil rights workers had been murdered there. In interviews, journalists often ignored his work and asked him instead about race and current events.

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"I am an artist, man, American, contemporary," he snapped during a 1967 press conference. "I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due."

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

His screen career faded in the late 1960s as political movements, black and white, became more radical and movies more explicit. He acted less often, gave fewer interviews and began directing, his credits including the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder farce Stir Crazy.

Poitier received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a special Academy Award in 2002, on the same night that black performers won both best acting awards, Washington for Training Day and Halle Berry for Monster's Ball.

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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.

His life ended in adulation, but it began in hardship. Poitier was born in Miami, where his parents had gone to deliver tomatoes from their farm on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas. He spent his early years on the remote island, which had a population of 1,500 and no electricity, and he quit school at 12 to help support the family. Three years later, he was sent to live with a brother in Miami; his father was concerned that the street life of Nassau was a bad influence. With three dollars in his pocket, Sidney travelled steerage on a mail-cargo ship.

Poitier moved on to Harlem and was so overwhelmed by his first winter there he enlisted in the army, cheating on his age and swearing he was 18 when he had yet to turn 17. Assigned to a mental hospital on Long Island, Poitier was appalled at how cruelly the doctors and nurses treated the soldier patients. He escaped the army by feigning insanity.

Back in Harlem, he was looking in the Amsterdam News for a dishwasher job when he noticed an ad seeking actors at the American Negro Theatre. He went there and was handed a script and told to go on the stage. Poitier could barely read. He stumbled through his lines in a thick Caribbean accent and the director marched him to the door.

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“As I walked to the bus, what humiliated me was the suggestion that all he could see in me was a dishwasher. If I submitted to him, I would be aiding him in making that perception a prophetic one,” Poitier later said. “I got so pissed, I said, ‘I'm going to become an actor’. That became my goal.”

The process took months as he sounded out words from the newspaper. Poitier returned and made a deal: He would act as janitor for the theatre in return for acting lessons. When he was released again, his fellow students urged the teachers to let him be in the class play. Another Caribbean, Belafonte, was cast in the lead. When Belafonte could not make a preview performance because it conflicted with his own janitorial duties, his understudy, Poitier, went on.

The audience included a Broadway producer who cast him in an all-black version of Lysistrata. Rave reviews for Poitier won him an understudy job in Anna Lucasta. In 1950, he broke through on screen in No Way Out, playing a doctor whose patient, a white man, dies and is then harassed by the patient's bigoted brother, played by Richard Widmark.

Key early films included Blackboard Jungle, featuring Poitier as a tough high school student (the actor was well into his 20s at the time) in a violent school; and The Defiant Ones, which brought Poitier his first best actor nomination, and the first one for any black male. The theme of cultural differences turned lighthearted in Lilies Of The Field, in which Poitier played a Baptist handyman who builds a chapel for a group of Roman Catholic nuns, refugees from Germany. In one memorable scene, he gives them an English lesson.

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The only black actor before Poitier to win a competitive Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, the 1939 best supporting actress for Gone With The Wind. No-one, including Poitier, thought Lilies Of The Field his best film, but the times were right (Congress would soon pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for which Poitier had lobbied) and the actor was favoured even against such competitors as Paul Newman for Hud and Albert Finney for Tom Jones. Newman was among those rooting for Poitier.

When presenter Anne Bancroft announced his victory, the audience cheered for so long that Poitier momentarily forgot his speech. "It has been a long journey to this moment," he declared.

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