Movies & TV / News

Film Icon & Trailblazing Activist Sidney Poitier Passes Away at 94

January 8, 2022 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night

The world has lost one of its most legendary luminaries of the big screen as Sidney Poitier has passed away. Per Deadline, the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced on Friday that the Oscar-winning screen actor of such films as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner had passed at the age of 94.

Poitier was a groundbreaking actor who became the first Black person and first Bahamian to win Academy Award for Best Actor, doing so in 1963 for Lillies of the Field. He amassed a resume filled with influential roles, over the 63 years of his career. He was also known for his civil rights activism, particularly in the 1960s, and served as the Bahamas ambassador to Japan from 1997 through 2007.

Poitier was born two months premature in February of 1927 in Miami, where his Bahamian family was visiting. His family stayed in the city for three months until he was healthy enough for them to travel back to the Bahamas. He grew up there until he was sent to live with his brother’s family in Miami at the age of 15, then moved to New York City at 16. He eventually joined the American Negro Theater, but his tone-deafness led to his being rejected by audiences.

He threw himself into achieving success as an actor after that, and eventually started to land roles on stage. He would make his credited film debut in 1950’s No Way Out which led to more film work, including his breakout role in Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Poitier earned his first Oscar nomination – and the first Black person to be nominated for Lead Actor – with 1958’s The Defiant Ones opposite Tony Curtis who was also nominated. Though they lost out to David Niven, Poitier did win Best Foreign Actor at the British Film Awards (now known as the BAFTAs).

Poitier continued to break ground, starring in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun with Ruby Dee, which has been hailed as an influential piece of theater. He would reprise his role of Walter Lee Younger in the 1961 film version, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe.

The 1960s also saw Poitier with his historic Oscar for Lillies in the Field and brought him to his commercial peak with the hat trick of To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. All three films earned accolades for Poitier’s work, and all saw Poitier tackle characters dealing with important social and racial issues.

Poitier would go on to play his In the Heat of the Night role of Virgil Tibbs in two sequels: 1970’s They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and 1971’s The Organization. He made his directorial debut with 1972’s Buck and the Preacher and would go on to direct several more times including Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, Stir Crazy, and Hanky Panky.

While his acting work slowed down significantly following the 1970s, he did appear in several more memorable roles. 1988 saw him star with Tom Berenger in the action-thriller Shoot to Kill, and he also appeared in the 1992 crime comedy Sneakers with Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, and others. He appeared in 1997’s The Jackal with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, his final theatrical performance, and made several TV movies in the 1990s.

Poitier received the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2002. Denzel Washington, who presented Poitier with the award, became the second Black actor to win Best Lead Actor later that night for Training Day. In his acceptance speech, Washington said, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”

In addition to his film accolades – which also included the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes in 1981 – Poitier won a Grammy Award and was nominated for another for Best Spoken Word Performance. His win came in 2001 for his autobiography The Measure of a Man, and his second nomination was in 2009 for Life Beyond Measure, his book in which he shared letters to his great-granddaughter.

Poitier was the recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1992 and the Kenney Center Honor in 1995. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and he was given an honorary knighthood in 1974.

On behalf of 411, our condolences to the family, friends, and the world of fans of Mr. Poitier. The world would be a very different place without his having paved the way for many others to follow.

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Sidney Poitier, Jeremy Thomas