Sidney Poitier, 1st Black man to win best actor Oscar, dies at 94

The Oscar-winning actor helped break down the color barrier in Hollywood.

January 7, 2022, 10:44 AM

Sidney Poitier, the Oscar-winning actor who brought a quiet dignity to his characters on screen and helped break down the color barrier in Hollywood, has died. He was 94 years old.

Poitier's death was confirmed by two Bahamian ministers. Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper told ABC News he was "conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier."

"Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us," he said.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell also told ABC News, "We've lost a great Bahamian and I've lost a personal friend."

Poitier became the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1964 for his role in "Lilies of the Field." He was perhaps best known for his role as a Black doctor engaged to a white woman in 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in which he starred opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

PHOTO: In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, receiving the Oscar for his performance in "Lilies of the Field."
In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, receiving the Oscar for his performance in "Lilies of the Field." Hattie McDaniel was awarded the Academy Award in 1938 for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone with the Wind, making her the first Black person to be nominated for and receive an Oscar.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

That same year, he portrayed his most successful character, Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama "In the Heat of the Night." It was a role he would reprise in two sequels. He played an inner-city teacher in "To Sir, with Love," his third film in 1967.

Born Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami while his Bahamian parents were visiting, Poitier spent most of his childhood in the Bahamas. As a teen, he was sent to live with one of his brothers in Miami, and at age 16, moved on his own to New York City. After working a series of menial jobs and a brief stint in the Army, he finally landed a spot at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem.

He made his film debut in 1950 in "No Way Out," playing a doctor treating a white bigot. His breakthrough role came in 1955 playing a student in an inner-city school in "Blackboard Jungle." He had earned his first Academy Award nomination for starring in the 1958 crime drama "The Defiant Ones" with Tony Curtis.

Other memorable roles included the musical "Porgy and Bess," the film adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun" and "A Patch of Blue."

Starting in the 1970s, Poitier directed a number of films, including "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Let's Do It Again" with Bill Cosby. In 1980, he directed the hit comedy "Stir Crazy," starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

After retiring from acting in 1997, he served as the non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan until 2007.

In 2002, 38 years after receiving his best actor Oscar, Poitier was given an honorary Academy Award for his "remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being." In 2009, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Aug. 12, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Aug. 12, 2009 in Washington, D.C. Obama presented the medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States, to 16 recipients during the ceremony.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Poitier is survived by six daughters, four of whom he had with first wife Juanita Hardy. He is also survived by his current wife Joanna Shimkus, the mother of two of his daughters, including actress Sydney Tamiia Poitier.

Hollywood mourned the passing of such an influential figure, with tributes from Whoopi Goldberg, Jeffrey Wright and Debbie Allen.

"He showed us how to reach for the stars," Goldberg said in part. "My condolences to his family and to all of us as well."

Wright called Poitier "a landmark actor" and "one of a kind." He added, "What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love."

"#SidneyPoitier, your last sunset with us is the dawn of many generations rising in the path of light you blazed," Allen said. "We will always hold you in our hearts and forever speak your name."

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