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Sidney Poitier, first Black man to win Oscar for best actor, dies at 94

Sidney Poitier with his Oscar statuette in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field.” (AP)

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described what Sidney Poitier’s character in the play and film “A Raisin in the Sun” hopes to do with an inheritance from his late father. The character, a Black chauffeur named Walter Lee Younger, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store, not to move his family to the White suburbs. He is in conflict with his mother, who wants to escape a cramped apartment and use the money to buy a suburban home. The story has been corrected.

Sidney Poitier, who was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor and who forever changed the perception of African Americans in movies with his powerful and charismatic screen presence, died Jan. 6 at 94.

The personal assistant to Frederick A. Mitchell, the minister of foreign affairs in the Bahamas, where Mr. Poitier was raised, confirmed the death. Pamela Poitier said her father died at his home in California, but she did not provide further details.

As a suave and dignified star, Mr. Poitier challenged audiences to accept Black performers in leading roles in movies and on television. He upended a demeaning Hollywood tradition of casting Black performers in vulgar caricature or limiting them to singing and dancing roles that could be segregated from the rest of the film and cut out when the movies ran in the South.

Cornel West, an author, social critic and civil rights activist, called Mr. Poitier “the towering American artist of African descent in the history of film” and likened him to the first Black major league baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

Mr. Poitier’s Oscar was for ­“Lilies of the Field,” a film released in 1963 — the same year as the March on Washington for civil rights. By contrast, the film, about a drifter handyman who helps nuns from Central Europe build a chapel in Arizona, made almost no mention of race, which Mr. Poitier, who championed colorblind casting, deemed as much a triumph as his Oscar.

Sidney Poitier changed the Oscars in 1964. The academy is still grappling with the promise of that moment.

At a time when much of the country remained segregated, he struggled to find roles as professional and authority figures, saying that his primary intent was to portray Black men of “refinement, education and accomplishment.”

Perhaps his most enduring and defining part was Virgil Tibbs, an experienced Philadelphia homicide detective who helps a bigoted White Mississippi police chief in a murder investigation in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967). The film marked the first appearance of a Black law enforcement hero in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

The chief, played by Rod Steiger, makes fun of the name Virgil and asks Tibbs what he is called in Philadelphia. Mr. Poitier shoots back with a mixture of pride and barely contained rage, “They call me Mister Tibbs.”

In the movie’s most startling sequence, the prominent owner of a cotton plantation slaps Tibbs for not knowing his place, and Tibbs slaps him back reflexively. Mr. Poitier wrote in his memoir “The Measure of a Man” (2000) that it was his idea for Tibbs to return the slap.

“In the original script, I looked at him with great disdain and, wrapped in my strong ideals, walked out,” he wrote. “That could have happened with another actor playing the part, but it couldn’t happen with me.” He insisted on a change to the script because of a searing experience as a teenager in Florida, when police stopped him for walking in a White neighborhood. “They really had their fun with me,” he recalled in the book. “They put a pistol right to my forehead. . . . And for 10 minutes, they just joked about whether to shoot me in the right eye or left eye.”

As much as “In the Heat of the Night” secured his star luster, it was only one in a line of cinematic breakthroughs. In some of Mr. Poitier’s finest film performances, he was a medical resident harassed by a racist patient (Richard Widmark) in “No Way Out” (1950); an escaped prisoner chained to a bigoted convict (Tony Curtis) in “The Defiant Ones” (1958); and an ambitious chauffeur in “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), a part he also played in the 1959 Broadway play and for which he received a Tony Award nomination.

Mr. Poitier’s place in the 1960s Hollywood hierarchy — a major star with critical and popular appeal — was exceptional in the ranks of Black actors. Harry Belafonte, a popular singer of calypso and other folk songs, exuded more sexual charisma than Mr. Poitier but lacked his range. Belafonte tried to make it as a leading man in the 1950s before returning to a career in music and civil rights.

After his Academy Award win, Mr. Poitier said he doubted that the honor would be a “magic wand that will wipe away the restrictions on job opportunities for Negro actors.” Even at his career’s peak, in the 1960s, he said his creative control was often limited to rejecting roles that he felt were unworthy.

He sought parts in which his skin color was incidental, including the Cold War thriller “The Bedford Incident” and the suicide-helpline drama “The Slender Thread” (both 1965), explaining that he hoped a race-neutral approach to casting would change perceptions in the film industry.

But the thoughtful, unthreatening image he projected — playing a doctor engaged to a White woman in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and a London teacher who tames rowdy students in “To Sir, With Love” (both 1967) — was out of step with increasingly assertive Black activism. In some quarters, Mr. Poitier came under withering attack.

Writer Larry Neal was among the Black activists and artists to scold Mr. Poitier, calling him in 1971 “a million-dollar shoeshine boy.” Melvin Van Peebles, who made the politically radical film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), wrote decades later in Ebony magazine, “Sidney was a wonderful actor, and we were proud, but nobody could really relate because the characters he was given to play were surreal, more from heaven than the ’hood.”

Mr. Poitier was hurt by such criticism, but he understood it. He wrote in his first memoir, “This Life” (1980), that few starring roles presented “positive images” of Blacks and that “however inadequate my step appeared, it was important that we make it.”

Film critic and scholar Richard Schickel said many in the Black community, as well as some White movie critics, wanted Mr. Poitier “to lead the revolution in the movies. But in truth, the movies were somewhat behind the ‘revolutionary curve.’ So what was on offer for Mr. Poitier was being a middle-class guy who, to a degree, challenged White smugness.”

Directing became a way for Mr. Poitier to assert control over his image and, starting in the 1970s, he made comedies starring Bill Cosby (“Uptown Saturday Night,” “Ghost Dad”), Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (“Stir Crazy”), and Wilder and Gilda Radner (“Hanky Panky”).

On Aug. 12, 2009, President Barack Obama awarded legendary actor Sidney Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Video: C-SPAN)

After being off the movie big screen for 10 years, Mr. Poitier returned in a pair of action thrillers in 1988, playing FBI agents in “Shoot to Kill” and “Little Nikita.” Four years later, Mr. Poitier was lured back to portray a cashiered CIA agent in “Sneakers” (1992), with Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd, because “it was a wonderful, breezy opportunity to play nothing heavy. It was simple, and I didn’t have to carry the weight. I haven’t done that in a while, and it was refreshing.”

Desperate poverty

Sidney Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, where his parents were on a visit to sell tomatoes they had grown on their farm in the Bahamas. The family soon returned home, to the desperate poverty of Cat Island. His mother dressed the seven Poitier children in flour sacks.

At 15, after being jailed overnight for stealing corn, he was sent to live with an older brother in Miami who could provide a roof but little else. After the frightening encounter with police in Florida, he left for Harlem, hoping to find a more welcoming environment for Black people.

At first, he scrounged for change to sleep in pay toilets. When it became too cold to sleep on benches, he lied about his age (he was 16) and joined the Army in 1943.

He became a physiotherapist at an Army psychiatric institution on Long Island, but his anger at what he called the “abusive” attitude toward the patients and the racism he encountered at a local roadhouse antagonized him. Through the intervention of a sympathetic doctor, he received an honorable discharge.

Sidney Poitier acted his way out of a brutal introduction to America

Flipping through help-wanted ads in 1945, he saw a call for actors at the American Negro Theatre in New York. He figured it was easy work — that any profession that advertised next to requests for porters, busboys and dishwashers must require no special talent.

At his audition, Mr. Poitier’s unintelligible, singsong island accent dismayed theater founder Frederick O’Neal. But O’Neal was in such dire need of male actors that Mr. Poitier was hired with the understanding that he would also moonlight as the theater’s janitor. (To polish his speaking, he bought a radio and studied the diction and intonation of the announcers.)

During his first Broadway appearance, a small part in a 1946 production of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” Mr. Poitier suffered stage fright and began delivering lines out of order. But citing his “terrible fierce pride,” he later said he was determined to refine his skills. Over the next several years, his good looks and sensitivity as a performer brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and he made a strong impact in “No Way Out,” his film debut.

In his second feature film, Mr. Poitier was cast as a young clergyman in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951), based on Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid. Working on location in South Africa, Mr. Poitier was forced to live far from the studio, and he had to deal with other restrictions and insults. Officially, he was an “indentured laborer” of director Zoltan Korda. Mr. Poitier later called South Africa “on a racial, political and social level, the worst place I have ever been.”

Still a relative unknown on-screen, Mr. Poitier owned and operated a Harlem ribs restaurant to support his growing family between movie assignments. He had married Juanita Hardy, a model, in 1950, and they had four children.

“Blackboard Jungle” (1955), with Glenn Ford as a new teacher at an urban school and Mr. Poitier as a bright but rebellious student, was a major step forward for the young actor. The hit film, aided by a soundtrack featuring Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” led to prominent roles opposite Rock Hudson (“Something of Value”) and John Cassavetes (“Edge of the City”), both in 1957. In the former, he was a conflicted Mau Mau sympathizer in Kenya, in the latter a dockworker whose interracial friendship with the character played by Cassavetes leads to trouble.

Star billings

Filmmaker Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” in 1958, marked Mr. Poitier’s first star billing, which he credited to co-star Curtis’s insistence. Despite sterling reviews and leading-man Oscar nominations for Mr. Poitier and Curtis, they both lost to David Niven in “Separate Tables.”

After that brush with glory, Mr. Poitier said he felt forced to take a leap backward in the 1959 film version of the George and Ira Gershwin-DuBose Heyward folk operetta “Porgy and Bess.” Porgy, he said, was an embarrassingly “outdated” part. But Samuel Goldwyn insisted on having him, and Mr. Poitier said it would have been a career-ending move to refuse such a powerful producer. (Mr. Poitier’s songs were dubbed by opera singer Robert McFerrin, the father of singer Bobby McFerrin.)

To Mr. Poitier, there were consolations. During filming, Mr. Poitier began a long affair with co-star Diahann Carroll. It wrecked his marriage, he said, but Carroll “was confident, inviting, sensuous and she moved with the rhythm that absolutely tantalized me.”

They reunited on-screen in “Paris Blues” (1961), about American jazz musicians in Paris. (Mr. Poitier later wrote that the tepidly received film would have been vastly improved if the two male stars, he and Paul Newman, had switched their love interests — Carroll and Joanne Woodward, respectively, as a commentary on interracial relationships.)

Mr. Poitier made a notable return to Broadway in 1959 with Lorraine Hansberry’s drama “A Raisin in the Sun.” He played Walter Lee Younger, a Chicago chauffeur who wants to use his father’s inheritance, against his mother’s wishes, to invest in a liquor store and become rich.

New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson singled out Mr. Poitier as “a remarkable actor with enormous power that is always under control.” Much of the cast, including Ruby Dee, reprised their roles for the well-received 1961 film version.

Not long after, he read the script for “Lilies of the Field,” and he knew immediately that it was the type of part that most intrigued him: a showcase for his magnetism that did not have to make overt statements about skin color. It also seemed a decidedly uncommercial undertaking, utterly lacking in romance or action.

The studio, United Artists, made “Lilies” on a minimal budget, and Mr. Poitier agreed to a cut of the profits instead of his usual star-wattage salary — in retrospect, a wise move because the film became an unexpected popular hit.

The moment was primed for his Oscar — as a reward for his years of compelling work and as an industry response to the March on Washington. Veteran Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote that “if ever there was a year when the Negro should be honored, it is this year, for obvious reasons.”

Indeed, Mr. Poitier beat out strong competition: Albert Finney (“Tom Jones”), Paul Newman (“Hud”), Richard Harris (“This Sporting Life”) and Rex Harrison (“Cleopatra”).

Mr. Poitier became the third Black recipient of an Oscar in an acting category. Previous winners were Hattie McDaniel, for her supporting role as the enslaved Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), and James Baskett, who received a special award for playing Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” (1946).

Mr. Poitier remained a major box office draw for several years, starring at his career pinnacle in three of the top-grossing films of 1967: “In the Heat of the Night”; “To Sir, With Love”; and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

The last — about an interracial couple whose nuptials are opposed by the parents on both sides — had the distinction of not ending tragically. But at one point, Mr. Poitier tells his screen father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man,” a line that typified what Mr. Poitier’s more militant critics found troubling about his roles.

Mr. Poitier’s efforts to appear more revolutionary were critical and popular failures, including “The Lost Man” (1969), a race-conscious remake of the Irish-rebellion thriller “Odd Man Out.” In 1976, he married his White co-star in “The Lost Man,” Joanna Shimkus.

He had four daughters from his first marriage and two daughters from his second marriage. A list of survivors was not immediately available.

In 2002, Mr. Poitier received a lifetime achievement Oscar for “his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.” That year, Denzel Washington became the second Black man to win the best-actor Oscar, for his role in the police drama “Training Day.”

Mr. Poitier, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Barack Obama, disliked sweeping statements about his legacy.

“I was part of an influence that could be called paving the way,” he told the Times of London in 1992. “But I was only a part of it. I was selected almost by history itself. Most of my career unfolded in the 1960s, which was one of the periods in American history with certain attitudes toward minorities that stayed in vogue.”

“I didn’t understand the elements swirling around,” he continued. “I was a young actor with some talent, an enormous curiosity, a certain kind of appeal. You wrap all that together and you have a potent mix.”

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