Sidney Poitier, Star of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and first Black actor to win best actor Academy Award, dies at 94

"But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian: a cultural icon, an actor and film director, an entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and, latterly, a diplomat."

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12 Aug 2009, Washington DC, USA --- epa01821985 US President Barack Obama awards American actor Sidney Poitier the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on 12 August 2009. Poitier is the first African American to be nominated and win a Best Actor Academy Award, receive an award at a top international film festival (Venice Film Festival), and be the top grossing movie star in the United States. EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH --- Image by © MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/epa/Corbis
12 Aug 2009, Washington DC, USA — epa01821985 US President Barack Obama awards American actor Sidney Poitier the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on 12 August 2009. Poitier is the first African American to be nominated and win a Best Actor Academy Award, receive an award at a top international film festival (Venice Film Festival), and be the top grossing movie star in the United States. EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH — Image by © MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/epa/Corbis

Sidney Poitier, the first Black actor to win best actor Academy Award, is dead, aged 94.

Poitier broke through racial barriers as the first Black winner of the best actor Oscar for his role in “Lilies of the Field,” and inspired a generation during the civil rights movement.

Poitier was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling. He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first Black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.

Growing up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau, Poitier moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the Army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.

The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy in “Days of Our Youth” and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering Black actor, fell ill.

Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said on Friday, in a speech broadcast on Facebook, “It is with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier.”

“But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian: a cultural icon, an actor and film director, an entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and, latterly, a diplomat.”

Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” he played a Black man with a white fiancee and “In the Heat of the Night” he was Virgil Tibbs, a Black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation. He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in “To Sir, With Love.”

Sidney Poitier, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Poitier had won his history-making best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years before that Poitier had been the first Black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in “The Defiant Ones.”

His Tibbs character from “In the Heat of the Night” was immortalized in two sequels – “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” in 1970 and “The Organization” in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series “In the Heat of the Night” starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.

His other classic films of that era included “A Patch of Blue” in 1965 in which his character was befriended by a blind white girl, “The Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Poitier also performed on Broadway.

“The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!,” Oscar winner Viola Davis tweeted.

Poitier was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency. He also sat on Walt Disney Co’s board of directors from 1994 to 2003.

In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with “Buck and the Preacher” in which he co-starred with Belafonte.

In 1992, Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, joining recipients such as Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.

“I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young Black dishwasher learn to read,” Poitier told the audience. “I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.”

In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.

The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.

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