Sidney Poitier: Legendary Hollywood trailblazer dies aged 94

Sidney Poitier, who 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, has died at age 94, an official from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says.

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

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier has passed away at the age of 94. Photo: Getty Images

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.

Poitier was born in Miami on February 20, 1927, 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.

Poitier won his history-making best actor Oscar 1963, but five years earlier, he had been the first black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.

Sidney Poitier with his Oscar
Sidney broke through racial barriers as the first black winner of the best actor Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field. Photo: Getty Images

Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.

"I love you, I respect you, I imitate you," Denzel Washington, another Oscar-winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.

Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he 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.

"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 at the 2002 Oscars where he received a special honorary award.

"I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now."

The young actor got his first break when he became an understudy in Days of Our Youth when the star, Harry Belafonte - another pioneering black actor, fell ill.

Poitier enjoyed success on Broadway in Anna Lucasta in 1948 and, two years later, got his first movie role in No Way Out with Richard Widmark.

In all, he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine.

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

Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three autobiographical books.

"If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you're not going to get very far," he told the Washington Post. "The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness."

Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and in 2009 was awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.

Sidney Poitier and Oprah Winfrey
Oprah paid tribute to her dear friend and mentor. Photo: Getty Images

TV legend Oprah Winfrey, who considered Sidney a friend and mentor, has paid tribute to him on Instagram.

Oprah wrote: "For me, the greatest of the 'Great Trees' has fallen: Sidney Poitier. My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters (sic)”

The ‘Butler’ actress spoke about Sidney’s legacy during last year’s Black History Month, and detailed how he had laid the groundwork for her and many others within the industry.

She said at the time: "When I tell you profoundly, I could start weeping right now, I was profoundly, deeply, sincerely moved by that moment. We were being called coloured people at the time. [And] I had never seen a coloured man look like that or present like that. And I just thought if he could do that, I wonder what I could do.

“And because he did that, I was able to do what I have been able to do in the world, and every single other Black person who followed. It only happened because he was able not just to do that, but to be that. It's what he represented: his dignity, integrity, presence, grace, sense of honour, choice of characters only doing, and choosing roles that were going to reflect the best of what a Black person could be in the world."

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