HOLLYWOOD, : US actor Sidney Poitier hold his honorary Oscar 24 March, 2002 at the 74th Academy Awards in Hollywood, CA. Poitier was the first black actor to take home the statuette in the top actors category for Lilies of the Field in 1963. AFP PHOTO/Mike NELSON (Photo credit should read MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The first Black person to win the best actor Oscar gave a string of groundbreaking performances on screen that helped combat social prejudice. 

Sidney Poitier, whose groundbreaking acting work in the 1950s and 60s paved the way for generations of Black film stars, has died aged 94. His death was announced by the minister of foreign affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell. 

The Bahamas deputy prime minister, Chester Cooper, said he was “conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier”. He added: “Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but a 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. “We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.” 

Poitier’s family released a statement, saying: “To us Sidney Poitier was not only a brilliant actor, activist, and a man of incredible grace and moral fortitude, he was also a devoted and loving husband, a supportive and adoring father, and a man who always put family first… So many have been touched by our dad’s extraordinary life, his unwavering sense of decency and respect for his fellow man.” 

Poitier, who was born in Miami and raised in the Bahamas, was the first Black winner of the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field and, along with Harry Belafonte, was a pioneering Black presence in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Bahamian-American star Poitier was automatically granted US citizenship after being unexpectedly born in Miami while his parents were visiting in February 1927.

He grew up in the Bahamas but moved to America when he was 15, and served in the Second World War as a teenager after lying about his age.

After leaving the army, he worked as a dishwasher until he landed a place at the American Negro Theatre School of Drama. Poitier scored his first lead film role in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and his first experience of awards recognition came with The Defiant Ones (1958), which saw him nominated for Best Actor alongside co-star Tony Curtis years later, he historically won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field. 

Denzel Washington praised Poitier when he became the second Black man to win Best Actor for 2001 film Training Day, saying: “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”

At the same ceremony, Poitier received an Honorary Academy Award for his contribution to American cinema. As of 2012, following the death of Ernest Borgnine, Poitier became the oldest living Best Actor winner in history.

In the 1980s, he directed numerous films but had the most success with the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy (1980). His other film credits include Porgy and Bess (1959), Paris Blues (1961), A Patch of Blue (1965), Sneakers (1992), and The Jackal (1997). The actor also served as a diplomat. In 1997, he was named the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan. He remained in the position until 2007.

Poitier married twice, the first time to Juanita Hardy, from 1960 to 1965. After a nine-year affair with actor and singer Diahann Caroll, Poitier married Canadian actor Joanna Shimkus in 1976. They stayed together for the remainder of his life. Poitier is survived by six children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Author: Bunmi Johnson

New York, USA