Hollywood icon Sydney Poitier dies aged 94

Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win a best actor Oscar, has died at 94.

The Hollywood star’s death was confirmed to the BBC by the office of Fred Mitchell, the Bahamas’ minister of foreign affairs.

Poitier was a trailblazing actor and a respected humanitarian and diplomat. He won the Academy Award for best actor for Lilies of the Field in 1963.

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Born in Miami, he grew up on a tomato farm in the Bahamas and moved to New York aged 16.

He signed up for a short stint in the army and did several odd jobs while taking acting lessons, en route to becoming a star of the stage and screen.

His appearance in The Defiant Ones in 1958 earned him his first Oscar nomination – in itself an historic achievement for a black man in a lead category at the time.

Five years later he went one better, taking the glory for Lilies of the Field, in which he played a handyman who helps German nuns to build a chapel in the desert.

The actor was a regular on the big screen at a time of racial segregation in the US, appearing in a Patch of Blue in 1965, and then Heat of the Night the year after, followed by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, playing a black man with a white fiancée.

In Heat of the Night he portrayed Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation.

His other classic films included A Patch of Blue, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which he also performed on Broadway.

Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win a best actor Oscar, has died at 94.
The Hollywood star’s death was confirmed to the BBC by the office of Fred Mitchell, the Bahamas’ minister of foreign affairs.

Poitier was a trailblazing actor and a respected humanitarian and diplomat. He won the Academy Award for best actor for Lilies of the Field in 1963.

Born in Miami, he grew up on a tomato farm in the Bahamas and moved to New York aged 16.
He signed up for a short stint in the army and did several odd jobs while taking acting lessons, en route to becoming a star of the stage and screen in the 1950s and 60s.

Poitier broke racial barriers in Hollywood. His appearance in The Defiant Ones in 1958 earned him his first Oscar nomination – in itself an historic achievement for a black man in a lead category at the time.

Five years later he went one better, taking the glory for Lilies of the Field, in which he played a handyman who helps German nuns to build a chapel in the desert.

[RONALD GRANT] One of his most powerful roles was Virgil Tibbs in the film In the Heat of the Night

The actor was a regular on the big screen at a time of racial segregation in the US, appearing in a Patch of Blue in 1965, and then Heat of the Night the year after, followed by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, playing a black man with a white fiancée.

In Heat of the Night he portrayed Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation.

His other classic films included A Patch of Blue, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which he also performed on Broadway.

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He went on to direct a raft of films, and a Broadway play about life and career was announced last month.
‘Tackled racism head on’

Empire magazine’s Amon Warmann told the BBC: “He was a pioneer, he’s so influential and paved the way for so many in the industry to make their own mark, not least Denzel Washington, who paid tribute to him when he won an Oscar.”

Washington, who won an Oscar in 2002 on the same night Poitier won an honorary Oscar, joked as he said: “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney and what do they do – they go and give it to him in the same night.”
Warmann added that Poitier “tackled racism head on” in his work but was also “so versatile”.

“He really helped change the game for how black actors were viewed at that time [of his Oscar win]. He was one of the biggest stars during that period.”

Viola Davis, the first black American to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award, said: “No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life.”

 

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Davis recalled the time that at an event, Poitier had told her and her husband that “if your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough,” and how she had subsequently pinned the inspirational quote to her daughter’s wall.

Star Trek actor George Takei paid tribute, calling the actor “a trailblazer who will be mourned by so many for whom he opened the very doors of Hollywood”.

James Bond and Westworld actor Jeffrey Wright added that Poitier was a “landmark actor”.


Actress Whoopi Goldberg quoted the lyrics to the song To Sir With Love, which soundtracked Poitier’s 1967 film. “He showed us how to reach for the stars,” she noted, while actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt called him an “an absolute legend”.

US broadcaster and journalist Oprah Winfrey put it to the actor an interview in 2000 that, as producer Quincy Jones had said, Poitier had “created and defined the African-American in film”.

“It’s been an enormous responsibility,” Poitier replied. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility.

“I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”

[GETTY IMAGES] Poitier has been described by many as a trailblazing actor who broke through Hollywood’s racial barriers

Author and historian Donald Bogle spoke in a Turner Classic Movies YouTube film about the heights the actor reached during his career.

“Poitier in the 60s is this big star and he’s the only dramatic black actor who works continually in these leading roles and he has big films,” he said.

Screenwriter Richard Wesley added: “At that time, there was a social need for a character like Sidney Poitier. The social changes that were being wrought by the civil rights movement was demanding a different kind of conversation and interaction and introspection on the part of black and white people in America at that time.

“Sidney Poitier’s characterisations on screen were part of that conversation and they were a necessary part of that conversation.”

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Source BBC

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