Sidney Poitier, Hollywood legend to first black man to win Best Actor Oscar, dies aged 94

Sidney Poitier, the legendary star who was the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar has died at age 94, Bahamas Secretary of State Fred Mitchell confirmed to CBS News on Friday. Mitchell was notified by the family of Poitier’s death, but had no other details.

Poitier, who holds dual American and Bahamian citizenship, was “an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure,” Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said on his official Facebook page.

Poitier’s life was a series of ‘firsts’. In 1958, he became the first black actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as an escaped convict chained to Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones.”

When he was nominated again for “Lilies of the Field” in 1964, he took home the Academy Award. Not only was he the first black actor to do so, he remained the only one until 2002.

He was also the first black man to kiss a white woman in a 1965 film, “A Patch of Blue.”

He made memorable performances in films such as “In the Heat of the Night,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Poitier was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the country – by Barack Obama in 2009.

Actor Sidney Poitier receives the 2009 Presidential Medal of
Actor Sidney Poitier receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on August 12, 2009.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Sidney Poitier embodied dignity and grace,” Obama said tweeted Friday, “revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors.”

Poitier told CBS News that his career choices were less about being “first” and more about his characters’ image. He wouldn’t, he told Lesley Stahl in 2013, play someone who was immoral or cruel. “If you go through my career, you’ll find that I didn’t. I never did.”

“I didn’t go into the movie world to be symbolized by someone else’s vision of me,” Poitier told Stahl. He said he would not play any role “that negatively impacts my father, my mother and my values.

“My father was a tomato farmer. There is the expression that says he or she worked their fingers to the bone, well, that’s my father. And he was a very good man.”

Sidney Poitier, the youngest of seven children, was born three months premature while his Bahamian parents were in Miami selling tomatoes.

Not sure if he would survive, his father bought a small box while his mother consulted a palm reader.

“The lady took her hand and started talking to my mother, ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive,'” Poitier recalled. “And these were her words, she said, ‘He shall walk with kings.'”

And it came out, “Everything she said, including walking with kings, yeah.”

President Joe Biden was among those who paid tribute to Poitier after news of his death. In a statement, he said:

“Sidney was more than just one of the greatest actors in our history. His iconic performances in films like” The Rebels, A raisin in the sun, Guess who’s coming to eat, and In the dead of night held a mirror to America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s. With unshakable grandeur and poise—his unique warmth, depth and onscreen stature—Sidney helped open the hearts of millions and changed the way America saw itself.”

Harry Belafonte, a close friend of Poitier’s, released a statement on Friday calling the iconic actor his “partner in trying to make this world a little bit better”.

“For more than 80 years, Sidney and I have laughed, cried, and done as much mischief as possible,” he wrote. “He was really my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little bit better. He definitely made mine a lot better.”

Posts honoring Poitier flooded social media, with Oscar winner Morgan Freeman calling him “my inspiration, my guiding light, my friend” and Oprah Winfrey praising him as a “friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher.”

“No words can describe how your work has radically changed my life,” wrote fellow Oscar winner Viola Davis. “The dignity, normality, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought into your roles showed us that we, as black people, mattered!!!”

Actor Jeffrey Wright called him “a beautiful, gracious, warm, truly royal man.”


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