Sidney Poitier, Legendary Academy Award–Winning Actor and Devoted Activist, Passes Away at 94

Image: Daniel Fallot/INA via Getty Images

The iconic Sidney Poitier, the legendary Academy Award-winning actor, acclaimed director, and devoted activist has passed away, NBC News reports. He was 94.

No cause of death has been given.

In his illustrious film career that encompassed several decades, Poitier was widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. He made history as the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for his remarkable performance in 1964 for Lilies of the Field.

Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, to Bahamian parents who were vacationing in the United States. His early years were spent in the Bahamas on his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island before the family relocated to Nassau. As a teenager, Poitier returned to the U.S., where he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving briefly in the medical unit. Eventually, he made his way to New York City where he fell in love with the performing arts.

When he first applied to the American Negro Theatre, he was rejected because of his accent. More determined than ever, he spent the next several months practicing American enunciation. After gaining entrance in 1946, he made his Broadway debut in Lysistrata.

In 1950, Poitier made his film debut in No Way Out and he achieved mainstream success in 1958 starring in The Defiant Ones, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.

He went on to give riveting performances in Porgy and Bess (1959), adapted from the George Gershwin opera, and in the role of Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), adapted from the Lorraine Hansberry play.

Refusing to take on roles that perpetuated racial stereotypes, Poitier earned critical acclaim for portraying strong, intelligent Black men in such classics as A Patch of Blue, To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner throughout the 1960s.

“I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” Poitier wrote about being the only Black person on a movie set.

During the 1970s, he played Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, a critical and commercial success that spawned two sequels:They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).

In 1972, Poitier made his directorial debut in the Western Buck and the Preacher, starring alongside his best friend Harry Belafonte. 

He directed and starred in Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), each co-starring Bill Cosby. In 1980, he directed Silver Streak starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

In addition to his Academy Award, Poitier was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, two Golden Globe Awards (including a lifetime achievement honor in 1982), and a Grammy for narrating his autobiography, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, which was released in 2000.

As a diplomat, he served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007. 

Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus, a retired actress from Canada; and six daughters: two—Anika and Sydney Tamiaa—with Shimkus; and four—Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina—with his first wife, Juanita Hardy; eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sidney Poitier. 

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