Legendary Hollywood actor and trailblazer Sidney Poitier, has died at age 94, an official from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Friday.
Poitier, who held dual US and Bahamian nationality, was “an icon, a hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure,” Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper said on his official Facebook page.
Poitier 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.
He created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.
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 probe. He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.
Poitier won his history-making best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert.
He was born in Miami on February 20, 1927, and 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 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.
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 had won his history-making best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years before that Poitier had been the first Black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.
His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalised in two sequels – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organisation in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series In the Heat of the Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.
His other classic films of that era included A Patch of Blue in 1965 in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.