The first Black man to win an Oscar, the Bahamanian thespian and diplomat Sidney Poitier, passed away on Friday at the age of 94 in his native country.
His death was announced by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Bahamas, Fred Mitchell, prompting an outpouring of tributes for the actor who’ll forever be remembered for the characters he played in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, ‘In the Heat of the Night’, and ‘Lilies of the Field’.
Poitier, according to ‘The Independent’, 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, landing his first lead film role just one year later in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (1955).
Recalling Poitier’s early days, controversial talk show Piers Morgan tweeted a heart-warming story.
“When he answered an ad for actors, as an illiterate young man, the theatre owner sneered: ‘Go be a dishwasher’,” Morgan wrote. “Sidney already was a dishwasher. Stung by the jibe, he vowed to prove him wrong. He became the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar.”
‘Euphoria’ star Colman Domingo, in an emotional Twitter post, wrote: “Until I can properly eulogise him later. Heart broken. I am because of him. He blazed a tremendous path for thespians such as me. I am forever grateful. Standing O for this giant.”
Poitier’s first experience of awards recognition came with ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958), which saw him nominated for Best Actor alongside co-star Tony Curtis. Six years later, he made history by winning the Best Actor Oscar for ‘Lilies of the Field’, which narrated the story of an African American and a group of nuns who believe that he has come to build for them a chapel.
That was in 1964. Nearly four decades later, in 2001, Denzel Washington became the second Black man to win Best Actor for the 2001 film ‘Training Day’. In his acceptance speech, he memorably said: “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, according to ‘The Independent’, 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 1967, Poitier starred in three films that addressed race relations: ‘To Sir, with Love’, which was based on E.R. Braithwaite’s best-selling novel; ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, with an older Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; and ‘In the Heat of the Night’, where he played Virgil Tibbs, a Black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in a small town in Mississippi.
In the 1980s, Poitier directed a number of films, but had the most success with the Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder comedy ‘Stir Crazy’ (1980).
The thespian also served as a diplomat. In 1997, he was named 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 Carol, 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.