Sidney Poitier, a titan of the movie industry who paved the way for Black actors, has died at 94 years old. The actor died on Thursday, over five decades after making history as the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor. He leaves behind an inimitable legacy and even greater social impact.
Poitier was born in Miami in 1927, two months before his due date. His parents, who were farmers in the Bahamas, were in Florida to sell tomatoes when their youngest son arrived early. He survived against all odds and his family was able to return to their native island just months later.
The future actor returned to the United States at the age of 15 and lived in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where he worked as a dishwasher. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army, but after just a year in the force, Poitier landed back in Harlem and, without a job, he decided to join the American Negro Theater. His talent carried him to Broadway, and though he couldn’t sing, his acting skills shined. His illustrious film career kicked off soon after that, and his breakout role came in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.
Less than ten years later, Poitier etched his name in the history books when he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1963’s Lilies of the Field. In 1967, he starred in three hit films that would make him the biggest box-office draw of the year — To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. At a time when civil rights activism was sweeping the nation, all the films dealt with racial issues, and Poitier was the most prominent Black actor of the day.
Poitier continued working until 2001, when he was honored by the Oscars for his overall contribution to American cinema. That same night, Denzel Washington became just the second Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar. Washington honored Poitier in his speech, saying, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”
Aside from his career in Hollywood, Poitier has received several honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Barack Obama. Before that, he was awarded as Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 due to his Bahamian roots.
President Obama mourned the actor after news of his death with a touching message. “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”
Our thoughts are with his family as they mourn their beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.