Sidney Poitier Dies: Iconic Actor and Activist Was 94

Sidney Poitier (Shutterstock)

Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor famous for his powerful performances in films including A Raisin in the Sun and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, has died. He was 94.

Poitier’s death was announced during a news conference Friday by Prime Minister Philip Davis of The Bahamas. The actor’s cause of death was not disclosed.

“My dear friends, it is with great sadness that I learnt this morning of the passing of Sir. Sidney Poitier. Our whole Bahamas grieves and extends our deepest condolences to his family,” Davis said. “The boy who moved from the tomato farm on Cat Island, to become a waiter in the United States. A young man who not only taught himself to read and write but who made words and thoughts and feelings central to his career. The man who expressed his rage against racial injustice through quiet dignity. The humanitarian, who used a steely determination, not just better himself, but to better the world he lived in.”

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Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. (Credit: United Artists)
Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. (Credit: United Artists)

The iconic actor’s career spanned over 70 years and included roles in the classic Hollywood films Lilies of the Field (1963) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). He was the first Bahamian and the first Black performer to win the best actor Academy Award, which he received for Lilies of the Field.

Poitier was born prematurely in Miami in 1927 to Bahamian parents who were visiting the United States. He grew up in the Bahamas and moved to the U.S. at age 15.

He landed his breakthrough film role as a high school student in Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Three years later, he co-starred with Tony Curtis as chained-together escaped convicts in The Defiant Ones (1958). Both actors received an Oscar nomination for best actor, with Poitier’s nod being the first for a Black artist.

In 1964, he won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Lilies of the Field and his role as a handyman helping a group of nuns build a chapel.

In 1995, he received the Kennedy Center Honor. In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. He was also granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.

Poitier would later pick up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album in 1982. He also took home the Golden Globe’s Cecil B. DeMille Award. In 2000, he received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Then in 2002, Poitier was chosen to receive an Honorary Academy Award for his “remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”

In April 1997, Poitier was appointed ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, a position he held for a decade. In addition, he rallied around the world for civil rights and racial equality.

Poitier was married twice. He had six daughters — Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina from his first marriage, and Anika and Sydney Tamiia from his second marriage.