Sidney Poitier, Legendary Actor/Filmmaker/Activist, Dies at 94

The historic actor and beloved activist Sidney Poitier died Thursday at age 94. We pay tribute, and look back at his unparalleled life.

Chuck Walton

By Chuck Walton

Sidney Poitier

Courtesy Everett Collection

The world lost one of its most pioneering and influential stars on Thursday with the passing of Sidney Poitier, the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor – for 1963's "Lilies of the Field." He was also nominated for Best Actor for 1959's "The Defiant Ones," and won an Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001 (the same year Denzel Washington became the second Black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor).

Poitier's achievements were long and distinguished in both entertainment and life. Born to Bahamian farmers in Miami, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas and later moved to New York City at age 16, where he eventually became a theatrical understudy to Harry Belafonte, who would become a lifelong friend. While he was already a success on Broadway by the 1950s, Poitier quickly turned into a Hollywood leading man, too.

In films like "No Way Out" (1950), cast as a doctor treating racist patients, and "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), as a rebellious student, Poitier became the most significant Black actor of his era. He was often the headliner in highly charged racial dramas, and was an inspiration for minorities who had not previously been represented with such stature and authority.

By the '60s, Poitier was on a roll. He took on his previous stage character in the film "A Raisin in the Sun," (1961), which told of the challenges a south Chicago family faces in housing discrimination, racism and other prejudices. And he won the Oscar for "Lilies of the Field," playing a man who helps a group of nuns create a chapel.

In 1967, he was the top box office movie idol, starring in three films that year – the crime story "In the Heat of the Night," playing a Black detective facing off against racism in the south; the classroom drama "To Sir, With Love," cast as a minority teacher in London; and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," starring as one-half of an interracial couple.

At the same time, Poitier was thoroughly engaged in the civil rights movement, attending the historic 1963 March on Washington with Belafonte. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. later praised him for his activism.

Poitier stepped back from leading roles in the '70s to take on directing, too. He helmed such comedies as "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), "A Piece of the Action" (1977), and the mega hit "Stir Crazy" (1980). That prison comedy starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and became the first film directed by a Black filmmaker to earn more than $100 million at the box office.

The legend returned to the big screen later in the '80s and '90s, starring alongside River Phoenix in the espionage thriller "Little Nikita" (1988); the wilderness actioner "Shoot to Kill" (1988); and the computer hacker comedy "Sneakers" (1992), co-starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, and Mary McDonnell.

Poitier's last credit was 2001's TV film "The Last Brickmaker in America," playing the mentor of a troubled youth. But even after his retirement from Hollywood, his influence remained immeasurable. From 1997 to 2007, Poitier served as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan. And in 2009, Barack Obama bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At the time of his death, Poitier had been the oldest living Academy Award winner. He'll be dearly missed, but always remembered. Check out, in our photo gallery below, some of the classic films starring the irreplaceable Sidney Poitier.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night." (1967)
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones." (1958)
Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in "Blackboard Jungle." (1955)
Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." (1967)
Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in "Lilies of the Field." (1963)
Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix in "Little Nikita." (1988)
Sidney Poitier in "Uptown Saturday Night." (1974)
Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford in "Sneakers." (1992)
Sidney Poitier in "Edge of the City." (1957)
Sidney Poitier and Suzy Kendall in "To Sir, with Love" (1967)
Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby in "Let's Do It Again." (1975)
Sidney Poitier in "A Patch of Blue." (1965)

+12

Chuck Walton

Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.

More from Chuck Walton

Be the First to Know.

Get articles like this and the latest movie news in your inbox.

Subscribing to a newsletter indicates your consent to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe from the newsletters at any time.

Advertisement