Sidney Poitier, actor who made history, died at 94

Hollywood star Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the film ” Field lily in 1963.

Sidney Poitier, the actor and activist who became the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar died Friday at the age of 94. A source close to the Poitier family confirmed his death at HollywoodReporter, without specifying the cause.

It is with great sadness that I learned this morning of the death of Sir Sidney Poitier. All of the Bahamas are in mourning and send their deepest condolences to his family.“Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said at a press conference on Friday. ” But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian. A cultural icon, an actor and director, a civil and human rights activist, and finally, a diplomat. We admire the man not just for his cultural accomplishments, but also for who he was: his strength of character, his will to stand up and be counted, and the way he charted his life’s path. »

Poitier became a Hollywood star in the midst of a civil rights movement, when the roles available to black actors were rare and many of them were confined to still too widespread stereotypes. He rose to prominence in the mid-1950s by starring in films such as Seed of violence in 1955, Chain in 1958 (for which he became the first black actor to be nominated for the Oscar for best actor) and the adaptation of Porgy and Bess in 1959. He made history by winning the Oscar for best actor for his role in the film Field Lily from 1963, in which he played a handyman helping a group of nuns build a chapel.

In addition to his prolific acting career, Poitier directed numerous films, wrote three books, and was instrumental in the civil rights movement. He appeared alongside protesters during Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 (he also attended King Jr.’s funeral five years later) and traveled the South with fellow activist and actor Harry Belafonte . But cinema was also part of his activism: “ I appear in front of a camera with the responsibility of being at least respectful of certain values, Poitier once told the Museum of Living History. My values ​​are not disconnected from the values ​​of the black community“.

Later in life, Poitier devoted himself to philanthropy, activism and diplomacy. The actor, who retains his Bahamian citizenship, served as the Caribbean island’s ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1974 and has received almost every possible award for his work in film: the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995 and the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards; Poitier received the latter in 2002, the same night Denzel Washington became the second black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar (for Training Day) and Halle Berry the first black woman to win Best Actress (for In the shadow of hate). ” I will always follow in your footsteps“Washington told Poitier from the stage after winning the Oscar.

In 2009, Poitier received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award) from President Barack Obama. ” It has been said that Sidney Poitier does not make films, but that he sets milestones, Obama said. Milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress. On screen and behind the camera… Poitier not only entertained but enlightened, changing attitudes, expanding hearts, revealing the power of the big screen to bring us closer together. »

Last year, after Arizona State University renamed his school name of the actor, his daughter, Sydney Poitier Heartsong, explained that her father’s long-standing goal was for black people to have opportunities in all aspects of the film industry: “I know at the time the thing that made him the most angry was that he was the only one. He was the only one standing. He was the only one to have an Oscar. And he fought so that others could also be included. He wanted to see his history and his ilk represented on screen, and he was also acutely aware that it wouldn’t quite happen, as it should, unless there were people behind the camera as well.. »

Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 during a trip to Miami, where his parents (farmers from the Bahamian island of Cat Island) frequently visited to sell their produce. Although Poitier was raised in the Bahamas, he moved to the United States as a teenager, first to Florida before heading north to New York City. During World War II, he enlisted in the military and worked at a hospital on Long Island treating veterans. Frustrated with work and hospital conditions, he faked insanity and managed to get a discharge.

Poitier’s acting career began at the American Negro Theater in New York, although he was not immediately welcomed into the troupe. As he recalled to CNN in 2002, his first audition was a failure due to his Bahamian accent. The director, Poitier recalls, suggested he do the washing up, a job Poitier was already doing. ” [Cela] implied that was his perception of me, explained Poitier. So I decided, before I got to the bus stop at 135th Street and 7th Avenue, that I was going to be an actor. But it was to show him that he was wrong. »

Poitier finally succeeded in joining the troupe, first as a janitor, although he received acting lessons in exchange. Quickly, he plays in the productions of Lysistrate and D’Anna Lucasta, and film work soon followed. Poitier lands his first major role in film The door opens from 1950, in which he plays a doctor treating a racist white patient. In addition to the many films in which he appeared throughout the 1950s, Poitier continued to perform on stage, including performing the role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic play, A grape in the sun, in 1959 (he would reprise the role in the film adaptation two years later).

By the mid-1960s, Poitier was a veritable Hollywood star, and in 1967 he appeared in three of the highest-grossing films of the year: In the heat of the Night, The clenched fisted angels, and the revolutionary for the time Guess who’s coming to dinner… In the latter, Poitier and Katharine Houghton star as a young, interracial couple trying to gain the approval of the white girl’s parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn); it was one of the few positive portrayals of an interracial relationship. (The Supreme Court had only struck down laws banning interracial marriage a few months before the film was released.)

In the 1970s, Sidney Poitier not only remained an important screen presence, but also made a series of films, starting with the western Buck and his accomplice from 1972. Poitier showed a penchant for comedy, notably directing and starring in Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action (alongside Bill Cosby). Although Poitier retired from acting at the end of the decade, he continued to direct in the 1980s, working with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor on You have to pack up in 1980, then directing Wilder and Gilda Radner in The madness on the heels two years later.

In 1988, Poitier played in two thrillers, Hike for a killer and Little Nikita. He made his last film appearance in 1997, at the age of 70, in the action film The Jackal.

In 2002, while receiving his honorary Oscar, Sidney Poitier looked back on his remarkable career, defying predictions: ” I came to Hollywood at the age of 22 at a different time than today, a time when the odds of me being here tonight, 53 years later, wouldn’t have worked in my favor. At the time, no road had been laid out to get where I hoped to go, no path had been left in evidence for me to follow. […] I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who came before me through the difficult years, on whose shoulders I had the privilege of standing to see where I could go. »

Jon Blistein and Daniel Kreps

Translated by the editor

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Sidney Poitier, actor who made history, died at 94