Sidney Poitier, who died at the age of 94, once turned down the role of Othello because he didn’t want to be cast as a black actor.
He highlighted the dilemma facing a man who has broken down many racial barriers in Hollywood.
As the first black winner of the Best Actor Oscar statuette, he has always been aware of being the standard bearer for greater racial integration.
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But he often felt like he had become some kind of racial symbol, which kept him from accepting more varied roles.
He died Friday at the age of 94, the Bahamian foreign minister announced.
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, Florida.
His parents were farmers from the Bahamas who had traveled to the United States to sell tomatoes. His premature birth meant he was granted US citizenship as well as that of the Bahamas.
His relatives believed that his father’s family was from Haiti and that his ancestors were runaway slaves.
He grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas before the family moved to the capital, Nassau.
At 15, he went to live with his brother in Miami before settling in New York, where he worked as a dishwasher.
It was in the United States that he first encountered racism.
“I lived in a country where I could not find work except those set aside for my color or my community.”
After a stint in the U.S. Army, he joined the American Negro Theater, which had been established as a community project in Harlem in 1940.
Unfortunately, Poitier was deaf and unable to sing, which audiences considered a prerequisite for black actors at the time.
Instead, he decided his future lay in becoming a serious stage actor and was offered a starring role in a production of Aristophanes Lysistrata’s comedy in 1946.
The fact that the production included only black actors was a sign of the times.
In 1949, he made the difficult decision to move away from stage productions to turn to cinema.
It was a good decision. His performance in the 1950 film No Way Out, in which he played a freshly graduated doctor confronted by a racist patient, caught the attention of the studios.
His breakthrough came in The Blackboard Jungle in 1955, as a disruptive student at an inner-city school.
The film was hugely popular, not least because it was one of the first to feature a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, including Bill Haley’s classic Rock Around the Clock.
“I believed in brotherhood”
1958’s The Defiant Ones saw Poitier nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and he won a Bafta for the same film.
Five years later, he received an Oscar for Les Lys des champs, the first black winner of the trophy for best actor.
With the growing civil rights movement in the United States, it was inevitable that Poitier would find himself hailed as a black success story. It was a role he gladly accepted.
“I was a pretty good actor and I believed in brotherhood. I hated racism and segregation. And I was a symbol against those things.”
However, he worried that his Oscar may have signaled Hollywood’s need for a token black actor, rather than something he achieved on merit.
Then 1967 saw him at his commercial peak with three movies, making him Hollywood’s highest-grossing star that year.
He played a newly graduated teacher at a tough London school in To Sir, With Love, based on the autobiographical novel by ER Braithwaite.
“An exercise in being real”
His character’s experience as an immigrant in London mirrored that of many West Indians who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Acting is not a ‘pretend’ game,” he once said. “It’s an exercise in being real.”
Poitier was nominated for the Bafta and the Golden Globes for the film In the Heat of the Night by Norman Jewison.
He played a Philadelphia detective who finds himself stranded in a red-collar town in Mississippi the night a businessman is murdered.
His developing relationship with the bigoted local sheriff, played by Rod Steiger, gave Poitier his strongest role and the film won five Oscars, including Best Picture.
Poitier’s answer to Steiger’s question “What do they call you, boy?” produced one of cinema’s most famous lines: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”
Guess who’s coming to dinner introduced Poitier as the boyfriend!!!! A middle-class white girl who takes him to meet her parents.
Leadership and diplomacy
Played by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, his parents were torn between their liberal values and their reaction to a future black son-in-law.
When filming began, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 US states. These laws were only struck down by the Supreme Court months before the film was released.
But Poitier was criticized by some black civil rights activists who complained that his characters were just too good to be true.
This helped persuade him to move away from acting roles. He got involved in the campaign for the independence of the Bahamas, carried out in 1973, and began a new career as a director.
By the late 1970s, Poitier had formed his own production company with other stars, including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand.
Successes behind the camera include Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and the thrillers Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita.
Poitier became the first black actor to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1992.
Five years later, he was appointed Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.
Poitier received a knighthood in 1974. As a Bahamian citizen, he was eligible for a substantial knighthood, but since he was an American resident and Bahamian by birth, Bahamian authorities preferred that he it is an honorary award.
Poitier married Juanita Hardy in 1950, but the union ended in 1965. In 1976 he married Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus. He had six daughters from his two marriages, including one, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, also an actress.
In 2016, he received a scholarship from Bafta, a recognition of his outstanding contribution to cinema. Poor health prevented him from traveling to London to receive the award, so he appeared via video link.
Poitier’s notorious ability to play smart leading roles helped break racial taboos in American cinema and in society at large, although he downplayed her importance as a role model.
“If I’m remembered for doing a few good things,” he once said, “and if my presence here has sparked good energies, that’s more than enough.”
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