AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
The first Black performer to win the Academy Award for best actor, for “Lilies of the Field,” he once said he felt “as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made.
Sidney Poitier, whose portrayal of resolute heroes in films like “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” established him as Hollywood’s first Black matinee idol and helped open the door for Black actors in the film industry, died on Thursday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, where Mr. Poitier grew up. No cause was given.
I was overwhelmed. Thirty-seven years is quite a long wait. I got there on my terms. My terms meant that I would get there if I am accepted as I perceived myself. I was an African American actor. That was who I was. [Reporter:] “Mr. Poitier. Mr. Poitier.” It is the actor’s job to create the essence of the man, and to do that, we need more than his gestures and more than the cadence of his speech. We need to understand the values that are the foundation of the personality. Was it a thrill for me to accept the role? Well, first the thrill was to have been offered the role, and accepting it was never a question. I admire the man, not just because of his colossal achievements, but also because of who he was, his strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted, and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey. I’m appreciative. It’s the one — I follow some of the very best actors in America. I don’t know that I’m worthy of being in that kind of company, but I certainly respect them to the point that I would appreciate being in such company.
Mr. Poitier, whose Academy Award for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” made him the first Black performer to win in the best-actor category, rose to prominence when the civil rights movement was beginning to make headway in the United States. His roles tended to reflect the peaceful integrationist goals of the struggle.
Although often simmering with repressed anger, his characters responded to injustice with quiet determination. They met hatred with reason and forgiveness, sending a reassuring message to white audiences and exposing Mr. Poitier to attack as an Uncle Tom when the civil rights movement took a more militant turn in the late 1960s.
“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” Mr. Poitier said of his film parts in a 1967 interview. “If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.”
At the time, Mr. Poitier was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and a top box-office draw, ranked fifth among male actors in Box Office magazine’s poll of theater owners and critics; he was behind only Richard Burton, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin and John Wayne. Yet racial squeamishness would not allow Hollywood to cast him as a romantic lead, despite his good looks.
“To think of the American Negro male in romantic social-sexual circumstances is difficult, you know,” he told an interviewer. “And the reasons why are legion and too many to go into.”
Mr. Poitier often found himself in limiting, saintly roles that nevertheless represented an important advance on the demeaning parts offered by Hollywood in the past. In “No Way Out” (1950), his first substantial film role, he played a doctor persecuted by a racist patient, and in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1952), based on the Alan Paton novel about racism in South Africa, he appeared as a young priest. His character in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), a troubled student at a tough New York City public school, sees the light and eventually sides with Glenn Ford, the teacher who tries to reach him.
In “The Defiant Ones” (1958), a racial fable that established him as a star and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, he was a prisoner on the run, handcuffed to a fellow convict (and virulent racist) played by Tony Curtis. The best-actor award came in 1964 for his performance in the low-budget “Lilies of the Field,” as an itinerant handyman helping a group of German nuns build a church in the Southwestern desert.
In 1967 Mr. Poitier appeared in three of Hollywood’s top-grossing films, elevating him to the peak of his popularity. “In the Heat of Night” placed him opposite Rod Steiger, as an indolent, bigoted sheriff, with whom Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia detective played by Mr. Poitier, must work on a murder investigation in Mississippi. (In an indelible line, the detective insists on the sheriff’s respect when he declares, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) In “To Sir, With Love” he was a concerned teacher in a tough London high school, and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a taboo-breaking film about an interracial couple, he played a doctor whose race tests the liberal principles of his prospective in-laws, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Throughout his career, a heavy weight of racial significance bore down on Mr. Poitier and the characters he played. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote.
Mr. Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, but he was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, where his parents traveled regularly to sell their tomato crop. The youngest of nine children, he wore clothes made from flour sacks and never saw a car, looked in a mirror or tasted ice cream until his father, Reginald, moved the family from Cat Island to Nassau in 1937 after Florida banned the import of Bahamian tomatoes.
When he was 12, Mr. Poitier quit school and became a water boy for a crew of pick-and-shovel laborers. He also began getting into mischief, and his parents, worried that he was becoming a juvenile delinquent, sent him to Miami when he was 14 to live with a married brother, Cyril.
Mr. Poitier had known nothing of segregation growing up on Cat Island, so the rules governing American Black people in the South came as a shock. “It was all over the place like barbed wire,” he later said of American racism. “And I kept running into it and lacerating myself.”
In less than a year he fled Miami for New York, arriving with $3 and change in his pocket. He took jobs washing dishes and working as a ditch digger, waterfront laborer and delivery man in the garment district. Life was grim. During a race riot in Harlem, he was shot in the leg. He saved his nickels so that on cold nights he could sleep in pay toilets.
In late 1943 Mr. Poitier lied about his age and enlisted in the Army, becoming an orderly with the 1267th Medical Detachment at a veterans hospital on Long Island. Feigning a mental disorder, he obtained a discharge in 1945 and returned to New York, where he read in The Amsterdam News that the American Negro Theater was looking for actors.
His first audition was a flop. With only a few years of schooling, he read haltingly, in a heavy West Indian accent. Frederick O’Neal, a founder of the theater, showed him the door and advised him to get a job as a dishwasher.
Undeterred, Mr. Poitier bought a radio and practiced speaking English as he heard it from a variety of staff announcers. A kindly fellow worker at the restaurant where he washed dishes helped him with his reading. Mr. Poitier finally won a place in the theater’s acting school, but only after he volunteered to work as a janitor without pay.
His lucky break came when another actor at the theater, Harry Belafonte, did not show up for a rehearsal attended by a Broadway producer. Mr. Poitier took the stage instead and was given a part in an all-Black production of “Lysistrata” in 1946. Although panned by the critics, it led to a job with the road production of “Anna Lucasta.”
“No Way Out” was followed by a sprinkling of film and television roles, but Mr. Poitier still bounced between acting jobs and menial work.
In 1951 he married Juanita Marie Hardy, a dancer and model, whom he divorced in 1965. They had four daughters, Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. In 1976 he married Joanna Shimkus, his co-star in “The Lost Man” (1969), a film about a gang of Black militants plotting to rob a factory. They had two daughters, Anika and Sydney.
Ms. Shimkus survives him. His daughter Gina Patrice Poitier Gouraige died in 2018. Complete information about his survivors was not immediately available.
After breakout movies like “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Defiant Ones,” Mr. Poitier’s fate was tied to Hollywood, his purpose to expand the boundaries of racial tolerance. “The explanation for my career was that I was instrumental for those few filmmakers who had a social conscience,” he later wrote.