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RIP Sidney Poitier: First Black actor to win the Best Actor Academy Award, dies at 94

The legendary actor won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal in Lilies of the Field.

Aishwarya Vasudevan
Jan 08, 2022
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Sidney Poitier, who made history as the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal in Lilies of the Field and inspired a generation during the civil rights struggle, died on Friday at the age of 94, according to Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis.

In a Facebook speech, Davis said, "It was with tremendous grief that I learned this morning of Sir Sidney Poitier's passing. But, even as we grieve, we honour the life of a great Bahamian: a cultural icon, an actor and film director, an entrepreneur, a civil and human rights champion, and, most recently, a diplomat."

In a single year, Poitier established a notable film legacy with three pictures in 1967, at a period when segregation reigned in much of the United States.

He played a black man with a white fiancée in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective fighting racism during a murder investigation in In the Heat of the Night. That year, he also starred in To Sir, With Love as a teacher in a harsh London school.

In 1963, Poitier earned his best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field, in which he played a handyman who assists German nuns in the construction of a desert chapel. Five years prior, for his portrayal in The Defiant Ones, Poitier had become the first black man to be nominated for a lead actor Oscar.

His Tibbs character from In the Heat of the Night was immortalised in two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! in 1970 and The Organization in 1971, and inspired the television series In the Heat of the Night, starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins.

A Patch of Blue, in which his character is befriended by a blind white girl, The Blackboard Jungle, and A Raisin in the Sun, which Poitier also performed on Broadway, were among his other famous films of the era.

Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas with only one year of formal education. He overcame poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice to become one of the first black performers to be recognized and embraced by mainstream audiences in important parts of the world.

Poitier carefully selected his assignments, dispelling the conventional Hollywood notion that black performers could only appear in humiliating characters such as shoe shine boys, train conductors, and maids.

Poitier was on hand to deliver the award for best director at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony, which marked the 50th anniversary of his momentous Oscar win.

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