Sidney Poitier, Pioneering Oscar-Winning Actor and Director, Dies at 94

The star became the first Black actor to win the Academy Award

sidney poitier
Sidney Poitier in 1964. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Sidney Poitier, the pioneering actor and director who became the first bankable Black leading man in Hollywood, died Thursday at age 94, according to the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Poitier, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in the Bahamas, broke multiple racial barriers in his decades-long career, including when he became the first Black actor to win the Academy Award, for his role in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.”

From his first film performance, playing a doctor who treats a bigoted white man in 1950’s “No Way Out,” he blazed a trail by refusing to play roles that traded on racial stereotypes. He followed his debut film by playing a minister in 1951’s “Cry, the Beloved Country,” set in apartheid-era South Africa, and then an angsty high schooler in 1954’s “The Blackboard Jungle.”

Poitier picked up his first Oscar nomination for 1959’s “The Defiant Ones,” starring with Tony Curtis as two escaped criminals who must work together to elude the authorities. Four years later, he made history by taking home the Best Actor trophy for “Lilies of the Field,” starring as a former GI who helps a group of Catholic nuns build a new chapel.

More commercial roles followed, culminating with a trifecta of commercial and critical hits in 1967 — the classroom drama “To Sir, With Love,” the crime thriller “In the Heat of the Night” and the romantic drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — that made Poitier the top box office draw of the year.

He also worked regularly in theater, earning a Tony Award nomination for the original 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Poitier made his directing debut with the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. He scored his first hit as a director with the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” with Belafonte and Bill Cosby, which he followed with two more Cosby vehicles, “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977).

But his biggest box office success came with 1980’s “Stir Crazy” starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder as a pair of misfits who are mistakenly sent to prison. The film grossed more than $100 million in its initial release, a first for a film by a Black director.

He returned to acting in the late 1980s and ’90s with roles in thrillers like “Little Nikita” (1988), “Sneakers” (1992) with Robert Redford and “The Jackal” (1997) with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere. He also appeared in TV movies, playing Thurgood Marshall in “Separate but Equal” (1991), reprising his role as Mark Thackeray in “To Sir, With Love II” (1996) and portraying Nelson Mandela in “Mandela and de Klerk” (1997). He picked up Emmy nominations for both “Separate but Equal” and “Mandela and de Klerk.”

His final onscreen credit came in the 2001 TV movie “The Last Brickmaker in America,” playing a widower who mentors a troubled teen.

The following year, he accepted an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work.

In addition to his work in Hollywood, he served as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007 (he held dual citizenship with the U.S.). In 2009, he also accepted the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.