Sidney Poitier, Who Blazed a Path for Black Actors in Hollywood, Has Died at 94

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The actor’s calm demeanor and brilliant on-screen intensity challenged racial stereotypes in a way that white film audiences accepted

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Mr. Poitier made an impression on moviegoers with a trademark delivery that was both engaging and respectable, no matter how tense the scene. His Hollywood career spanned more than five decades as he excelled as both an actor and director, overcoming many obstacles that stood in the way of black actors before him.

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Whether it’s playing a doctor meeting his white fiancé’s parents for the first time in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” or a Philadelphia homicide detective solving a murder in “In the Heat of the Night” Was forced to team up with a large Mississippi police chief. ,” Mr. Poitier’s roles entertained and challenged racial stereotypes.

As with many of his early film roles, Mr. Poitier entered America’s ongoing conversation about race and equality. The country’s division over issues of race, highlighted by the civil rights movement, was approaching a fever-pitch, as his career took off in the late 1950s.

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Assessment of the actor’s early influence, Aram Gaudsuzian wrote in his 2004 biography “Sydney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon”, “Poitier was Hollywood’s only symbol of racial knowledge.” He pointed to the unique qualities of Mr Poitier’s performance, writing that his “quiet simmer struck a delicate balance, revealing racial dismay, but convincing predominantly white audiences that blacks would avoid violence and maintain social order.” Will keep.”

Making his big screen debut in the 1950 film “No Way Out,” Poitier captivated audiences and Hollywood producers with his calm demeanor and graceful intensity as a young doctor who is bombarded with racial slurs. Then in 1959, starring in “The Defiant Ones” with Tony Curtis, he became the first black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in a leading role.

Mr. Poitier made cinematic history five years later, when he was the first black actor to win the award for his portrayal of a traveling handyman answering the prayers of five white nuns in “Lilies of the Field.”

“I was happy for myself, but I was also happy for ‘the people,'” Mr Poitier later wrote in “This Life”, a memoir published in 1980. “We black people did it. We were able to. We sometimes forget, to persevere against inexplicable odds, that we are infinitely more capable than a culture that has yet to deposit our accounts. Not ready.”

Mr. Poitier’s star power often made the difference in getting a film off the ground. Early in his career he cast opposite him Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Glenn Ford, some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 1960s.

If any of them sprouted from more humble beginnings than Mr. Poitier, born in 1927, two months premature. Her parents, tomato farmers in Miami, Fla., feared that the three-pound baby would be cut short. Her father bought a coffin the size of a shoe box. His mother sought the advice of an astrologer.

Mr Poitier later wrote of the encounter, recalling the prophet’s words to his mother: “He will live and he will not be a sick child,” his mother had told him. “He will go with the kings. He will be rich and famous. ,

Mr Poitier survived those uncertain first days and grew up healthy and isolated on remote Cat Island in the Bahamas. Mr. Poitier was raised in a three-room stone hut with an outhouse behind it.

With most official figures on the small island being black or mixed race, Mr Poitier broke free of the systemic racism and segregation he would later face in America.

Born in Florida, Mr. Poitier was an American citizen. At the age of 16, he decided to move to New York City. After a brief stay in Miami, he was alone in the vast metropolis. Due to poor reading skills, he returned from one low-paying job to another before joining the military and briefly serving in a medical unit stationed in the States during World War II.

Mr. Poitier did not like the army and was discharged; Then, on impulse, he auditioned for the American Negro Theater Company in Harlem. Although he claimed to have acting experience, he was immediately shown the door after struggling to read a few lines and deliver them in his distinctly Bahamian accent.

Frustrated, Mr. Poitier committed himself to learning to read and refining his speech. The young man listened to the radio for hours on end, imitating the broadcasters’ articulate pronunciation and tempo, and revamped his voice, eventually influencing the silky, unidentified accent that would later become his trademark.

The nature of Mr. Poitier’s roles changed over time, paralleling the growing perception of black Americans in American society.

In 1950’s “No Way Out”, Mr. Poitier as a doctor physically refuses to respond when the film’s white antagonist spits in his face. In 1967, playing a confident Philadelphia detective in “In the Heat of the Night,” he retaliated after being slapped in the face by a white Southern elite. In the same year, Mr. Poitier played a teacher leading a class harassing students in “To Sir, With Love”; More than a decade earlier, in 1955, he played a rebellious student who caused problems for a white teacher in “Blackboard Jungle”.

Mr. Poitier did not limit himself to acting. He also directed several Hollywood films, including “Stir Crazy”, a 1980 box-office hit starring comedic heavyweights Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Mr. Poitier proved to be an accomplished writer, publishing a handful of books, including the New York Times best-selling memoir.

Mr. Poitier returned to acting in the 1980s and 1990s, playing the landmark roles of Nelson Mandela and Thurgood Marshall in made-for-television films. He received Emmy nominations for both roles.

Married twice, Mr. Poitier had six children. From 1997 to 2007, he served as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan and met with Japanese Emperor Akihito. US President Barack Obama awarded Mr Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, noting the actor’s impact on promoting racial tolerance through the roles he chose.

Years before receiving the presidential honor, Mr. Poitier both acknowledged his Hollywood history and offered advice to generations to come.

“Those of us who go before you look back with satisfaction and leave you with a simple conviction,” he said at an event held in his honor in 1992. “Stay true to yourself and be useful for the journey.”

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