LOS ANGELES (CelebrityAccess) — Sidney Poitier, a trailblazing actor who became the first black artist to win an Academy Award has died. He was 94.
According to the Associated Press, Poitier died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.
Following his death, his longtime friend and collaborator Harry Belafonte issued a statement reflecting on his long-term relationship with Poitier.
“For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” he wrote. “He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”
Born in Miami to a Bahamian family, Poitier lived in the Bahamas until he relocated to the U.S. with his family, living first in Miami and then New York City.
In 1943, Poitier lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army and worked in a Veteran’s Administration hospital but after becoming disenchanted with the way patients were treated at the facility and feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge.
Following his discharge from the military, Poitier joined the American Negro Theater, landing leading roles in the Broadway production Lysistrata, which closed after just four days, and as an understudy in Anna Lucasta.
In 1949, Poitier transitioned to the silver screen after he was cast in the Darryl F. Zanuck film No Way Out. In the film, he portrayed a black doctor tasked with treating an overt bigot, exploring themes of racism and equality that would be a prominent part of many of his future roles.
Poitier became a household name for many Americans in 1958 when he was cast alongside Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones. In the film, Poitier played Noah Cullen, a black convict shackled by leg irons to a white convict during an escape attempt. The two men start as enemies but gradually come to rely on one another.
The film was a critical and financial success, earning two Academy Awards and nine nominations, as well as the Silver Bear for Best Actor for Poitier at the Berlin International Film Festival and Best Foreign Actor from the British Academy Film Awards.
Poitier won an Oscar in 1964 for his portrayal of Homer Smith, a determined handyman helping a group of nuns to build a chapel in Lillies of the Field. His performance in the film helped Poitier to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first black actor to win a competitive Oscar and only the second to win any Oscar following Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind.
Poitier also portrayed police detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison’s crime drama In the Heat of the Night. In the riveting drama, Poitier helps a reluctant police commander investigate a homicide in a rural southern town.
He revisited issues of race in America again with Stanley Kramer’s social drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which Poitier surprises his white partner’s parents. The film was one of the first to portray racial marriage in a positive light, despite it still being illegal in 17 states just 6 months prior to the release of the film.
In addition to his work in front of the camera, Poitier was also a director and helmed films such as the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor vehicle Stir Crazy, and Uptown Saturday Night which featured Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Calvin Lockhart, and Sidney Poitier in lead roles.
As well, Poitier also served in diplomatic roles on the world stage, including a decade as the ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007 and the Bahamian representative to UNESCO during the same time period.
A scene from In The Heat of the Night