Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing thespian who made history by becoming the first Black man to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor, has died at the age of 94.
News of Poitier’s passing was announced on Friday by the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The child of a poor Bahamian tomato farmer, Poitier accidentally became an American citizen when his mother unexpectedly gave birth during a vacation to Miami in 1927. He grew up in the small village of Cat Island, Bahamas, and saw a movie for the first time at the age of 11 when his father moved the family to Nassau. From that point forward, he wanted to be an actor.
He immigrated to New York at 16 years old, working as a janitor at the American Negro Theater in exchange for acting lessons. As he tried to rid himself of his Bahamian accent, he understudied for Harry Belafonte in “Days of Our Youth,” and one night when Belafonte was unavailable he made his stage debut.
From the very beginning of his film career, Poitier’s grace and gravitas not only entertained audiences, but helped shape political movements around the globe. His first starring role came in 1950 as Dr. Luther Brooks, a Black doctor tasked with treating a pair of bigoted brothers. The tale of racial strife made him a hero in the Bahamas, causing such a stir that the colonial government censored the movie. In response, protests rippled across the country, giving rise to the political party that would eventually overturn British rule.
Poitier earned his first Oscar nomination for 1958’s The Defiant Ones, in which he starred as an escaped prisoner who was shackled to a white man played by Tony Curtis. It was the first time a Black man had been nominated for Best Actor, and also netted Poitier a BAFTA award. He followed that with popular adaptations of successful stage plays, Porgy and Bess (1959) and A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and received Golden Globe nominations for both.