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Trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier dies

During the tumultuous 1960s, Poitier starred in film roles that portrayed black Americans in a positive light

Actor Sidney Poitier with his Oscar for Lilies of the Field Associated Press, file

Trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier dies

Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win an Oscar for best actor, died on Thursday at age 94.

The youngest son of a tomato farmer from the Bahamas, Poitier grew up illiterate. He could barely read during his first audition, and the director kicked him out. Poitier decided to become an actor anyway: He learned to read and worked as a theater janitor in exchange for acting lessons.

Throughout his career of more than 50 film and television roles, Poitier focused on acting in, producing, and directing films that portrayed black Americans in a positive light and avoided racial stereotypes. In one year, 1967, he starred in To Sir, With Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and In the Heat of the Night, all of which dealt with race relations. He won best actor at the Academy Awards for his role in Lilies of the Field in 1963.

Though not as politically active as his close friend and fellow actor Harry Belafonte, Poitier was involved in the civil rights movement. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964, Belafonte recruited him to help deliver donations to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group in Greenwood, Miss. The Ku Klux Klan followed them during the visit.

Poitier was raised Catholic but expressed agnosticism and deism as an adult. In his autobiography The Measure of a Man, he described his view of God, writing, “this consciousness is a force so powerful … so unimaginably calibrated in its sensitivity that not one leaf falls in the deepest of forests on the darkest of nights unnoticed.”

Poitier was married to Juanita Hardy for 15 years and had four daughters with her. Three survive him, as do his two daughters from his second wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus.

Joseph McCoy Joseph is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.


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