First Black Man to Win Best Actor Oscar Dead at 94
Sidney Poitier, the first Black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, has died. He was 94.
Clint Watson, press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to PEOPLE Friday that Poitier died Thursday evening.
With a staggering list of accolades, including an Academy Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a knighthood, Poitier leaves behind an indelible legacy that extends far beyond his commanding screen presence.
Poitier’s own story, with its humble beginnings and remarkable twists of fate, rivals that of any of his movies. He was born two months premature in Miami in 1927, while his parents, Bahamian farmers Evelyn and Reginald Poitier, were in the country to sell tomatoes. The likelihood of his survival was so remote, his father returned home with a shoebox in which to bury the baby, the last of his many siblings.
The actor made a rare public appearance in April 2017 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film.
His costar Lee Grant told PEOPLE at the time that Poitier’s powerful performance was not only critical to the film’s creative and commercial success, but it also made a major social impact on racial understanding across the country.
“It made a huge difference,” said Grant. “Norman Jewison’s films are like that. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great filmmaker and a great concept person, and it was a very brave thing to do. But without Sidney … Sidney is a hero. He’s a hero.”
Poitier stayed true to his values offscreen, immersing himself into the Civil Rights Movement, hosting activist luminaries in his home with then-wife Juanita Hardy, whom he married in 1950 and divorced in 1965.
He ventured to the south with friend and fellow activist Harry Belafonte for Freedom Summer, marched in honor of the slain Air Force veteran James Meredith in 1966, and stood proud with Belafonte and Charlton Heston at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. He attended Dr. King’s funeral five years later.
Seeking to broaden the artistic license of actors, Poitier joined Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman to form the First Artists Production Company in 1969. He also began directing his own films for the company, including teaming up with Bill Cosby in the comedy classics Uptown Saturday Night (’74) and Let’s Do it Again (’75), and the earnest comedy/drama A Piece of the Action (’77).