Sidney Poitier dies at 94

January 7, 2022 • 12:10 pm

I just learned that fabled actor Sidney Poitier, perhaps the first black matinee idol in Hollywood, and a consummate talent, has died at 94.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary, clearly prepared in advance (well, the man was 94). \

At the time, Mr. Poitier was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and a top box-office draw, ranked fifth among male actors in Box Office magazine’s poll of theater owners and critics; he was behind only Richard Burton, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin and John Wayne. Yet racial squeamishness would not allow Hollywood to cast him as a romantic lead, despite his good looks.

“To think of the American Negro male in romantic social-sexual circumstances is difficult, you know,” he told an interviewer. “And the reasons why are legion and too many to go into.”

Mr. Poitier often found himself in limiting, saintly roles that nevertheless represented an important advance on the demeaning parts offered by Hollywood in the past. In “No Way Out” (1950), his first substantial film role, he played a doctor persecuted by a racist patient, and in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1952), based on the Alan Paton novel about racism in South Africa, he appeared as a young priest. His character in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), a troubled student at a tough New York City public school, sees the light and eventually sides with Glenn Ford, the teacher who tries to reach him.

In “The Defiant Ones” (1958), a racial fable that established him as a star and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, he was a prisoner on the run, handcuffed to a fellow convict (and virulent racist) played by Tony Curtis. The best-actor award came in 1964 for his performance in the low-budget “Lilies of the Field,” as an itinerant handyman helping a group of German nuns build a church in the Southwestern desert.

In 1967 Mr. Poitier appeared in three of Hollywood’s top-grossing films, elevating him to the peak of his popularity. “In the Heat of Night” placed him opposite Rod Steiger, as an indolent, bigoted sheriff, with whom Virgil Tibbs, the Philadelphia detective played by Mr. Poitier, must work on a murder investigation in Mississippi. (In an indelible line, the detective insists on the sheriff’s respect when he declares, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) In “To Sir, With Love” he was a concerned teacher in a tough London high school, and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a taboo-breaking film about an interracial couple, he played a doctor whose race tests the liberal principles of his prospective in-laws, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Throughout his career, a heavy weight of racial significance bore down on Mr. Poitier and the characters he played. “I felt very much as if I were representing Throughout his career, a heavy weight of racial significance bore down on Mr. Poitier and the characters he played. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote.

I remember him being active in the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties as well. And I remember the scandal caused by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner?” (1967), depicting an interracial romance and the difficulties that the white woman’s parents (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, in his last role) had accepting Poitier as a potential son-in-law.

Now nobody would care much about that, and it’s Poitier who helped change that attitude.

RIP, Sidney; the times weren’t ripe enough for you to get the roles you deserved. Here’s his Best Actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” awarded in 1964 and presented by Anne Bancroft:

18 thoughts on “Sidney Poitier dies at 94

  1. I remember fondly “In the Heat of the Night”, “Sneakers” and “Little Nikita”. Sidney Portier was one of the best actors of his generation

    1. In the Heat of the Night will stay with me forever. I remember reading about his life — not the 2009 book, but an earlier one — in which he describes his journey from The Bahamas to Florida, and then to New York. He auditioned for a part, was rejected, learnt to read properly, and came back. There were many amusing stories in it but I don’t have the book with me now to check my memories.

  2. I believe it was Barry Fitzgerald who played the priest and had one of the best lines to my way of thinking, when he was talking to Spencer Tracey and said something to the effect of, “It isn’t every day I see a man come face to face with his principals.” Mr. Poitier was one of my all time favorite actors.

  3. Guess whose coming to dinner. One of my favs…

    It was the fathers of each who had difficulty. The mothers were okay but anxious because of their husbands. In the end everyone was okay.

    One of the best scenes is when Katherine Hepburn fires her racist gallery manager.

  4. That’s a great video, because Poitier goes from being totally in control – as an actor should – in the beginning, to just about losing it when he kinda gasps out, “all i can say is . . . .” The emotion of the moment overcame him. Such honest, happy emotion is always great to see.

    1. And Anne Bancroft’s ecstatic, delighted smile when she reads his name in the envelope is a moment for the ages.

  5. R.I.P.

    Without checking any obituaries or others’ lists, my list of his most significant movies would be In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

    GCM

  6. Poitier was excellent in the oft-overlooked film “The Bedford Incident,” a 1965 actioner involving a nuclear weapons accident (shades of Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove) and modeled upon, of all things, Moby Dick.

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