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.
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: