In Memoriam

Legendary Actor Sidney Poitier Dead at 94

Poitier had a trailblazing and remarkable film career that spanned more than seven decades in front of and behind the camera

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Legendary actor, activist, filmmaker and ambassador Sidney Poitier has died at 94, a source close to the family told NBC News Friday.

In a trailblazing and remarkable film career that spanned more than seven decades, Poitier made history as the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor for his role in "Lilies in the Field."

Other classics throughout Poitier's seven-decade Hollywood career included roles in "Porgy and Bess," "A Raisin in the Sun," "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” "To Sir, With Love," and “Uptown Saturday Night.”

His cause of death was not immediately known.

Throughout his career, Poitier was an activist for racial and social justice. He turned down roles he said were based on offensive racial stereotypes, instead crafting a long list of compelling roles as he became a major Hollywood star and box office draw.

Few movie stars, Black or white, had such an influence both on and off the screen. Before Poitier, the son of Bahamian tomato farmers, no Black actor had a sustained career as a lead performer or could get a film produced based on his own star power. Before Poitier, few Black actors were permitted a break from the stereotypes of bug-eyed servants and grinning entertainers. Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely even attempted to tell a Black person’s story.

Debates about diversity in Hollywood inevitably turn to the story of Poitier. With his handsome, flawless face; intense stare and disciplined style, he was for years not just the most popular Black movie star, but the only one.

“I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy,” he recalled in a 1988 Newsweek interview. “I was kind of the lone guy in town.”

A Golden Age Icon: Sidney Poitier's Life in Pictures

His appeal brought him burdens not unlike such other historical figures as Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was subjected to bigotry from whites and accusations of compromise from the Black community. Poitier was held, and held himself, to standards well above his white peers.

Stardom didn’t shield Poitier from racism and condescension. He had a hard time finding housing in Los Angeles and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three civil rights workers had been murdered there. In interviews, journalists often ignored his work and asked him instead about race and current events.

“I am an artist, man, American, contemporary,” he snapped during a 1967 press conference. “I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due.”

Poitier was not as engaged politically as his friend and contemporary Harry Belafonte, leading to occasional conflicts between them. But he participated in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights events, and as an actor defended himself and risked his career. He refused to sign loyalty oaths during the 1950s, when Hollywood was barring suspected Communists, and turned down roles he found offensive.

“Almost all the job opportunities were reflective of the stereotypical perception of Blacks that had infected the whole consciousness of the country,” he recalled. “I came with an inability to do those things. It just wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.”

Born prematurely in Miami during a family trip, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas as a dual U.S.-Bahamanian citizen, later returning to the United States, where he started his acting career in New York.

Later in his carer he moved behind the camera to direct several films, including the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy "Stir Crazy," the Western "Buck and the Preacher," -- in which he also co-starred with Harry Belafonte -- and "Uptown Saturday Night."

In 2009 President Barack Obama award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also awarded a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

He served as the Bahamas ambassador to Japan for a decade from 1997 to 2007.

In recent years, a new generation learned of him through Oprah Winfrey, who chose “The Measure of a Man” for her book club. Meanwhile, he welcomed the rise of such Black stars as Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Danny Glover: “It’s like the cavalry coming to relieve the troops! You have no idea how pleased I am,” he said.

Poitier received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a special Academy Award in 2002, on the same night that Black performers won both best acting awards, Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.”

“I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,” Washington, who had earlier presented the honorary award to Poitier, said during his acceptance speech. “I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir, nothing I would rather do.”

Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna Shimkus and six daughters. Poitier also has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report

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