HE was a trailblazer as the first black man to win a best actor Oscar and Barack Obama said he “epitomised dignity and grace”.
Sir Sidney Poitier, who has died aged 94, not only opened doors for other black stars but helped to break down barriers across society.
Late Sir Sidney Poitier, who has died aged 94, helped to break down barriers across society[/caption]
He was the first black man to win a best actor Oscar and Barack Obama said he ‘epitomised dignity and grace’[/caption]
Growing up on the tiny island of Cay, in the Bahamas, in the 1920s, he had no idea of the racial turmoil in the outside world.
He recalled: “There were two whites on our island. One was a doctor, another a shopkeeper’s daughter. And it never dawned on me that they were anything but people.”
The youngest of seven children, his parents Evelyn and Reginald were tomato farmers who lived without running water or electricity.
Sidney was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, where his parents had gone to deliver their produce — entitling him to US citizenship.
So after leaving school aged 12 to support the family business, three years later he was sent to live with a brother in Miami, with a little over £2 in his pocket.
He once said: “What I didn’t expect was its racial configuration. I learned quite quickly that there were places I couldn’t go.”
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After several brushes with the Ku Klux Klan, Sidney moved to New York, where he got a job washing dishes.
In the city’s Harlem district he saw an advert for actors for the American Negro Theater and went for an audition.
In a faltering Caribbean accent he read through the lines of a script before the director roared: “Stop wasting your time — get a job as a dishwasher!”
Sidney said: “As I walked to the bus, what humiliated me was the suggestion that all he could see in me was a dishwasher. I got so p***ed, I said, ‘I’m going to become an actor, whatever that is’.”
Finally he managed to get a job at the theatre in return for acting lessons, and his break came when Harry Belafonte was cast in a lead role and couldn’t make the performance, so Sidney stepped in.
A Broadway producer was impressed with his talent and cast him in the ancient Greek play Lysistrata. His film career began when he played a hospital doctor who treats a racist bigot in 1950 crime drama No Way Out.
As I walked to the bus, what humiliated me was the suggestion that all he could see in me was a dishwasher. I got so p***ed, I said, ‘I’m going to become an actor, whatever that is’
In segregated 1950s America there were few opportunities for black actors, yet Sidney refused to compromise his principles to land a role with negative connotations.
His breakout role was as Gregory W Miller, a talented but rebellious student in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, about a racially mixed inner-city school.
Sidney’s career blossomed, and in 1963 he won the Best Actor Oscar playing an itinerant worker in Lilies Of The Field. By 1967 he was America’s No1 box office star and the year would prove to be the peak of his film career, with a hat-trick of hits — To Sir, With Love, in which he played a teacher in London’s East End, In The Heat Of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Yet he faced criticism for taking “Uncle Tom” roles in which the characters were overly subservient to whites. He later told Oprah Winfrey: “I lived through people turning on me. It was painful for a couple years. I was the most successful black actor in the history of the country.”
Knighted by the Queen in 1974 — as the Bahamas were a British Crown colony — Sidney felt at home in Britain, which he believed had greater racial harmony.
In 1988 he told veteran British showbiz journalist Garth Pearce: “I always feel at home in Britain. I am welcomed here like nowhere else. The British are colour blind when it comes to background and race. I’ve worked here and stayed many times and it’s like a second home.”
I lived through people turning on me. It was painful for a couple years. I was the most successful black actor in the history of the country.
Sidney was married twice and had six daughters, including actress Sydney, 47.
When Denzel Washington became the second black Best Actor Oscar winner for his 2001 film Training Day, he said in his acceptance speech: “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney.
“I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I’d rather do, sir.”
Sidney, ever modest about his achievements, once said: “History will pinpoint me as merely a minor element in an ongoing major event, a small if necessary energy. But I am nonetheless gratified at having been chosen.”
After several brushes with the Ku Klux Klan, Sidney moved to New York where he got a job washing dishes, here with wife Joanna and his daughters[/caption]
Sidney once said: ‘History will pinpoint me as merely a minor element in an ongoing major event, a small if necessary energy’[/caption]
HIS FINEST MOMENTS
1959: PORGY AND BESS[/caption]
1965: A PATCH OF BLUE[/caption]
1967: IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT[/caption]
1967: TO SIR, WITH LOVE[/caption]
1988: LITTLE NIKITA[/caption]