Iconic black actor Sidney Poitier dies, aged 94

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(BBC) – Sidney Poitier once turned down the role of Othello because he did not want to be typecast as a black actor.

It underlined the dilemma faced by a man who broke down many of Hollywood’s racial barriers.

As the first black winner of the Academy Awards’ Best Actor statuette, he was always aware of being the standard-bearer for greater racial integration.

But often he felt he had become something of a racial token, and this denied him the opportunity of taking on more varied roles.

He died on Friday, aged 94, the Bahamian foreign minister announced.

Sidney Poitier was born on 20 February 1927 in Miami, Florida.

His parents were Bahamian farmers who had travelled to the US to sell tomatoes. His premature birth meant he gained US citizenship as well as Bahamian.

Relatives believed his father’s family originated in Haiti and that his ancestors were runaway slaves.

He was brought up on Cat Island in the Bahamas before the family moved to the capital, Nassau.

The Blackboard Jungle was a major breakthrough in his career

Aged 15 he went to live with his brother in Miami before moving to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher.

It was in the US that he experienced racism for the first time.

“I lived in a country where I couldn’t get a job, except those put aside for my colour or my caste.”

After a spell in the US Army he joined the American Negro Theatre, which had been set up as a community project in Harlem in 1940.

Difficult

Unfortunately Poitier was tone-deaf and was unable to sing, something audiences felt was a prerequisite of black actors at that time.

Instead he decided his future lay as a serious stage actor and he was offered a leading role in a production of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in 1946.

It was a sign of the times that the production featured only black actors.

Lilies of the Field gave him the first Best Actor Oscar awarded to a black actor

In 1949 he took the difficult decision to move away from stage productions and into films.

It was a sound decision. His performance in the 1950 film No Way Out, in which he played a newly-qualified doctor confronted by a racist patient, brought him to the attention of the studios.

His breakthrough came in The Blackboard Jungle in 1955, in the role of a disruptive pupil in an inner-city school.

The film was immensely popular, not least because it was one of the first to have a soundtrack featuring rock ‘n’ roll, including Bill Haley’s classic Rock Around the Clock.

Brotherhood

The Defiant Ones, in 1958, saw Poitier nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards, and he won a Bafta for the same film.

Five years later he was awarded an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, the first black winner of the Best Actor trophy.

With the growing civil rights movement in the US, it was inevitable Poitier would find himself lauded as an example of black achievement. It was a role he gladly accepted.

 

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