2020 ended on a sad note with noted actress Betty White passing at 99, just three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. Sadly, 2021 has decided to follow suit by starting off with the passing of legendary actor, writer, and humanitarian Sidney Poitier who has passed at 94. While modern audiences knew him for such roles as his work in films like Little Nikita (1988), Sneakers (1992), and The Jackal (1997), along with playing Nelson Mandela in the Showtime miniseries Mandela and de Klerk, Poitier's filmography goes back to the late 1940's.
Considered the first black Hollywood superstar, Poitier became the first black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the1958 film The Defiant Ones before then becoming the first black actor to win Best Actor six years later for Lilies of the Field. This distinction was one he held until Denzel Washington won for 2001’s Training Day. Throughout his 58 year career (ending in 2008 with the documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project and an appearance on Larry King Live), Poitier covered a wide array of different projects. 1967 was considered his biggest year as an actor though, where he starred in In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and To Sir, With Love which turned him into the top box office star that year. He also was an accomplished director, ultimately being at the helm of nine films (the first five he starred in himself), starting in 1972 with the film Buck and the Preacher and ending with the 1990 film Ghost Dad. Though, his life was never restricted to simply filmmaking.
While he was born in Miami, Florida on February 20th, 1927, Poitier primarily grew up in the Bahamas where his family owned a farm on Cat Island. However, due to his domestic birth, Poitier would automatically earn U.S. citizenship and this would ultiamtely play into later success as an actor. Following his move to New York City at the age of 16 in early 1943 (reportedly sitting with a waiter every night for several weeks so he could learn to read the newspaper), later that year Poitier would lie about his age to enlist in the Army during World War II. He was ultimately assigned to a Veteran's Administration hospital in Northport, New York where he was trained to work with psychiatric patients. Later admitting to have faked his condition, Poitier feigned mental illness to get discharged as he became upset with how the hospital treated its patients and feigned mental illness to obtain a discharge. Yet still, the doctor was sympathetic and granted his discharge under Section VIII of Army regulation 615-360 in December 1944. This, however, allowed his calling to begin as after the leaving the army, while working as a dishwasher, he successfully auditioned for a role in an American Negro Theater production.
The rest was history and along the way he became an ambassador for the Bahamas to Japan from 1997 to 2007. In addition, he served as a member of the board of director of The Walt Disney Company from 1995 to 2003. Ultimately, he would be granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama along with an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II, a Kennedy Center Honor, and lifetime achievement honors from the Oscars, Golden Globes, and SAG.
Some actors enter the industry with a sort of eclectic, formless impression, not sure where they are going to go. Poitier, it seems, had his mind and heart set on being a symbol of humanity, integrity, and brilliance. He is gone, but he will never be forgotten for he has cemented himself in history as an example of how progress is not forged in flimsy words but iron-fisted action powered by steadfast will. They once called him Mr. Tibbs, but we now call him a legend. RIP Mr. Poitier.