(CNN)Sidney Poitier, whose elegant bearing and principled onscreen characters made him Hollywood's archetypal Black movie prima and the archetypal Black antheral to triumph the champion histrion Oscar, has died. He was 94.
Clint Watson, property caput for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to CNN that Poitier died Thursday evening.
Poitier overcame an impoverished inheritance successful the Bahamas and softened his heavy land accent to emergence to the apical of his assemblage astatine a clip erstwhile salient roles for Black actors were rare. He won the Oscar for 1963's "Lilies of the Field," successful which helium played an itinerant laborer who helps a radical of White nuns physique a chapel.
Many of his best-known films explored radical tensions arsenic Americans were grappling with societal changes wrought by the civilian rights movement. In 1967 alone, helium appeared arsenic a Philadelphia detective warring bigotry successful small-town Mississippi successful "In the Heat of the Night" and a doc who wins implicit his White fiancée's skeptical parents successful "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Poitier's movies struggled for organisation successful the South, and his prime of roles was constricted to what White-run studios would produce. Racial taboos, for example, precluded him from astir romanticist parts. But his dignified roles helped audiences of the 1950s and 1960s envision Black radical not conscionable arsenic servants but arsenic doctors, teachers and detectives.
At the aforesaid time, arsenic the lone Black starring antheral successful 1960s Hollywood, helium came nether tremendous scrutiny. He was excessively often hailed arsenic a noble awesome of his contention and endured disapproval from immoderate Black radical who said helium had betrayed them by taking sanitized roles and pandering to Whites.
"It's been an tremendous responsibility," Poitier told Oprah Winfrey successful 2000. "And I accepted it, and I lived successful a mode that showed however I respected that responsibility. I had to. In bid for others to travel down me, determination were definite things I had to do."
As a young histrion helium overcame tremendous challenges
The youngest of 7 children, Sidney Poitier was calved respective months premature successful Miami connected February 20, 1927, truthful tiny helium could acceptable successful his father's hand. His parents were herb farmers who often traveled to and from Florida and the Bahamas.
He was not expected to live. His parent consulted a thenar reader, who assuaged her fears.
"The woman took her manus and started speaking to my mother: 'Don't interest astir your son. He volition survive,' " Poitier told CBS News successful 2013. "And these were her words; she said, 'He volition locomotion with kings.' "
When helium was 15, Poitier's parents sent him from the Bahamas to unrecorded with an older member successful Miami, wherever they figured helium would person amended opportunities. His begetter took him to the dock and enactment $3 successful his hand.
"He said, 'take attraction of yourself, son.' And helium turned maine astir to look the boat," Poitier told NPR successful 2009.
Poitier didn't similar Miami and soon headed northbound to New York, wherever helium tried his manus astatine acting. It did not spell good astatine first. With constricted schooling, helium had occupation speechmaking a script.
But helium got a occupation arsenic a dishwasher successful a restaurant, wherever a fortuitous brushwood changed his life. An aged waiter took an involvement successful the teen and spent nights aft enactment speechmaking the paper with him to amended his comprehension, grammar and punctuation.
"That man, each night, the spot is closed, everyone's gone, and helium sat determination with maine week aft week aft week," Poitier told CBS News. "And helium told maine astir punctuations. He told maine wherever dots were and what the dots mean present betwixt these 2 words, each of that stuff."
Soon after, Poitier landed enactment with the American Negro Theatre, wherever helium took acting lessons, softened his Bahamian accent and landed a signifier relation arsenic an understudy to Harry Belafonte. This led to roles connected Broadway and yet caught the attraction of Hollywood.
He refused to instrumentality roles helium felt were demeaning
Poitier's archetypal movie was 1950's "No Way Out," a noir movie successful which helium played a young doc who indispensable dainty a racist patient. That led to progressively salient roles arsenic a reverend successful the apartheid play "Cry, the Beloved Country," a troubled pupil successful "Blackboard Jungle" and an escaped captive successful "The Defiant Ones," successful which helium and Tony Curtis were shackled unneurotic and forced to get on to survive. With that 1958 film, Poitier became the archetypal Black antheral to beryllium nominated for an Oscar.
But for a dark-skinned histrion successful the 1950s, uncovering analyzable roles was difficult.
"(Blacks) were truthful caller successful Hollywood. There was astir nary framework of notation for america but arsenic stereotypical, one-dimensional characters," Poitier told Winfrey. "I had successful caput what was expected of maine -- not conscionable what different Blacks expected but what my parent and begetter expected. And what I expected of myself."
Early on, Poitier made a conscious determination to cull roles that weren't accordant with his values oregon that reflected severely upon his race. He told Winfrey that arsenic a struggling young actor, helium turned down a relation that paid $750 a week due to the fact that helium didn't similar the character, a janitor who didn't respond aft thugs killed his girl and threw her assemblage connected his lawn.
"I could not ideate playing that part. So I said to myself, 'That's not the benignant of enactment I want.' And I told my cause that I couldn't play the role," Poitier said. "He said, 'Why can't you play it? There's thing derogatory astir it successful radical terms,' and I said, 'I can't bash it.' He ne'er understood."
Still, by the precocious 1950s, Poitier was landing regular acting work. He appeared successful the archetypal Broadway accumulation of "A Raisin successful the Sun" successful 1959 and starred successful the movie mentation 2 years later. Then came "Lilies of the Field," biblical epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and the play "A Patch of Blue," successful which his quality had a chaste romance with a unsighted achromatic woman.
Spurred by his relationship with the much outspoken Belafonte, Poitier besides began embracing the civilian rights movement. He attended the 1963 March connected Washington and successful 1964 traveled to Mississippi to conscionable with activists successful the days pursuing the infamous slayings of 3 young civilian rights workers.
But Poitier sometimes bristled erstwhile interviewers questioned him excessively overmuch astir his experiences with racism.
"Racism was horrendous, but determination were different aspects to life," helium told Winfrey. "There are those who let their lives to beryllium defined lone by race. I close anyone who comes astatine maine lone successful presumption of race."
A twelvemonth similar nary different
Then came 1967, and 1 of the astir singular years immoderate Hollywood prima has had earlier oregon since. Poitier starred successful 3 high-profile films, starting with "To Sir, With Love," a British play astir an idealistic teacher who indispensable triumph implicit rebellious teenagers successful a pugnacious East London school.
By this time, Poitier was commanding $1 cardinal a movie, and the filmmakers weren't definite they could spend to prosecute him. So they struck a woody to wage the histrion standard -- the minimum ineligible magnitude -- successful speech for a percent of the movie's box-office grosses. Although communal successful Hollywood today, it was a extremist thought astatine the clip -- and a savvy 1 for Poitier. "To Sir, With Love" became a large hit, earning him a immense payday.
Next up was Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night," which gave Poitier his astir enduring role. He played Virgil Tibbs, a homicide detective passing done Mississippi erstwhile helium is detained by a bigoted White constabulary main (Rod Steiger) arsenic a imaginable fishy successful a slaying. Tibbs reluctantly agrees to enactment and assistance lick the case, and the 2 men yet find a grudging communal respect.
The movie gave Poitier his astir celebrated enactment -- "They telephone maine Mister Tibbs!" -- an indignant outcry for respect aft a demeaning slur by Steiger's character.
In different memorable scene, Tibbs is slapped successful the look by a racist plantation proprietor and past slaps him close back. Before agreeing to bash the film, Poitier requested a publication alteration to adhd the retaliatory slap and adjacent rewrote his declaration to prohibit the workplace from cutting the scene.
"And of people it is 1 of those great, large moments successful each of film, erstwhile you slap him back," CBS News' Lesley Stahl told Poitier successful 2013. He replied, "Yes, I knew that I would person been insulting each Black idiosyncratic successful the satellite (if I hadn't)."
Poitier followed that movie with Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," different connection movie astir radical tolerance, successful which his doc quality indispensable transportation Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's characters to fto him wed their daughter. The movie was released lone six months aft the Supreme Court made interracial matrimony ineligible successful each 50 states.
However, astir the aforesaid clip immoderate Black radical began grumbling that Poitier's saintly, non-sexualized characters bore small resemblance to the analyzable realities of African-American life. Black playwright Clifford Mason, successful a 1967 New York Times column, argued that Poitier played fundamentally the aforesaid quality successful each movie: "a bully feline successful a wholly achromatic world, with nary wife, nary sweetheart, nary pistillate to emotion oregon kiss, helping the achromatic antheral lick the achromatic man's problem."
This disapproval stung Poitier truthful overmuch that helium retreated to the Bahamas for months.
"I lived done radical turning connected me. It was achy for a mates years. ... I was the astir palmy Black histrion successful the past of the country," Poitier told Winfrey. "The disapproval I received was principally due to the fact that I was usually the lone Black successful the movies. Personally, I thought that was a measurement (forward)."
Later helium became a manager and turned to TV
In the 1970s, Poitier scaled backmost connected acting and turned to directing, which helium felt gave him much power implicit his movie projects. He teamed up with his pal Belafonte for the Western "Buck and the Preacher," his directorial debut. He directed and co-starred with Bill Cosby successful the drama caper "Uptown Saturday Night," which, on with its spiritual sequels "Let's Do It Again" and "A Piece of the Action," featured mostly Black casts.
And successful 1980, helium directed "Stir Crazy," the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder prison-break comedy, which became 1 of his biggest hits.
Although helium faded arsenic a large box-office draw, Poitier continued to look onscreen sporadically into the 1990s, astir notably with Tom Berenger successful the 1988 action-thriller "Shoot to Kill," with Robert Redford successful the 1992 caper movie "Sneakers" and with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere successful 1997's "The Jackal," his last movie role.
He besides belatedly turned to television, wherever helium was nominated for Emmys for playing US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and South African person Nelson Mandela successful 2 miniseries. He besides was considered for the relation of President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet connected TV's "The West Wing," which yet went to Martin Sheen.
By 2000, Poitier had retired from acting, choosing alternatively to play play and pen a memoir, "The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography," successful which helium described his lifelong effort to unrecorded according to principles instilled successful him by his begetter and others helium admired.
In his aboriginal years, arsenic Hollywood sought to admit a antheral whose illustration had opened doors for truthful galore different Black actors, the accolades poured in. In 2001, Poitier received an honorary Academy Award for his wide publication to American cinema. The pursuing year, successful accepting his champion histrion Oscar for "Training Day," Denzel Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. ... I'll ever beryllium chasing you, Sidney. I'll ever beryllium pursuing successful your footsteps."
In 2009, President Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, saying, "It's been said that Sidney Poitier does not marque movies, helium makes milestones ... milestones of creator excellence, milestones of America's progress."
The Film Society of Lincoln Center bestowed its highest grant connected Poitier successful 2011. Among the speakers praising him was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who said, "In the past of movies, there've lone been a fewer actors who, erstwhile they gained recognition, their power everlastingly changed the creation form.
"There's a clip earlier their arrival, and there's a clip aft their arrival. And aft their arrival, nothing's ever going to beryllium the aforesaid again. As acold arsenic the movies are concerned, determination was pre-Poitier, and determination was Hollywood post-Poitier."
CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and erstwhile CNN writer Todd Leopold contributed to this report