Oscar-winning actor and activist Sir Sidney Poitier has died at 94. Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell confirmed the legendary actor’s passing, although his cause of death was not announced.
Poitier made cinema history with his 1964 Academy Award win for Lilies of the Field, becoming the first Black actor to win Best Actor. He also previously received a nomination in the category for The Defiant Ones.
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, in 1943, while his Bahamian parents visited the state. He grew up in the Bahamas, returning to the US—first Miami and then New York City—as a teenager. After a short stint in the Army, he found his way to the stage, starting his career with the American Negro Theater.
He made his big-screen debut in the 1950 film No Way Out, where he received much acclaim. Although his official breakout role came in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. A titan of Hollywood’s Golden Age, over the course of his several decades-long career, he starred in A Raisin in the Sun—also originating the role on Broadway—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, and Sneakers. Many of his roles throughout the ’50s and ’60s dealt with American racism and prejudice. He often played characters who remained steadfast in the wake of atrocities. His storied career is also widely credited with opening doors for the next generation of Black actors.
In addition to his masterful work as an actor, Poitier also directed several films throughout the ’70s and ’80s. In that span of time he stepped back from on-screen roles. He returned to film in the late ’80s with a handful of action films. 1992’s Sneakers and 1997’s The Jackal served as his last major film roles.
In 1997, Poitier became Bahamas’ Ambassador to Japan. He stayed in the role for a decade, stepping down in 2007. Over the course of his life, Poitier received several accolades for his lifetime of service. Most notably, Queen Elizabeth awarded the actor a knighthood in 1974; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Poitier an honorary statue in 2001; and President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Saying goodbye to a giant always feels hard. But Sir Sidney Poitier’s 94 years were certainly a life well lived.