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Sidney Poitier, Oscar winner and trailblazer for Black actors, dies at 94

The iconic actor broke racial barriers in Hollywood, becoming the first Black man to win an Oscar in 1964.
Sidney Poitier And Katharine Houghton In 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'
Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton between scene enjoying their company from the film 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', 1967.Getty Images

Sidney Poitier, the legendary actor and activist who broke racial barriers in Hollywood, has died at 94.

A source close to the family confirmed Poitier's death to NBC News.

As the son of poor tomato farmers in the Bahamas, Poitier's rise began when he moved to work in Miami and later New York City as a teen before becoming the first Black male actor to win an Oscar in 1964 for his performance in the film "Lilies of the Field."

Sidney Poitier, left, and Lilia Skala in a scene from the film "Lilies of the Field," for which Poitier won the best actor Oscar in 1964. AP

One of the last remaining legends from Old Hollywood, Poitier received virtually every major entertainment award in his career, including a Grammy, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award, and an honorary Academy Award in 2001 for his contributions to cinema.

Poitier began his acting career in the American Negro Theater before making his film debut in 1950 in the film "No Way Out" at a time when leading roles for Black actors in Hollywood movies were rare.

He became the first Black actor to be nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his performance in 1958's "The Defiant Ones," soon making his name as an actor who created full-bodied characters with depth, humor and intelligence, compared to the many stereotypical roles offered to Black performers at the time.

Sidney Poitier admires the Oscar he received in 1964. He won best performance by an actor for his role in the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field."Bettmann Archive

Following his Oscar win in 1964, he burst into superstardom in 1967 with a trio of box office hits: "To Sir, With Love," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." His success proved that Black actors could also have commercial muscle in Hollywood as his trio of films grossed more than any other actors' that year.

Sidney Poitier teaching class in a scene from the film "To Sir, With Love."Archive Photos / Getty Images

Poitier purposely chose to work on provocative films with a social conscience. He plays half of an interracial couple with Katharine Houghton in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which navigates whether her parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, would accept the relationship at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states.

Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."Alamy

In "In the Heat of the Night," Poitier plays Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who deals with bigotry as he investigates a murder in a small town in Mississippi. Tibbs works alongside a white police chief played by Rod Steiger in a show of interracial cooperation despite the prejudices of Steiger's character.

In one scene, Poitier gets slapped by a white racist plantation owner while interrogating him, and then Poitier slaps him right back, which was a stunning sight on the big screen at that time to many audiences.

Poitier with Lee Grant in "In the Heat of the Night."Everett Collection

He also fought for equality behind the scenes, demanding that at least 50% of the film crew on his 1969 movie "The Lost Man" be African American, according to his bio for The Kennedy Center, which honored him in 1995.

Poitier turned to directing in the 1970s and '80s, including the 1980 comedy "Stir Crazy" with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. He also starred in some of his directorial efforts alongside fellow Black Hollywood pioneer Harry Belafonte. He took 10 years off from acting before returning in 1988 as an FBI agent in "Shoot to Kill."

Poitier also had a 10-year political career as the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan from 1997-2007. He was honored by former President Barack Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his remarkable and groundbreaking career.

Sidney Poitier receives the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 12, 2009.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Obama remembered Poitier's impact and character in an Instagram post. “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Obama wrote. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”

Halle Berry, the first and only Black woman to win the best actress Oscar, was also among the many who paid tribute following the news of Poitier's death.

"My dear Sidney, an enormous part of my soul weeps at your passing," Berry wrote in an Instagram post. "In your ninety-four years on this planet, you left an indelible mark with your extraordinary talent, paving the way for Black people to be seen and heard in the fullness of who we are. You were an iconic trailblazer; yours was a life well lived.

"I grew up idolizing you and will always remember the day when I first met you," she continued. "It is the only time in my life when I’ve been rendered speechless! There I sat, with my words glued together, and you were as gracious and charming then as you would be during our decades of friendship to follow."

Denzel Washington — who has won two Oscars, including one in 2002, the year Berry was victorious — said in a statement, “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family.”

Poitier was a father of six, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of three. All four generations came together to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2017 with a family photo at a private celebration, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

His remarkable life will be the subject of an upcoming Broadway play titled "Sidney" that will be directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and written by Charles Randolph-Wright, Variety reported last month. The writer and director were selected by Poitier's family to tell the story of his life, beginning with his youth in the Bahamas. The cast and production timeline will be announced at a later date, according to Variety.