English singer-actress Lulu was the first to say it to Sidney Poitier. “If you wanted the sky I’d write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high; To Sir, With Love,” she sung in the eponymously-titled 1967 film starring Poitier as a Black teacher righting racial discrimination in a British inner city school.
Generations to come would later bow to the thespian qualities of Poitier, the Bahamian-American actor who rose from the school master he played on screen to become a real-life “Sir” earning the English order of knighthood. He was also the first Black to win an Oscar and had more than 50 films to his name over a 70-year career in nearly a century of living.
“It is with great sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier,” Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said after the death of the 94-year-old was known on January 7, 2022.
Poitier’s demise came a week after the death of another nonagenarian actor loved by America — Betty White of television’s “Golden Girls” fame — who famously rejected attempts in the 1950s to keep a Black dancer off her show during the days of segregation.
Poitier himself was Hollywood’s first Black matinee idol, who helped open the door for other African-American actors.
“To Sir… with Love Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars,” comedic actor Whoopi Goldberg, another Black icon of Hollywood and an Oscar winner herself, wrote on Twitter, quoting the words from Lulu’s song.
Poitier was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927, and raised on a tomato farm in the Bahamas, and had just one year of formal schooling. He struggled against poverty, illiteracy and prejudice to become one of the first Black actors to be known and accepted in major roles by mainstream audiences.
Poitier picked his roles with care, burying the old Hollywood idea that Black actors could appear only in demeaning contexts as shoeshine boys, train conductors and maids.
“It’s a choice, a clear choice,” Poitier said of his film parts in a 1967 interview. “If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.”
Although often simmering with repressed anger, his characters responded to injustice with quiet determination. They met hatred with reason and forgiveness, sending a reassuring message to white audiences and exposing Poitier to attack as an Uncle Tom when the civil rights movement took a more militant turn in the late 1960s.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
Poitier created a distinguished film legacy in a single year with three 1967 films at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.
In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” he played a Black man with a white fiancee and “In the Heat of the Night” he was Virgil Tibbs, a Black police officer confronting racism during a murder investigation. He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in “To Sir, With Love.”
Poitier had won his history-making best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, playing a handyman who helps German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years before that Poitier had been the first Black man nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in “The Defiant Ones.”
His Tibbs character from “In the Heat of the Night” was immortalized in two sequels – “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” in 1970 and “The Organization” in 1971 – and became the basis of the television series “In the Heat of the Night” starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins.
His other classic films of that era included “A Patch of Blue” in 1965 in which his character was befriended by a blind white girl, “The Blackboard Jungle” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Poitier also performed on Broadway.
As a director, Poitier worked with his friend Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby in “Uptown Saturday Night” in 1974 and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980’s “Stir Crazy.”
Poitier grew up in the small Bahamian village of Cat Island and in Nassau before he moved to New York at 16, lying about his age to sign up for a short stint in the Army and then working at odd jobs, including dishwasher, while taking acting lessons.
The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy in “Days of Our Youth” and took over when the star, Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering Black actor, fell ill.
Poitier went on to success on Broadway in “Anna Lucasta” in 1948 and, two years later, got his first movie role in “No Way Out” with Richard Widmark.
Aside from the more than 50 films he starred in, he directed nine, starting in 1972 with “Buck and the Preacher” in which he co-starred with Belafonte.
In 1992, Poitier was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, the most prestigious honor after the Oscar, joining recipients such as Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Orson Welles.
“I must also pay thanks to an elderly Jewish waiter who took time to help a young Black dishwasher learn to read,” Poitier told the audience. “I cannot tell you his name. I never knew it. But I read pretty good now.”
In 2002, an honorary Oscar recognized “his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.”
Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three books – “This Life” (1980), “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” (2000) and “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter” (2008).
“If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you’re not going to get very far,” he told the Washington Post. “The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.”
Poitier wrote three autobiographical books and in 2013 published “Montaro Caine,” a novel that was described as part mystery, part science fiction.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama.
The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.
* Banner photo: Matt Sayles, Associated Press