Sidney Poitier, movie star, civil rights activist and Oscar trailblazer, dead at 94

The much-loved star of films ranging from In the Heat of the Night to Sneakers was a cinematic pioneer and activist.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Sidney Poitier on the set of To Sir With Love in 1966.

Sidney Poitier on the set of To Sir With Love in 1966.

Larry Ellis/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Iconic movie star Sidney Poitier, the first Black actor to win the best actor Oscar, has died. He was 94.

Poitier won the Oscar for 1963 drama Lilies of the Field, becoming the second African-American to win an Academy Award. He had been the first Black person nominated as best actor, for 1958's The Defiant Ones, but his win came after Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind.

Born unexpectedly on a weekend trip to Miami in 1927, Poitier was raised in the Bahamas. At 15 he moved to the US and, after lying about his age, served in the US Army during World War II, working in a veterans hospital. After becoming a stage actor with the American Negro Theater, he got his breakthrough film role in 1955's Blackboard Jungle.

As well as a pioneering Black leading man, he was a visible activist for civil rights. In 1967 alone, at the height of the civil rights movement, he starred in three classic films that dealt with racial tension: To Sir, with Love; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and In the Heat of the Night.

Other films in which he starred included Porgy and Bess, Paris Blues, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wilby Conspiracy and Sneakers.

Poitier also directed a number of films, including the hit Stir Crazy, and in later life served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.

Tributes poured in from friends and fans including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman.