Sidney Poitier, who made history as the first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field, has died at 94, according to the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs (via TMZ). The cause of death is still unknown.
Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, and grew up in the Bahamas. As a teenager, he moved to New York City, where he got his start in stage plays before transitioning to film. His first credited performance was in 1950’s No Way Out (directed by All About Eve‘s Joseph L. Mankiewicz), and his breakout role came out five years later in Blackboard Jungle. He received the first of his two Oscar nominations in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, making him the first Black male actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award in the category, before winning for Lilies of the Field.
Poitier’s best-known role was as Det. Virgil Tibbs in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, which won Best Picture. That same year, he also starred in To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In later years, he received the AFI Life Achievement Award, an Academy Honorary Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama; he was also made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
“It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones, milestones of artistic excellence; milestones of America’s progress,” Obama said about the actor during the 2009 Medal of Freeman ceremony. “On screen and behind the camera, in films such as The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Uptown Saturday Night, Lilies of the Field — for which he became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor — Poitier not only entertained, but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”
You can watch Poitier’s historic Oscar speech below.