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Sidney Poitier, Who Paved the Way for Black Actors in Film, Dies at 94


In his later years, Mr. Poitier turned in solid performances in forgettable action films and thrillers like “Shoot to Kill” (1988), “Little Nikita” (1988) and “Sneakers” (1992). It was television that provided him with two of his grandest roles.

In 1991 he appeared in the lead role in the ABC drama “Separate but Equal,” a dramatization of the life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1997 he delivered a widely praised performance as Nelson Mandela in “Mandela and de Klerk,” a television movie focusing on the final years of Mr. Mandela’s imprisonment by the white-minority government in South Africa, with Michael Caine in the role of President F.W. de Klerk.

“Sidney Poitier and Nelson Mandela merge with astonishing ease, like a double-exposure photograph in which one image is laid over the other with perfect symmetry,” Caryn James wrote in a review in The New York Times.

In 2002, Mr. Poitier was given an honorary Oscar for his career’s work in motion picture. (At that same Oscar ceremony, Denzel Washington became the first Black actor since Mr. Poitier to win the best-actor award, for “Training Day.”) He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1995. And in 2009, President Barack Obama, citing his “relentless devotion to breaking down barriers,” awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr. Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.

Mr. Poitier’s memoir “This Life” was followed by a second, “The Measure of a Man,” in 2000. Subtitled “A Spiritual Autobiography,” it included Mr. Poitier’s thoughts on life, love, acting and racial politics. It generated a sequel, “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter” (2008).

Despite his role in changing American perceptions of race and opening the door to a new generation of Black actors, Mr. Poitier remained modest about his career. “History will pinpoint me as merely a minor element in an ongoing major event, a small if necessary energy,” he wrote. “But I am nonetheless gratified at having been chosen.”

Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.



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