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Friday, January 7, 2022

Actor Sidney Poitier, trailblazing star who broke Hollywood barriers, dies at 94

Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

(TNS) – Sidney Poitier, who helped break down Hollywood’s onscreen color barriers before becoming one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s in movies such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” has died.

Poitier, the first Black man to win a competitive Academy Award for best actor and a towering role model for succeeding generations, died in the Bahamas, according to the office of Frederick A. Mitchell, Bahamian minister of foreign affairs and immigration. More information will be forthcoming at a news conference. Poitier was 94.

Tall and handsome, with a low and seductively smooth voice and what one writer called an “almost princely bearing,” Poitier projected an air of quiet dignity in roles that shattered stereotypes.

“He’s a major figure in American history because he truly represents the complete breakthrough of the Black American actor into stardom,” Jeanine Basinger, founder of the film studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, once told the Los Angeles Times.

Basinger said Poitier “had everything it took” to be the screen’s breakthrough Black actor.

“He was tall, he was good-looking, he was a talented actor who could play both comedy and drama, and he had the intelligence and dignity,” she said. “The persona he had just worked, so that he was acceptable to the full audience as a heroic figure.”

Actor James Earl Jones agreed: “When he became a star, everyone, white and Black, said, ‘I like this man.’“


Poitier made his feature film debut in 1950 playing a young intern in a county hospital prison ward in “No Way Out,” director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s explosive look at racial prejudice starring Richard Widmark.

A former member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem who had grown up in the Bahamas, Poitier began his film career at a time when, as he later put it, the only other Black people he saw on the 20th Century Fox lot were an occasional kitchen worker or janitor.

But it also was a time when Hollywood studios were increasingly willing to deal with controversial and sensitive subjects.

Racial stereotyping in the movies was still in full force when Poitier appeared in “No Way Out.” But, as former L.A. Times arts editor Charles Champlin wrote decades later, the film “reflected the stirrings toward more significant roles ... and better representations of the Black experience in American society.”

Indeed, although he initially experienced a lean period, Poitier appeared in 15 films over the next dozen years, including “Cry, the Beloved Country,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Edge of the City,” “The Defiant Ones” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The 1961 “Raisin” saw Poitier reprise his role as the mercurial Walter Lee Younger in the film of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 Broadway play about a Black family.

Stanley Kramer‘s 1958 film drama “The Defiant Ones,” in which Poitier and Tony Curtis starred as escaped convicts who are shackled together, was a breakthrough role for Poitier, earning him an Oscar nomination for best actor — a first for a Black actor.

But it was his Oscar-winning starring role in “Lilies of the Field,” a low-budget, black-and-white film directed by Ralph Nelson, that provided the high-profile next step in propelling him to superstar status. It was the first competitive Oscar in history won by a Black man.

As Homer Smith, Poitier played an ex-GI drifter who meets five refugee nuns from East Germany after his station wagon overheats in the Arizona desert, and he is talked into building a chapel for them. A delightful high point of the film is when Poitier leads the nuns in singing the Baptist spiritual “Amen.”

At the peak of his popularity in 1967, Poitier starred in three of the highest-grossing movies of the year: “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love.”

In 1968, according to a poll of movie exhibitors, Poitier was the No. 1 box office star of the year.

Director Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” in which Poitier played a smart and sophisticated Philadelphia police homicide detective who is pulled into a murder investigation in a small town in rural Mississippi, provided the actor with two of his most memorable on screen moments.

In one, Rod Steiger, in his Oscar-winning role as the redneck police chief, used a racial slur in saying that “Virgil is a funny name” for a Black man from Philadelphia. Then he asks, “What do they call you up there?”

With steely eyes, Poitier responds with the line that became his signature: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”

The racially charged crime drama’s other memorable moment came in the greenhouse of the town’s most influential citizen, a racist cotton-plantation owner played by Larry Gates: When the wealthy white man realizes that the Black police detective is there to question him about the murder, he slaps Poitier’s Tibbs in the face.

Without hesitation, Tibbs gives the white man a backhanded slap in return.

It is, said Basinger, “a defining moment in film. It’s like, ‘Times have changed, buster; I’m the hero, not you.’ It was great and done with great dignity.”

Poitier’s success inspired legions of actors over the years, including Danny Glover, who once told Poitier, “You have made it possible for me to dream bigger dreams.”

Denzel Washington once called Poitier a source of pride for Black Americans. He acknowledged him onstage at the Academy Awards in 2002, when Washington became the first Black performer to win the best actor Oscar since Poitier.

“For 40 years I’ve been chasing Sidney,” said Washington. “I’ll always be following him. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

The same night Washington received his Academy Award — and Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the best actress Oscar — Poitier received an honorary Oscar for his five-decade career.

“I accept this award,” Poitier said in his acceptance speech, “in memory of all the African American actors who went before me in the difficult years and on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”

Poitier was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927, making him an American citizen purely by chance: His parents, uneducated Bahamian tomato farmers, were visiting Miami to sell their tomatoes at the Produce Exchange.

The last of his parents’ seven surviving children, Poitier grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, an impoverished, 45-mile-long, narrow strip of land with no plumbing or electricity, few jobs and little schooling.

After the U.S. government placed an embargo on the importation of tomatoes from the Bahamas and the island’s tomato farmers succumbed to the economic disaster, the Poitiers moved to Nassau, the capital of the islands.

At 13, after only a year and a half of formal education, Poitier dropped out of school and worked briefly as a water boy for ditch diggers and later as a laborer in a warehouse.

Two years later, in 1943, he and some friends were jailed overnight for stealing ears of corn, and his father, worried his son might get into further trouble, sent him to live with his older brother, Cyril, in Miami.

There, he worked as a delivery boy and parked cars and, for the first time, encountered institutionalized racism. To escape the racism of the Deep South, he headed north, to New York City.

Arriving alone with less than $4 in his pocket, the 16-year-old Poitier slept in pay-toilet cubicles and on the roof of the Brill Building before landing a job as a relief dishwasher in restaurants and moving into a $5-a-week-room in Harlem.

After a stint in the Army — he had lied about his age to get in, saying he was 18 rather than 16 — he returned to Harlem after his discharge in late 1944 and resumed working as a dishwasher.

One day, while scouring the want ads in the Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper, he saw an advertisement: “Actors Wanted by Little Theatre Group.” It was an ad for the American Negro Theatre.

At his audition at the theater, Poitier recalled in a 1992 interview with the L.A. Times, he was handed a script and told to read one of the parts. But with only a year and a half of formal education, he read haltingly and still had a thick West Indian accent.

As Frederick O’Neal, one of the founders of the theater, came up onstage and physically marched Poitier to the door, he angrily told him to stop wasting people’s time and added, “Why don’t you get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something?”

Poitier was shaken by the comment and remembered thinking, “Was there a mark on me that my destiny is that of a dishwasher?”

Defiantly determined to become an actor, if only to prove to O’Neal that he could be more than a dishwasher, Poitier bought a $13 radio and spent hours every day listening to the announcers and then mimicking their proper pronunciation and speech rhythms to rid himself of his accent.

And to improve his reading, he spent as much time as possible reading newspapers, with an older waiter at the restaurant serving as his tutor.

Six months later, Poitier returned to the American Negro Theatre to audition for a new class of actors.

Despite another poor audition, he was accepted on a three-month trial basis — an arrangement that was extended when he made a deal to serve as the theater’s janitor in return for acting lessons.

After nine months of training, Poitier became the understudy for a fellow unknown actor, Harry Belafonte, as the lead in the annual student production.

At rehearsal one night, Poitier had to step in for Belafonte. A Broadway producer who had stopped by was so impressed by Poitier’s performance that he cast him in a small role in an all-Black version of the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” on Broadway.

The 1946 play closed after only four performances. But despite fumbling his lines on opening night, Poitier won praise from several reviewers.

That led to his being hired as an understudy in the road company of the hit Broadway show “Anna Lucasta,” a play about a Polish family that had been transformed into a story about a Black family.

Then, in 1949, came the 22-year-old Poitier’s first big break — a screen test for his role as the young intern in “No Way Out.”

During the height of his career in the late 1960s, Poitier faced criticism from Black militants and others who labeled him “a showcase Negro” and “the white man’s black man.”

Poitier also was aware of the “hostility” some fellow Black actors had against him over the many professional opportunities he had received.

“I can tell you what I think the flak was about,” he told the Washington Post in 1995. “For a long time, I got all the jobs — one picture after another after another. And the roles I played were very unlike the average Black person in America at the time.

“The guy always had a suit, a tie, a briefcase! He was a doctor, lawyer, police detective. Middle-class. The characters weren’t reflective of the diversity of Black life. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have had resentments myself, had I been an actor on the outside looking in.”

Nevertheless, he said, “I was at peace with the fact that what I was doing was compatible with the social revolution across the country. I’ve never done an acting job that I was ashamed of.”

Over the years, Poitier told the Washington Post in 1997, he tried to choose roles “with great care, to use the talent I had to the very best ends. Because I knew how many hopes and dreams were riding on how I portrayed myself, in my characters.”

Beginning in the early 1970s, a period that gave rise to so-called blaxploitation films such as “Shaft” and “Superfly,” Poitier was increasingly absent from the screen.

After reprising his “In the Heat of the Night” detective in two sequels, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” and “The Organization,” Poitier launched a new phase of his career as a director, beginning with the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with longtime friend Belafonte.

Poitier directed eight more films over the next 18 years, including two popular comedies in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby, “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again,” and the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy hit “Stir Crazy.” He also played an FBI agent in two films, “Shoot to Kill” and “Little Nikita.”

He resurfaced in the 1990s, mostly in TV movies, most notably “Separate but Equal” and “Mandela and de Klerk.”

In 1992, Poitier became the first Black person to receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. Three years later, he received a Kennedy Center Honor.

Poitier, who was active in the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, also received the NAACP’s Hall of Fame Award for his constant depiction of positive screen images; and a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.

In 1997, Poitier, who had dual American-Bahamian citizenship, was appointed as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in September 2019, Poitier said he had 23 relatives who went missing.

Poitier‘s first marriage to model-dancer Juanita Hardy, with whom he had four daughters, ended in divorce in the mid-1960s. In 1976, he married Canadian-born actress-model Joanna Shimkus, with whom he had two daughters.

———

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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W. PETE MAIRS

W. PETE MAIRS
Walter D. “Pete” Mairs, 81, died peacefully on July 23, 2021. Born in Avon, N.Y., on Sept. 3, 1939, Pete was a longtime resident of Geneva, N.Y., and these past many years in Buffalo, N.Y., as well as his beloved Silver Lake. Pete is survived by his wife, Linda Bergstrom Mairs, a loving and true companion; children, Mimi C. Mairs, Jonathan B. Mairs; sisters, June Huff, Helen Dole; brother, Thomas Mairs; stepchildren, Daniel Brinkworth, Jennie Ramsey; sister-in-law, Anne Bergstrom, eight beautiful grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. A service and celebration of life is planned for the fall when all can share the joy of Pete’s life together. Arrangements by Stephenson – Dougherty Funeral Home, Avon, N.Y.

Editor's Note: It was a privilege knowing and working with Pete Mairs during his presidency of the Silver Lake Institute. He was a kind and gentle man, but also firm in his leadership. I served as Treasurer and Chaplain of SLI during those years and I could always depend on Pete's presence in the worship service. He was a man of faith and a gem of a human being. May he rest in God's care.

GERALD C. SAHRLE

GERALD C. SAHRLE
Gerald C. Sahrle, 80, of Perry, passed away on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. He was born on Oct. 10, 1941, in Wayland, N.Y., to the late Charles A. and Helen I. (Blowers) Sahrle. Gerry was a line foreman for 32 1/2 years for NYSE&G, working out of the Perry and Hamburg locations, and was a Town of Perry Councilman. He was a member of the Free and Accepted Masons of the Constellation Lodge -404 in Perry. He was an avid fisherman, hunter and woodworker. He is survived by his wife, Valary A. (Conley) Sahrle; 1 son, Gerald (Pamela) Sahrle II of Silver Springs; 2 sisters, Millie Edmond of Greece, Bonnie Fink of Winston-Salem, N.C., 3 brothers, Ronald (Linda) Sahrle of Dansville, Robert (Susan) Sahrle of Springwater, Kenneth Sahrle of Dansville; 5 grandchildren, Bradley Musscarella, Stone and Winston Sahrle, Conley and Cooper Gayton; along with many nieces, nephews and friends. Along with his parents, he is preceded in death by a brother, Thomas Sahrle, who passed away in 2012. Services will be held at the convenience of the family. Gerry will be laid to rest in West Perry Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to the Perry Center Fire Department, P.O. Box 204, Perry, NY 14530. For more information, please call (585) 237-2626 or to leave a message of condolence, visit www.eatonwatsonfuneralhome.com. Arrangements completed by Eaton-Watson Funeral Home, LLC. 98 North Main Street, Perry, NY 14530.

Editor's Note: Gerald and Valarie could always be seen in the family pew with Pamela, Stone and Winston at Perry First United Methodist Church and continue to be loved. Gerry will be sorely missed. Both were supporters of the Arts at the Silver Lake Institute and Valarie was active in painting and participating in the Annual Show in August. Valarie's presence was always valued and appreciated.

KATHARINE E. PRACZKAJLO ("Kathy P.")

KATHARINE E. PRACZKAJLO ("Kathy P.")
"Kathy P." passed November 8, 2021, of Hamburg and Boston, NY. Beloved daughter of Joseph and Barbara Michalak; loving sister of Daniel Michalak; devoted wife of the late Jeffrey Praczkajlo; cherished mother of Jennifer (Shawn) Jump; loving babcia of Lily Jump; also survived by many beloved family members and friends who became her family. A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.

Editor's Note: "Kathy P." as she was better known to us at Silver Lake was an annual summer visitor for most of the last number of years at the invitation of Silver Laker Julia Hoffner. She stayed at the Hoffner Cottage, and became known as both the fun visitor with the vivacious smile to the neighbors at the intersection of Haven Ave. and the Ames Walkway. Kathy P. and Julie could be seen walking and talking between the cottage and the Hoffner boathouse where they could be close to the water. She was also occasionally seen at the Saturday morning breakfasts at Stoody Hall. Her stay was anywhere between 4 days and a week where she had the opportunity to develop a love for Silver Lake. She was not yet eligible for retirement when late last week she developed "a cold" and had to remain home from her job. She did not update her condition over the weekend so the local police made a wellness visit and found her deceased on Monday. She was one of those many people who found Silver Lake and friendship for brief respites where she also found new strength and energy to return to work. She is being particularly mourned by those in the Haven/Ames neighborhood. She will be memorialized next summer at the annual Celebration of Life Memorial Service at Epworth Hall.

BRENDA J. PADDOCK

BRENDA J. PADDOCK
Brenda Joan Paddock, 82, of Perry, born April 15, 1939, now resides in heaven with her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Brenda met Jesus as her Savior in 1965. She met him in person on Nov. 14, 2021. She had a beautiful homecoming with music, singing and praying, leading her into Glory. Her last words were “I am well, I am well.”

Brenda’s greatest loves were her family and friends. Brenda had five children with her husband Roger: Don and Daelene Paddock of Florida, Jody and Tim Von Sanden of Pavilion, Bradley and Jeanie Paddock of Warsaw, Jennifer and Paul Guy of Massachusetts, and Nathan and Jill Paddock of Perry.

Brenda dearly loved her grandchildren: Jessica Morillo, Nikki and Clint O’Brien, Luke Paddock, Paul Paddock, Ian and Brooklyn Paddock, Joe and Louana Paddock, Burke and Megan Paddock, Aaron Paddock, Ellen Paddock, Andrew Paddock, Rachael Paddock, Abigail Paddock, Erik and Cassandra Von Sanden, Jacquelyn and Michael Jones, Tim Von Sanden, Brandon and Brandee Paddock, Jamey and Laura Paddock, Peter and Kara Guy, Candy and Jay Waitkevich, Marlo and Ryan Bolger and Jenna and Rory Peterson.

Brenda was blessed and loved her great grandchildren: Chloe, Olivia and Nicholas Von Sanden, Joshua and Jaxon Morillo, Jameson and Cassandra O’Brien, Atlas Paddock, Noah and Ezra Jones, Colton, Brantley and Charlotte Guy, Cameron Waitkevich, Amelia Bolger and Brennen Leonard.

Brenda is also survived by her brother and sister in laws; Frank and Emma Paddock, Viva and Jim Phillips-Richardson and Kurt and Lynn Paddock.

Brenda first started working as a secretary at Perry Central School. She then assisted her husband building Paddock’s Breeding Service. Roger and Brenda together built and ran the Sandsabarn teenage nightclub. Brenda was owner and operator of Serendipity Travel. Brenda’s pleasures included playing organ and piano. She played at a number of area churches along with performing for her loved ones. UPDATED -- Brenda also played with conviction at both indoor and outdoor services at the Silver Lake Institute where her grandson, Luke, sang at Epworth Hall on several occasions and was appreciated by all who heard his inspiring voice.

Brenda was preceded in death by her parents Noble and Freda Buckland, her husband Roger and son Bradley.

A Committal service at West Perry Cemetery will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, November 17 at 11 a.m., followed by a Celebration of Life at LaGrange Baptist Church at 4 p.m.

Memorial donations may be made in Brenda’s honor to the LaGrange Baptist Church 7092 LaGrange Rd. Perry, NY 14530 or to the First Congregational Church P.O. Box 156 Perry, NY 14530. Arrangements completed by Eaton-Watson Funeral Home, LLC. 98 N. Main St., Perry, N.Y. 14530. For more information or to sign the online guest registry please visit www.eatonwatsonfuneralhome.com.

AUGUST 4-7, 2022

AUGUST 4-7, 2022
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