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Leon Bibb reflects on the career of trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier, who has died at age 94

Seeing Sidney Poitier on the movie screen inspired a youngster to perform in front of the TV camera.

CLEVELAND — The first time I remember seeing Sidney Poitier, I was in a dark place and he was standing 30 feet tall.

I was a boy of elementary or middle school age and with my friends. We had good seats in a neighborhood theater of Cleveland as we watched a Black actor who graced the movie screen with such class.

RELATED: Groundbreaking actor Sidney Poitier dies at 94

Even when he was playing a student in a tough New York high school, there was a classic style which came from the young actor. It was in the 1950s when I first saw Poitier in "Blackboard Jungle."

I would see this actor many more times over the decades. For me as a Black youth growing into adolescence and later adulthood, Sidney Poitier was able to take the kind of movie parts Black America needed. He opened the door for a new wave of Black actors.

Before, his theatrical ancestors were forced to take Hollywood's offerings of grinning servants who catered to the whims of white characters. Pointier's entrance into Hollywood marked a seismic change in how Black actors would later be portrayed.

I can remember the role of police detective Virgil Tibbs in the movie "In the Heat of the Night." When his character was slapped by a racist white man, the audience cringed.

Immediately, Poitier's character slapped back, and there was a "Hooray!" which erupted in the audience. Police detective Virgil Tibbs' slap in the hands of a great actor represented what Black America had been feeling for centuries.

I grieve at the death of Poitier. In so many ways, the man who was first Black man to win the coveted Best Actor award for his 1963 role in "Lilies of the Field" opened the door for so many more people of color who were in the wings of theater and at the doors of movie studios. At the time, I was in college aiming toward a career in front of the camera -- not the movie camera, but the television news lens. I was inspired by the work of Sidney Poitier.

Interestingly, in his autobiography "The Measure of a Man," he mentions "Leon Bibb" as one of his best friends. For years, people have called me to talk about what they think is my relationship with the great actor, but Sidney wrote of another Leon Bibb, who I also knew.

That Leon Bibb was a much-acclaimed singer, theatrical actor, and sometime movie actor. Although Sidney Poitier did not know me, he certainly was close to someone who shares the name with me.   

In many ways, however, I knew Sidney Poitier because I followed his work so closely and celebrated his every movie. Often, while watching one of his classics on the movie cable channel Turner Classic Movies, I will think back to those days of my youth when I sat in a darkened movie theater and Poitier showed me not only his light as an actor, but the light toward a better world through the characters he portrayed. 

Tonight, I will pull from my archives a DVD of Sidney Poitier. It will probably be his work in "Raisin in the Sun" or "Paris Blues." In the latter, he played the part of a jazz saxophonist who worked with Paul Newman, who was a trumpeter. The two were part of a group which played the nightclubs of Paris during the 1960s.

With his love interest in the movie, Diahann Carroll, the two of them dealt with the racial issues in America and the feeling of wider freedom in France. At the same time, there was jazz during what I call the "Heyday of Jazz."

Poitier moved across the stage gracefully, spoke with a wonderful cadence, and was loved by the lens of the camera. When I learned he had died at the age of 94, I said a prayer, thankful for the life he lived and the effect he had on me.

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