Sidney Poitier, whose death at age 94 was reported Friday, made history as the first Black man ever to win an Academy Award as Best Actor — for the 1963 drama Lilies of the Field — and went on to star in such extraordinarily diverse films as the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), To Sir, With Love (1967), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) and Sneakers (1992). Along the way, he also directed the 1980 box-office smash Stir Crazy — starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder — and appeared in three notable westerns.
I: Duel at Diablo (1966):
Poitier reunited with Lilies of the Field director Ralph Nelson to earn his spurs in his first western, a violent action-adventure that pivots on the efforts of a former army scout (James Garner) to track down the varmint who killed his Indian wife. Duel at Diablo co-stars Bill Travers (Born Free) as an ambitious Cavalry lieutenant, Bibi Andersson (Persona) as a frontier woman who’s not entirely grateful for being freed from captivity by an Apache tribe, and Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) as the woman’s less-than-supportive husband. But Poitier is the real scene-stealer here, coming off as the epitome of self-assured cool as Toller, a high-stakes g ambler, former Buffalo Soldier and seasoned horse-breaker who doesn’t aim to ple ase.
II: Buck and The Preacher (1972):
Arriving during the heyday of revisionist westerns (The Hired Hand, Little Big Man) and “Blaxploitation” action flicks (Shaft, Trouble Man), Buck and the Preacher, Poitier’s debut effort as a film director, borrowed freely and successfully from both genres. A highly entertaining adventure enhanced with robustly humorous elements, the movie also has Poitier doing stellar work on the other side of the camera as Buck, a trail guide who agrees to protect former slaves traveling in a westbound wagon train while aided and abetted by a smooth-talking preacher (Harry Belafonte) of dubious provenance. “The film is aware of contemporary black issues,” New York Times film critic Vincent Canby noted, “but its soul is on the plains once ridden by Tom Mix, whom Poitier, astride his galloping horse, his jaw set, somehow resembles in the majestic traveling shots given him by the director.”
III: Children of the Dust (1995):
As Gypsy Smith, a bounty hunter of Black and Cherokee descent, Poitier once again autoritatively played a heroic figure who devotes himself to protecting Black homesteaders in director David Greene’s miniseries adaptation of the novel by Clancy Carlile (Honkytonk Man). Smith also becomes involved with a Cheyenne youth (Billy Wirth) he rescues after his camp comes under attack by the U.S. Cavalry. The young man takes the name of Corby as he is raised by a white family — but renames himself White Wolf when he is reunited with his own people. Meanwhile, Smith must defend himself from KKK vigilantes who invade the Black community where settlers have hired him as sheriff. Variety TV critic Ray Loynd may have overstated the case a tad when he claimed Children of the Dust “ranks up there with Lonesome Dove,” but it’s easy to understand his enthusiasm.