Tributes paid to acting legend Sidney Poitier following death aged 94

The star helped pave the way for generations of African-American actors.

Alex Green
Friday 07 January 2022 17:48 GMT
Sir Sidney Poitier has died (Myung Jung Kim/PA)
Sir Sidney Poitier has died (Myung Jung Kim/PA) (PA Archive)
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Tributes have been paid to Hollywood star Sidney Poitier after his death at the age of 94.

The Bahamian-American actor was known for films including In The Heat Of The Night, Blackboard Jungle and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – and was the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor.

The Prime Minister of the Bahamas paid tribute to him as “a cultural icon, an actor and film director, civil and human rights activist and a diplomat” and said the national flag will fly at half-mast across the country and its embassies.

Jeffrey Wright Whoopi Goldberg and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were also among those paying tribute.

Bond star Wright said on Twitter: “Sidney Poitier. What a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love.”

Goldberg quoted the lyrics to the song To Sir With Love, which soundtracked Poitier’s 1967 film.

She said on Twitter: “If you wanted the sky i would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high.. To Sir… with Love. Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars.”

Gordon-Levitt described him as “An absolute legend. One of the greats”.

Bob Iger, former chairman of the Walt Disney Company, also paid tribute.

He tweeted: “Former @disney board member Sidney Poitier was the most dignified man I’ve ever met. Towering… gentle… passionate… bold… kind… altogether special.”

Star Trek actor George Takei said Poitier was a “trailblazer who will be mourned by so many for whom he opened the very doors of Hollywood”.

The British Film Institute added: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sidney Poitier, the legendary actor, director and diplomat who led a life of remarkable achievements, both on screen and off.”

Viola Davis described his death as “a big one”.

She added on Instagram: “No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!

“It was an honor for my husband and I to share lunch with you at Spagos. You told us, ‘If your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough’!

“I put this quote on my daughter’s wall. Rest well Mr. Poitier. Thank you! Thank you for leaving a legacy. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, held a press conference during which he reflected on Poitier’s legacy.

He said: “Our whole Bahamas grieves. But even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian.

“A cultural icon, an actor and film director, civil and human rights activist and a diplomat.

“We admire the man not just because of his colossal achievements, but also because of who he was.

“His strength of character, his willingness to stand up and be counted and the way he plotted and navigated his life’s journey. The boy who moved from the tomato farm to become a waiter in the United States, a young man who not only taught himself to read and write, but who made the expression of words and thoughts and feelings central to his career.”

Best known for his work during the 50s and 60s, Poitier helped pave the way for generations of African-American actors.

Born to Bahamian parents in 1927 while they were visiting Miami to sell tomatoes, his premature arrival meant he gained US citizenship as well as Bahamian.

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas, which was then a British colony.

He returned to America aged 15 and worked in a string of low-paid jobs including as a dishwasher, before lying about his age and joining the Army to fight during the Second World War.

He later joined the American Negro Theatre, which had been set up as a community project in Harlem in 1940.

His first major role came in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in 1946 but by 1949 he had moved away from theatre and into film.

His breakthrough came in Blackboard Jungle in 1955, playing a rebellious but musically talented pupil in an inner-city school.

Sidney Poitier has died aged 94 (PA)
Sidney Poitier has died aged 94 (PA) (PA Archive)

Three years later, he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta for his performance in The Defiant Ones, about two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and must work with each other to achieve freedom.

In 1963, he was awarded an Oscar for Lilies Of The Field, in which he played a Baptist handyman who builds a chapel for a group of Roman Catholic nuns, and became the first black winner of the best actor trophy.

The only black actor before him to win a competitive Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, for best supporting actress in 1939 for Gone With The Wind.

By the 1990s he was taking roles only sporadically, in thrillers such as Sneakers and The Jackal, and had assumed the role of elder statesman.

Poitier was granted an honorary knighthood in 1974 through his Bahamian heritage and in 1995 he received the Kennedy Centre Honour.

In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Bafta fellowship in 2016.

He was married twice, to Juanita Hardy between 1950 and 1965 and to Joanna Shimkus in 1976, and had six children.

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